Reviewed: March 16, 2004
Released: February 10, 2004
Snowblind Studios may have disappointed Baldurís Gate fans when it announced that its next project was going to be the Everquest themed, Champions of Norrath, while another team worked on the next Dark Alliance game, but the proof is in the pudding and this is some good pudding.
Join the fight and help the Wood Elves repel the Orc and Goblin invaders in the process uncovering a web of evil that needs to be unraveled if the world of Norrath is ever to be at peace. Champions of Norrath builds on the highly polished hack and slash action RPG formula established in BG: Dark Alliance by adding an adjustable camera, randomly generated dungeons and items, an augmentation system to boost the stats of your equipment and of course, the crown jewel of any multiplayer game these days, online play with up to four players watching each otherís backs as they meet the various scourges head on.
Champions of Norrath plays better than any other hack ní slash or brawler I can recall. The control setup is outstanding in its intuitive layout and simplicity, and I canít recall experiencing a more balanced single-player experience, regardless of genre. You never feel like the game has gotten ridiculously hard, and if you do foul up and die there is always a reason for your death that is readily apparent, you know, like going toe to toe with a 20 foot tall, club wielding, behemoth was probably not the best strategic solution.
Even though there are strategic elements to Champions of Norrath, it still provides fast paced, dungeon crawling action that is, as far as I am concerned, as good as it gets. After you battle your way through the game once you unlock two upper difficulty settings for you to try and lay waste to the waste to the orcs and zombies all over again and take their looooot.
And loot aplenty there is, though the best items in the game are dropped by enemies, you can use the gold you earn by selling off the inferior gear to the merchant in each area as needed to buy potions or the occasional piece of armor that is lagging behind the rest of your outfit. By the time I was about a third of the way through the game the firs time I had amassed a personal fortune that was about double what I spent at merchants during that entire play through.
But one thing that all brawlers have in common is that they are much more fun when you play them with your pals. Champions of Norrath supports up to four players via Multitap or Broadband Ethernet with support for a USB headset. I had more fun having some friends over and partaking in some munchies while slaying the dark hoards, plus that way when the cleric screws up, you can just shove him off the couch. Playing a game over the Ďnet is still a blast, but there are a couple of things that keep it from being a flawless experience.
First the lack of a real Lobby system is a little jolting after spending the last few years with the P.S.O. series, but it that may just be me. The other, more pressing issue that I have with playing over the internet is that unless you are hosting the game, your character development is tied to your saved game meaning that if you save while playing online, thatís where you will pick up when you come back to the game in single player mode. This means that you canít really build up your character online unless you are hosting the game, some people may not care, but it did really bother me because lots of games do store your character data in a separate file.
The Dark Alliance engine is, with out a doubt, one of the finest ever written. and Champions of Norrath really pushes it for every last ounce of visual splendor itís got. The often imitated, never duplicated water effects are back and looking better than ever whether itís a scummy puddle in a goblin cave of the surf breaking on a beach in The Pit.
The animations are fluid and watching the bones fly as you carve your way through a mob of unruly zombies is hugely satisfying. The lighting engine is superb, as near as I can discern every surface in the game is affected by the light whether itís your characterís breastplate or the crisply textured, wooden walls of an elf abode, watching the light play about like this is seldom seen in console titles.
The level designers have really taken each location in the game and made it not only feel authentic, but really made good use of the color pallets you would expect to see in each place, eliminating the feeling of uniformity that is present in so many games that use earth toned environments. There were a few times that the frame rate dipped a bit in the thick of battle when enemies flooded the screen, but I found this to be a fairly minor issue that never affected the quality of my experience.
The score that ebbs and flows with the unfolding carnage of Champions of Norrath is really great, one of my favorites since Hitman 2 I think. Though it is comprised mostly of strings, there is a lot of range and depth, from light and airy strains early in the game to pulsing driving battle hymns when things get thick. Come to think of it, itís a lot like a movie, the music never really stops, itís always present, but it works so well with the events on screen that you may not notice it at all.
On the sound FX side of things, the slamming, slicing, crash of battle is well presented here, but the prize really goes to the great voice acting in the various characters you encounter, each has a unique personality that bubbles to the surface in their dialogue. There are plenty of laugh lines, and itís actually nice to see developers really paying attention to the voice work in their games, Iíd rather laugh at a funny line than a corny delivery.
Champions of Norrath has replay value coming out the ying-yang, with three difficulty levels and the four player mode both off-line and on. While the Internet play isnít perfect, it plays smoothly and itís just fine if you are hosting the game or arenít looking to pump up your character and just want to beat up on some orcs.
The superb game balance is what really sells this title for me, itís challenging without ever being stupid hard, and I wish more games found this level of gameplay quality.
Champions of Norrath is the best dungeon crawler I can remember on any platform, the superb interface, and super polished gameplay allow anyone to be able to pick up and enjoy this one. The folks at Snowblind really know their business, and if they keep turning out titles of this quality they will be around for a good long time. If you need to be told straight out or just skipped to the end of the page, buy this game, a product of this quality belongs in everyoneís collection.