Reviewed: June 19, 2005
Released: February 7, 2005
When Champions of Norrath released, it was set to be Snowblind Studiosí crown jewel, which had wanted to make a game better than their previous smash hit, Baldurís Gate: Dark Alliance. And despite an incredible game, it came loaded with glitches and game-stopping ďAĒ bugs that was a result of dual-layered DVD issues. A year later, Snowblind Studios presents Champions: Return to Arms, a direct follow-up to Champions of Norrath. Return to Arms attempts to do what Champions of Norrath did, sans the glitches.
Unfortunately, while Return to Arms is the better game from a technical standpoint, itís missing a few key elements that made Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath so great to begin with.
While Return to Arms seems like nothing more than a Gauntlet-style hackíem up through various levels, itís actually made up of a few different cores. You manage your characterís belongings, and spend much of your time shopping for new weapons and armor, which also contributes to the stat building of your character. As you trudge through countless mazes, fighting high-fantasy creatures of the EverQuest realm, you level up, increasing your characterís stats, just to enter a new area and do it all again. Itís really a rather tedious affair thatís made addictive by the shopping for new items, and exploring the areas to their fullest. Barrel-busting rounds out the gameplay, as youíll find a good chunk of what you collect will be from these.
While Champions of Norrath was story-driven, Return to Arms is structured as a hub, allowing players to tackle levels, and then repeat them if they wish later. While there seems to be a little more freedom, the game feels more sporadic and all over the place. There is a story here, but it doesnít come into play as often as it should, and seems more like just filler to get things rolling. Things pick up right after the events in Champions of Norrath, and you can decide who youíll join in this quest.
Joining Firiona Vie will have you setting out to destroy the shards that hold the essence of the Prince of Hate, but joining Natasla will have players working to resurrect the mighty god. In game though, the differences are fairly small, resulting in different story cinemas and attacking the gameís same levels in a different order. You make your good/evil decision way too early in the game, long before you even know whatís going on, and your decision doesnít make much difference in the grand scheme of things, leaving you wondering why you bothered.
Technically though, Return to Arms is excellent, and addresses gripes that fans have had since Dark Alliance. Not only can you transport your Champions of Norrath character over to Return to Arms, but the game is host to two new classes, the iksar shaman (lizard man) and the vah shir berserker (cat man). While you canít choose genders in either of the new classes, you can still customize how you want them to look, and some of their abilities result in some much-needed creative gameplay mechanics, especially on the part of the shaman.
All of the classes from Champions of Norrath return, and even have some added abilities. Medallion Rounds are also new to the Champions series, where you can unlock challenges as you finish a level. Defeat the challenge and you can attain some truly awesome rewards.
Return to Arms even offers some player-versus-player content, allowing players to enter and arena and duke it out for bragging rights. You can also team together to take on hoards of creatures in multiple waves. While both modes are fairly simple and shallow, they nevertheless are fun to fiddle around with.
The fighting seems to be as equally refined as that of the first game, and many of the abilities have been rebalanced to work much better than before. Many fights are more challenging, including the boss fights. While some have some easy patterns to overcome, others can be truly nasty, capable of putting down high-level heroes in two swipes. Even standard enemies, which seem to be slightly more varied than in the last game, can be tough, or have some brutal special attacks that may catch you off guard. This makes for incredibly challenging battles.
The gameís levels are expertly crafted, and it feels like a benefit that they arenít randomly generated anymore. Four players can still hook up via a multitap, and the improved online content assures a better experience over the Net.
While it may not seem possible, Return to Arms is even more crisp than Champions of Norrath was. Even by todayís standards the Snowblind engine still has Dark Alliance and Champions looking stunning, but the beautiful environments in Return to Arms simply canít be denied. Loads of detail and non-dynamic bump mapping make Return to Arms one of the best looking games on the PS2.
The lighting (both dynamic and non-dynamic) still looks gorgeous and vibrant, and even the Snowblind engineís trademark water effects return, and are still able to impress. Character models are greatly detailed too, as are all the weapons, creature models both big and small, and the glittering, shiny armor pieces. Really, the graphics are just slightly prettier than those found in Champions of Norrath, but the smoother framerate and the absence of glitches makes a world of difference.
There are a few recycled tile sets found in Return to Arms, likely because of the gameís short development cycle, so players will feel familiar with some of the gameís surroundings. There are still instances of slowdown and blackout, mostly when the player rotates the camera. The quality of the experience took a beating because of this in Champions of Norrath, but these occurrences are more rare here.
From an audio standpoint, there are new pieces of music that fit the environment and current situation nicely. Most of the effects sound pretty much like what they did in Champions of Norrath. The spoken dialogue is noticeably improved over the previous game, but the general lack of storytelling prevents the characters from having enough life in them, and you constantly feel as if youíre just being shuffled around from place to place.
Return to Arms is chock full of content that will keeps players busy for months. There are a grand total of seven character classes to play and customize, good/evil paths to play through, a level cap of 80, and up to four players on the multitap. In addition, players can take the co-op experience online, where there is an improved interface waiting.
Champions: Return to Arms doesnít feel like the true sequel Snowblind probably intended it to be. The short development cycle, graphics that look similar (but no less great) to the first game (including some recycled tile sets), and the underwhelming story all combine to result in a game that, while great for what it offers, reminds you almost too much of the first title, and that it came much too soon. It actually feels more like an expansion since you can import old characters in and out, which isnít a bad thing at all, but still lends to the "same" feeling you get when playing.
This is still basically the same game as Dark Alliance was, even with all the newly added content. Champions: Return to Arms is technically the better game, but not quite the jaw-dropper it was last year.