This will be my one and only post on the game Wizard 101 under the Freeloading heading on this blog.
Back when this game was under development, I got an invite into beta. The basics of the game are a collectible card game, not unlike Magic: The Gathering or other similar games, but to speed up the process they’ve removed the concept of land and resources and replaced them with hit points and mana which you have from the start and carry around like any other MMO. I immediately liked the game. One, because it was so vastly different from the MMOs that I had played thus far, and also because it seemed like a great game for kids. Not that I have kids or anything, but I respected the hell out of the game because they obviously chose their market and built a game nearly perfectly designed for that market. That doesn’t happen as often as it should with MMOs. Usually MMOs start off very generic and then through beta testing they start tailoring the game to some demographic for launch, which is often not the same demographic they will court over the life of the game. But Wizard 101 started in one place and have stuck with it, and done it well. That said, when the game exited beta and launched, I didn’t play… because I was playing other games at the time and this one just wasn’t what I was looking for.
First, let’s get technical. I’ve got a 2.3Ghz single core processor, 2GB RAM, and a GeForce 7900 GS. Its an older PC, probably two years at this point, and it wasn’t exactly top of the line when I got it. Wizard 101 runs like a dream. It is fast, loads quick, and never lags. I’ve stood in the Commons with easily 50 or more players on my screen and everything moves fluidly. And the game looks great. Sure, its not FarCry level of realistic detail, its cartoony, like World of Warcraft but aimed more at kids. And I’m running at the highest levels of detail with the best textures all at 1920 x 1200 resolution. More games need to be able to do this. Now on to game play…
As with the other game currently appearing in the Freeloading heading, my goal with Wizard 101 was to play without paying. So I loaded the game up and my beta character was still there. Level 5 (I think), wearing only gear that he’d gotten playing the game as I had never bought anything. I’d played through all the content of Unicorn Way in the beta (well, almost all, it seems that a couple of quests had been added since, but those didn’t take any time at all to finish off). I don’t remember how long it took me to accomplish that, but I can’t imagine it took me more than a couple or three days, maybe 8 hours of play at the most. So, what remained was Golem Court, Triton Avenue and the Haunted Cave. Every other door was either locked or would present me with a screen asking me to buy the area or a subscription. Three days. Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday Morning. That’s how long it took me to finish up every single quest I could find that didn’t require entry into an area that wasn’t free, so if I had been starting with a new fresh character it probably would have taken a week. But then again, this game wasn’t made to be played hardcore like this. It’s designed to be done in small chunks, a quest or two at a time.
One of the most awesome things about Wizard 101 is that if you need help fighting a boss that is too difficult and there is no one around (likely because the game put you on a lower population server when you logged in) you can go to the options screen and switch to another server or another copy of your area, literally within seconds (one loading screen, which is even faster than other loading screens because you’ve already loaded the zone). This made getting stuck nearly impossible. I’d get to a door to a boss and wait a few seconds, look around, and if I didn’t see anyone heading my way, click click click, I’d be on another server. If there was still no one around, I had to wait 60 seconds to be able to switch servers again. It never took more than 2 or 3 server hops to find someone else standing at the boss’s door and we’d go in and fight together.
Much like Free Realms, Wizard 101′s greatest weakness is its social interaction. Being a game aimed at kids, they’ve put in plenty of parental controls and the only way to ensure that another player can read what you say is to stick to the canned text. Click the word bubble icon in the upper left of the screen and navigate the menu to find something like “I need healing” or “Let’s go fight [insert quest monster here]!” If you type your own words, you run the risk of people seeing only “…” which is what the game replaces questionable text with. The most important use of the friend list isn’t actually to keep track of your friends, but to use the “Teleport to Friend” function to get through a door you can’t get through on your own. Not into pay areas for free, I tried, but some boss doors will not be available to you if you have not gotten to that part of the quest chain yet. Instead, the person with the quest invites you as a friend, they enter, then you use the teleport function to join them. My friends list is full of people I used or that used me to get inside towers. I practically jumped out of my chair the first time I encountered a person who was actually chatting. We talked for about a minute, but they had to log out. Its been nothing but canned text ever since.
Again, like Free Realms, even with the social aspects so weak, the game is actually quite fun to play. Like any collectible card game, there is strategy to building decks, choosing your cards to include, and strategy in the order to play them, and game knowledge of what monsters have what cards and guessing the builds of their decks. Especially if one gets into the PvP arena area of the game, I can easily see this being many long hours of building decks and playing matches. I messed around in the practice area myself and quickly realized that if I wanted any real challenge I would need to pay to get access to the ranked arena as my deck simply blew away most of the people I played with. (Hint: as most card gamers know, a fat deck is not always better, I use the Starter Deck that has less slots so I can more predictably get the cards I want, reducing the luck of the draw.)
The one place that Wizard 101 really shines over Free Realms is how they do their unlocking. Both offer a subscription that unlocked all game content, Wizard 101′s is more expensive by a couple dollars, but Wizard 101 does not lock any classes or cards (at least that I’ve run into) requiring membership to use. Free Realms is lousy with them. Probably 60% of items I get from questing in Free Realms I can’t use as a free player. Wizard 101 also allows you to buy areas, unlocking them forever. So if you want to go to Firecat Alley, you can buy it for 750 crowns (in game cash) which equates to about $1.50, less if you buy crowns in bulk.
And this is why this post will be Wizard 101′s one and only appearance under the Freeloading heading. Where Free Realms hasn’t yet convinced me to spend any money on it at all, yesterday I dropped $10 on Wizard 101 for 5000 crowns so I could unlock more areas to play in. I’ve heard you can unlock the entire game for $80 (with the exception of the arena, which you pay per fight or per day, or subscribe for unlimited play). That is about the best review I can give a Free 2 Play game: it hooked me enough to give them money. You win, Wizard 101. You win.