Spiral Situation: KingsIsle outdoes itself in May 2011

Before I start my high-octane squee, I’d like to beg forgiveness for being away from KTR for so long after starting relatively recently. My parents, who live in another state, are in their late seventies and had a crisis that required me to be with them and give them my full attention.  Immediately upon my return home, I had to prep and fly to participate in an out-of-state industry convention.  I’m very happy to be back among the rat killers.

I’ve stated more than once that I’m not the president of the KingsIsle (KI) fan club. But you might not believe it after reading this entry. Wizard101 truly reached new heights of excellence in May, and it’s an unabashed pleasure to feature the highlights.  I hope that after reading this, you’ll visit The Spiral.

First up, Wintertusk was released. I reviewed this briefly while it was in test realm, and when it went live it exceeded all expectations.  The single most remarked-upon feature is the music. Nick Jonas, who got his start as a performer on The Disney Channel, contributed to the music for Wintertusk.

It’s a bitter pill for me to swallow, but the kid has composing chops. If the boy band business doesn’t work out for him, I predict a flourishing career as a composer for video games and movies. And with a Grammy awarded for video game song last February, it’s no stretch to think that Nick could add a few to his shelf. He might even have to make room for an Oscar if his skills evolve to the full potential demonstrated in this body of work.

Wintertusk is the next chapter in the world of Grizzleheim. When KI released Grizzleheim in July 2009, it received a mixed reception. The visual beauty of the world and the rich complexity of the storyline could not be denied. However, the player community was sorely disappointed that KI’s commitment to raising the level cap when a new world was released was not honored. The focus quickly turned to the low XP gained relative to the difficulty of the battles in Grizzleheim. I can report first-hand that completing the second half of Grizzleheim, which players are not allowed to access prior to level 40 even if they have reached it within the Grizzleheim quest line, does not provide even one half level of XP. Given that players at the level cap stood to gain no XP from completing the content, many didn’t bother to do so beyond their primary toon.

This decision resulted in a mad scramble to start and complete Grizzleheim when Wintertusk was released. KI cleverly wove the ability to access new spells and class pets into Wintertusk: spells and pets that could not be obtained unless the character had completed the main storyline of Grizzleheim and progressed through almost all of Wintertusk.

The new spells obtained at level 35 (once the player has reached Mirkholm Keep in Grizzleheim) have been well-received by most players. In general, they boost damage for the high-damage classes and boost the capabilities  of the tank/healer classes. The level 58 spells, which come with the new class pets, are creative and force players of most classes to rethink their strategies, consider stepping outside their comfort zones and ponder straying from typical spell deployment sequences.

The pets awarded for the level 58 class quests show new levels of innovation, both in design and animations. I still can’t decide if I am delighted or creeped out by the Death school pet. It’s a scarecrow that can remove its own head and juggle it about; this same scarecrow busts out a 1980s breakdance spin when healing its master. The pets can be hatched into delicious hybrids such as the Thunderbird Phoenix. The pet resulting from the hatch of the Life school level 58 pet and the Storm school level 58 pet looks like a white Yeti with purple eyes.

An important feature of the level 58 school pets is that most of them seem to have a healing ability. In the Wizard101 community lexicon, when a pet manifests this healing talent, it’s called “Spritely.” The pursuit of a pet with Spritely has been one of the most vigorous pastimes of hardcore players since the Advanced Pets feature went about a year ago. It’s highly valued by most players, both for PvE and PvP. The achievement of hatching a player’s favorite pet manifesting this talent is a cause of rejoicing for days. Sure, I have a Fierce Hound with Spritely. What I WANT is a Starfish with Spritely.

It takes countless hours farming for gold to raise enough for a single hatch that might result in Spritely, and even more hours to train the pet sufficiently to determine if Spritely will manifest. It’s very unusual to get the desired pet with Spritely on the first try. With Spritely typically manifesting with  level 58 class pets, hopefully some of the frustration (especially for younger players) of not having this in-game feature/status symbol will abate. Everyone will be able to have a pet with Spritely merely by advancing through the storyline and putting a bit of time into training the pet.

The equipment drops in Wintertusk are truly spectacular. The critical boosts and blocks that come with certain pieces, in addition to the crit-blocking spell, are a complete game-changer for ranked PvP. Among the new drops are the School Mastery amulets. Any advantage gained from a School Mastery amulet is somewhat blunted in the face of the other changes. PvP enthusiasts must approach the ring with a new commitment to learning and adapting to be successful. The amulets are now but one piece of the pie.

Happily, the flaw in Earthquake related to dropping stun shields was fixed when Wintertusk went live. It doesn’t make up for not addressing the problem for two years, but it was welcomed nonetheless. That being said, I will never back down from my assertion that is was wrong for KI to make the School Mastery amulets available only for cash before the Earthquake flaw was fixed. KI also adjusted the ratio of stun block shields in May, which was an immensely positive step in the evolution of ranked PvP.

At the very end of May, a new Epic Bundle gift card was made available via GameStop. This is only the second Epic Bundle released (also through GameStop, my guess is this is an exclusive arrangement between KI and the chain) yet it seems to confirm a standard offering for those willing to shell out $39 in cash. The primary feature is a large house with a practice PvP ring and a mini-game that makes replenishing health and mana reserves exceptionally convenient. There is also equipment, an exclusive pet that manifests Spritely, and an exclusive mount.

The house included with this Epic Bundle is a feast for the eyes. I don’t want to give away all of the secrets, but the name of the house is “Sultan’s Palace” and it might remind you a bit of the Disney movie Aladdin. It’s Arabian-themed in architecture, colors and features. I literally spent 45 minutes running my toon through it again and again, marveling at the details and sheer beauty filling my monitor. There is a practice PvP ring, and the placement of this was well thought-out: it’s a bit off to the side of the front yard rather than in the courtyard of the mansion, which was the placement in the first Epic Bundle house (the Massive Fantasy Palace). This position makes it possible for visitors of the house to avoid a mob of PvP observers when they visit. PvP isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and by moving the practice ring folks can socialize without being forced into observing a match.

That’s all the schoolgirl breathlessness I can handle in one day, so I’ll close by addressing the level cap. Two words: STOP WHINING. Wizard101 will probably always have a body of content with available XP exceeding the current level cap. This is not at all unlike many popular MMOs. If leveling is your top priority, take a break from Wizard101 and play another game until the cap is raised.