There are some great things in this world that just go great together. Peanut butter and jelly. Milk and cookies. Console gamers might want to see action and role-playing games added to that list. Titles like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and its sequel have proven that hack and slash gameplay mixed in with a steady amount of character development can go a long way from just another Diablo clone. While Snowblind Studios seems to have developed a “can’t miss” formula with their previous titles, their latest game, Champions of Norrath, attempts to raise the bar. In short, they’ve merged their action-packed mechanics with one of the most venerated massively multiplayer online role-playing games to present a new adventure in a well-known world.
Or perhaps I should say will be well-known world. Champions of Norrath is a precursory epic to today’s fantasy world, set several hundred years before the first computer player set foot in Everquest. (However, this should not dissuade non-EQ players from picking up Champions; you need absolutely no knowledge of the game to enjoy this quest.) The plot, at first, seems to be a rather simple affair. The wood elf city of Kelethin in the forests of Faydwer are under siege by hordes of goblins and orcs. King Leithkorias, desperately in need of aid, seeks salvation from a group of heroes who recently have arrived in the treetop city. Pleading for help in this troubling time, he asks these warriors to not only repel the invading menace, but to also discover who’s leading the attacks against his peaceful realm.
Players take up arms as one of five different character classes, each one a different race and each possessing their own strengths and weaknesses. If you’ve ever played a role-playing game, there really aren’t any new surprises here. Barbarian warriors are the battering rams of the party, wading into battle with little regard for their own skin or the lives of their opponents. Wood elf rangers are particularly fast and incredibly accurate with bows and arrows. High elf clerics are good warriors, but better protective spell casters. Erudite wizards are particularly skilled with elementally charged offensive spells. Dark elf shadowknights are both warriors and evil spellcasters, casting harmful magic against their enemies. While choosing the sex of the character is merely cosmetic and tweaking their appearance is simply a matter of taste, all classes are capable of completing the full campaign regardless of any weaknesses that could be exploited in combat.
When I say combat, you should expect plenty of it. Players need wait only about 5 minutes at the slowest before they find themselves face to tusk with angry goblins and orcs hellbent on killing anything that moves. Granted, most titles like Champions could simply rely on plenty of button mashing mechanics requiring players to hit the attack button as fast as they can, and they wouldn’t be far off. There are times that you’ll simply need to attack incoming waves of creatures through the randomly generated dungeons, casting spells and downing mana or health potions to replenish your dwindling stores until you’ve cut down everything in your way. However, Champions also provides characters with a block button, which can be used to parry and exploit ill-timed attacks by monsters to a hero’s advantage. This gives players more of a tactical method to their battles, because astute fighters can wade through fights with very little damage whatsoever.
Kill enough monsters and your characters will easily gain new levels of experience. Similar to that of Dark Alliance, characters get an opportunity to augment their personal stats as well as boost some of their skills. Here, personal taste and playing style comes into play, as characters decide which abilities their warrior will have. The skill tree for each character, while they don’t allow for crossover from other skills, can give players the option to have as specialized or well balanced a character as they would like. For example, a wizard can choose to spend additional points towards imbuing their weapons with attack bonuses and damage, or a cleric could become an incredibly powerful healer.
Along with these new levels will inevitably come a ton of loot picked up from the corpses of your fallen opponents. RPG fans, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: players will pick and choose between the spoils to find the best armor and weapons around to go off and kill more monsters and collect more treasure. Whatever is deemed unnecessary or superfluous is thrown into the backpack and slogged through older terrain until it can be sold off. Champions actually addresses this in two different ways. First of all, characters can purchase gate scrolls, which allows them to teleport back to shops to sell of their extra loot. Even better, once you’re done making a profit off your war spoils, you can teleport yourself right back to where you came from and continue your adventuring (or scavenging, take your pick).
The other cool aspect of equipment within Champions is the weapon augmentation system. Most games have generic weapons, like swords or bows, and will also have the more powerful versions of the same armament, such as a +1 or +2 shield. Well, every now and then throughout Champions, you’ll pick up a rare little item, such as a fire gem or a pearl or some other eclectic item. These items can be fastened to weapons or armor to make more powerful, more unique items that bestow new bonuses to the wielder. For example, a shield with a fire gem might make its owner more fire resistant, or a pearl might impart lightning damage to any arrows fired from a bow.
Players shouldn’t feel like they have to adventure through the wilderness of Norrath alone, however. With a multitap, up to four warriors can jump into party adventuring, splitting the experience and spoils equally between them. Yet even those who can’t gather three additional friends at their house need not worry about going solo. Champions allows players of all different classes and levels to go adventuring together online through SOEgames.net. Tailoring the experience for cooperative play, Champions provides Voice Over IP chat, so players with USB headsets can communicate with each other in real time, relaying messages to their fellow adventurers. Those without the headsets need not fret, as a USB keyboard can also be used. (We personally recommend the Logitech headset and the new Nyko IType2 controller, which allows players to preset macro messages and input commands with the touch of a button. No more long minutes of missing play with this gamepad….)
Graphically, its rather impressive what Snowblind has managed to squeeze out of the PS2 hardware for Champions. While the sex of the character classes doesn’t particularly matter in terms of gameplay, the ten character models found within the game all look completely different from each other, not counting the little tweaks you perform to make them entirely your own. What’s more, the models also reflect any changes to your armor or weaponry, so you’ll know who’s carrying a bow and or a sword, or even if you’ve stripped down to your skivvies if you’re liquidating all of your assets. (Yep, it can be done…) This also extends to the fearsome creatures you’ll be facing, from the simple goblin to rather disturbing large spiders and other fiends that you find later on throughout the game. Additional details can be found by using the camera, which can zoom into three separate levels of action to give players a better sense of their environment, or a closer view of battle. This might not seem like that big a deal until you realize that you’ll actually be traversing a number of regions throughout the adventure, each with their own environment, such as deserts, underground caves and islands, amongst numerous others. Particle effects within the game are bolder and more effusive, and some powered up spells later on in the game really looks like they’re packed with magical energy when they slam into their targets. Even better, the trademark water effects that Snowblind has come known for is back with a vengeance and extends to more elements, making true liquid viscosity (of numerous fluid background elements!) a reality on the console.
However, there are a couple of technical issues that hem up the graphical might of the title. The first problem stems from large drops in frame rate, which can lead to incredible amounts of slowdown, especially during larger battles. Sometimes this seems caused by the particular zoom of the camera, i.e. you’re too tightly focused on a particular area, until you notice that zooming out doesn’t help the issue either. Even more dramatic is a surprising amount of draw-in or drop out of textures that suddenly occurs. It’s entirely possible to run through a level and have the background disappear on you, resulting in your character fighting enemies on a blank screen. Stranger still is the abrupt appearance of objects seemingly out of thin air, or backgrounds replaced with generic textures. While impossible to put your finger on this glitch, it’s somewhat disarming to find the gaming world turn into the Twilight Zone of bad coding.
Sound is somewhat more stable, with a number of stars providing voices for many of the characters found scattered throughout Champions. Although some of the lines are particularly cheesy, and many of the playable characters have a tendency to repeat comments quite often, it is a nice touch that your soldiers will remark on what’s going on as they roam Norrath. Sound effects are nicely controlled, and it’s very easy to tell whether you’ve actually hit a monster with a juicy thud, missed with an empty whoosh or been blocked with a metallic clang. This attention to detail provides a very rich gaming atmosphere, which is merely bolstered by the often swelling, melodic soundtrack that underscores onscreen action.
Champions is a very large adventure, only bolstered by the fact that there are multiple sidequests and missions to undertake, not to mention the three difficulty levels which are unlocked as you complete the entire game. Add to that the multiplayer, and you do have a ton of replayability. However, there are definite problems to be found within the game, some of which makes play rather tedious. First of all, continually having to travel back to cities via portals or gate scrolls to cash in your items can be a little annoying, especially since your characters can only carry a certain amount based on their strength stat. Inevitably, you may find yourself spending many more stat points on endurance to turn your character into a killing packmule or disgarding items entirely than continually return to a “civilized” area.
Granted, this is a rather minor gripe. However, my next issue is much graver. Champions can sometimes have a problem with save games. I’ve played this game a number of times, some to actually check out all the characters and how each one plays differently than others. Unfortunately, there were other times where the game simply deleted my save game, requiring me to copy data to other memory cards to eventually avoid this fate. Similar things can happen if you choose to import your characters into multiplayer games and then bring them back offline. Your progress can actually be overwritten, leading to advanced characters having to slog through beginner levels all over again or woefully inexperienced fighters in impossibly strong areas. Finally, I have to admit to having a problem with the way the connection to multiplayer games are made. In short, it’s a little too difficult to ensure that you’ll consistently adventure with friends since the games hosted by players aren’t as clearly defined as they could be. While this means that you’ll often be traveling with people you’ve never played with before, all you really need is to run into a jerk during a gaming session and you might swear off online play in this game forever.
Issues aside, Champions is still a very solid title with a ton of fighting, a complex yet satisfying plotline and plenty of replay value. Even more, the deep weapon creation system and multiplayer play (flawed, yet hosting nice features) provides a worthwhile adventure for any action or role-playing game fan. If you’re a PS2 owner, you should seriously consider becoming one of Norrath’s Champions.