You're a young wizard being trained in the ways of magic at the Ravenwood School of Magical Arts under the watchful eye of headmaster Ambrose. As you learn to harness mystical powers, you'll be tasked with saving the school from the evil Malistaire Drake. Sound like Harry Potter? Well, it is a lot like Harry Potter, at least up to a point. Wizard101 is an online game for kids that has many of the trappings of an adult MMORPG built around an unusual card-based combat system, and it has been capturing the imagination of people of all ages.
Many elements of larger online RPGs are present in Wizard101. After creating a character you'll find yourself tackling a series of quests in an effort to collect gold, equipment, and of course, the experience points needed to increase your level. The world has public areas, instances, mini-games, and even PvP arenas.
Combat is where Wizard101 starts to make major departures from the norm. As you approach an enemy you are snapped into a ring where combatants take turns casting spells at each other by choosing cards from their decks. Character movement is actually suspended during these exchanges. Spells are based on a deck of cards selected beforehand, from which 7 are drawn each round. Players have less than a minute to play a card or they pass their turn, so you're not stuck in limbo if someone leaves their keyboard for half an hour.
There are 7 different types of magic in the game, and your card collection grows along with your character. Although it lacks the depth of something like Magic: The Gathering, it's a well-realized concept that makes a powerful impression right from the start.
Your camera automatically jumps around to give you a good view of the animations that represent your spells, which is a wonderful visual experience. However, as I mentioned earlier, you're going to see them over and over again. They do take a while, especially at the higher levels as the fights grow longer, and I'm sure some people would rather skip them if they could; a minor flaw in this otherwise admirable combat system.
While there are no grouping or guild features in Wizard101, players can freely join engagements underway in the public parts of the world. As more young wizards enter a combat ring, additional enemies also join, up to a limit of 4 on 4. Everyone in a battle gets credit for kills, and rewards are doled out automatically, so there are no disputes over loot. As well, there are now arenas with rankings and rewards in place for those who want to work their magic against other players.
Another way in which Wizard101 differs from the average RPG is that health and mana don't regenerate automatically. You have several ways to deal with this. Running around catching wisps while out of combat is one option, although it's not particularly entertaining, especially if there are lots of other players around doing the same thing. If you have potions you're good to go again in an instant. Your health does slowly recover in town, and you can also play mini-games for mana. The various mini-games are reminiscient of casual titles like Bejeweled or Tetris.
Although Wizard101 has a few shortcomings, it's a charming idea that has been beautifully executed and lovingly polished. They've taken a chance with the collectible card inspired combat, but there does seem to be an audience for it, and thanks to a solid tactical element, there are plenty of parents playing along. It's refreshing to see a game that concentrates on doing a few things well, rather than trying to be everything to everyone. Wizard101 is not only a game your entire family might enjoy, it's a title that a lot of games designed for adults could learn something from.