Saturday, May 5, 2018

Professor Who? : Wizard 101

When I go through the list of MMORPGs that both Mrs Bhagpuss and I played together for a significant period of time, there's one that I often forget to mention. Wizard 101.

We didn't play for all that long - it can't have been more than a few months - but it was our main MMO for a while and we both really enjoyed it. We left The Spiral before I began this blog and although there are a couple of mentions of it here and there, I've never actually posted anything specifically about the game before.

The reason I'm writing about W101 now is entirely due to a news squib I spotted on Massively OP a few days ago. As has been well rehearsed here, I have ambivalent feelings about MOP, which sometimes appears to be run by and for people who actively dislike the genre, but I have never questioned its worth as an aggregator of valuable and reliable news about the hobby.

Without that news item I would probably never have found out that Kingsisle are running a three-week event called The Five B.O.X.E.S. featuring a very (very!) thinly-disguised version of The Doctor from the (very!) long-running BBC series Dr. Who. I would have been quite annoyed had I found out too late to go see it for myself so thanks, MOP.

I'm no Whovian. I can't even name all the Doctors in order - not these days, when there seem to be hundreds of them. I just like Dr. Who and have done since I watched the first episode when it was broadcast in the early 1960s. I also like crossovers and mash-ups so when I read Syp's pleasantly non-ironic, non-sarcastic piece it seemed like it might be a good idea to go check the event out in person.

Returning to an MMO you haven't played in a long while can be anything from annoying to traumatic but going back to Wizard 101 couldn't have been easier. I found my old log in details and entered them on the website. My account was there, all in good order, exactly as I left it.

I pondered whther to re-sub for a month. W101 has possibly the best range of payment options of any MMO, ranging from F2P across the base game, through piecemeal Buy-to-Play options on all content as and when required, to a full sub giving unrestricted access to everything.

I thought that if I was going to play through the new content on my existing character I might need to be subbed to get to the higher zones. The description of the event on the W101 website suggests that you can start in various places according to your character's level and when I stopped playing back in 2009 my wizard was in the low '40s. Back then, that was just a few levels short of the cap. Of course the cap has moved since then - I think it's 80 now.

Before deciding whether to open up my wallet, I thought I'd download the game, log in and re-orient myself. Downloading and updating took about five minutes - very slick, like the entire Kingsisle operation. I reset my graphics options from the best I could do back in 2009 to something suitable for nearly a decade later and stepped out into Wizard City Commons.

Everything looked much as I remembered it. Looking around, I saw The Professor, standing not twenty yards away from me. The Professor is, of course, The Doctor. He's also a dog, which is taking regeneration at least an order of magnitude further than the actual show's current culture-quaking gender switch.

There's no mistaking the influence here. The Professor isn't merely Doctoresque, he's the canine spitting image of a very specific Doctor, namely the fourth, as portrayed by Tom Baker. I'm not entirely sure Tom Baker ever went out in public wearing converse high-tops, mind you, but the rest of the outfit is spot on.

I grabbed the quest. I'd forgotten that everything in W101 is fully voice-acted. Whoever voiced The Professor has even made an attempt to sound like Tom Baker. It's not a great impression, I think it's only fair to say, but it's recognizeable.

By the time I'd followed the little yellow arrow to the first B.O.X. I was beginning to ask myself at what point homage ends and plagiarism begins. Then again, if J.K Rowling hasn't complained... The B.O.X. is, of course, a T.A.R.D.I.S. and it doesn't just look like The Doctor's police box from the outside either. Inside it's a dead ringer.

The Professor could hardly be "The Professor" without a companion and he has one. Standing around inside the B.O.X. looking decorative is Rose Piper, another dog whose name might ring a bell. She doesn't seem to have much of a function beyond acting as the vendor for the event but that makes her more use than some Companions I could name.

After another chat with The Prof some plot ensued. It was actually rather good. Like most W101 narrative content I've seen it's refreshingly clear, comprehensible and straightforward. The game is nominally aimed at children so many of the worst excesses of the genre are pared away...

... Or so you'd think. What I'd forgotten is that W101 is, at heart, a surprsingly hardcore, combat-intense game with the old-school expectations of an MMO that was created well over a decade ago. For example, when you enter a dungeon you get an estimate of how long it will take to complete. You also get a warning that if you don't complete it in a single run you will have to start again from the beginning.

The novice-level solo quest dungeon I was about to undertake came with an estimated completion time of 45 minutes. You can leave the dungeon (to resupply for example) and it will save your progress for when you re-enter, but only for a maximum of half an hour and you have to stay in-game. If you log out, your dungeon's history.

Compare that with EQ2: solo instances there last for up to three days and you can come and go or log in and out as much as you want. Also, even at end game, 45 minutes would be considered a fairly lengthy run. If W101 is for kids then it's for kids with plenty of patience and a good attention span. Not to mention bladder control.

I was somewhat apprehensive about jumping into combat. I figured I'd get my clock cleaned in short
order as I was trying to remember the basic mechanics, let alone what my cards did. In fact, although I did lose the first fight, by the time I died most of the essentials had come back to me. I won the re-match and every subsequent battle - although one came right down to the wire.

Combat in W101 was always enjoyable, which is just as well because there's a lot of it and none of it's easy to avoid. The animations are fantastic although they do become less impressive by the thousandth time you see them and I imagine many players long for a "hide animation" option, if only to speed things up.

After the best part of a decade I was very happy to see old favorites like the giant toad and the gravedigger, not to mention my trusty troll sidekick. I was surprised how quickly I remembered them and more importantly what they did and when best to play them.

The whole thing did indeed wrap up in around three-quarters of an hour. I successfully corrected the timeline and unmasked the nefarious villain. He, naturally, turned out to be the mere catspaw of the real villain, The Maestro. Subtle, eh? (And who else was it going to be, if this is the fourth Doctor? Well, ok, I suppose it could have been Davros...). I spoke to The Prof and the first part of the adventure concluded.

It was all jolly good fun. I haven't yet returned to The Spiral to find out if I can carry on for free (there are five B.O.X.E.S. so presumably another four chapters of the story to go, although only three of them are within the level range I can handle). If it turns out only the taster was free and the rest comes at a cost, well I had a good enough time that I'm very willing to sub for a month to see the rest and have a general run around to see what else has been added since I last visited.

Plus I really - really - need to do something about that hideous yellow bath-robe I've been wearing for the last nine years ...

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