EverQuest is a big success, as are multiplayer dungeon-crawlers in the vein of Phantasy Star Online. What is a development company to do? Nothing less than use the scenario of the former with the mechanics of the latter. The result is Champions of Norrath: Realms of EverQuest, which Sony Online Entertainment hopes will attract new initiates into its best selling Realm.
First, let's get a few things straight. CoN is playable right out of the box as an offline, single player title. Another controller brings that figure up to two, and a multitap and controllers can boost it as high as four. Internet play requires no extra fees, but there's going to be no more than four human players at any one time. Unfortunately, the game does not support either keyboards or microphones (WHY?), so it looks like it's the good ol' manual input.
All of CoN's dungeons, and even some of its exterior areas, are randomly generated. There are between 45-50 stages to visit during some 20 quests, which are divided in five different "acts" (perhaps it is time for some kind of standardization in regards to video game terminology). These quests are at least partially non-linear in nature, but there will be a storyline and a final battle. Of course, it wouldn't be a dungeon-crawler without encouraging acquisitiveness. There are thousands of items to collect, and these are mostly randomized as well. They are generated on the spot by the game's prefix/suffix system. For example, a plain Ax becomes a Shiny Ax of Power, or something. However, RPGamers who find themselves collecting all kinds of crap will have a vent for their frustrations in CoN's item creation system. This process involves combining magical components with equipment.
Some picky players will be disappointed with CoN's lack of character types. There are only five classes, and each is associated with a race. They are: High Elf Cleric, Barbarian Warrior, Erudite (Ah yes, the ancient race of the Erudites) Wizard, Wood Elf Ranger, and Dark Elf Shadow Knight. Beyond that, there are no practical character choices, but the player can still pick a gender and customize their avatar's physical appearance down to their tattoos. Each character can also use a full range of equipment, including cosmetic items like shirts. Each class has about 13 abilities, which can be leveled up several times. Reportedly, there is some kind of combo system as well.
Play occurs from a top-down viewpoint, and involves lots of running around and slashing enemies. Snowblind facilitates the real-time gameplay by making it easy to bring up skills on the go. This seems to be accomplished by a scrollable list that either triangle or circle activates. The whole action element is fully embraced, and the player has to contend with such traps as outside projectiles in addition to the regular enemies.
The story could go either way. The timeframe is "several" hundred years before the original EverQuest, which could put it alongside EverQuest: Online Adventures. The adventure begins in Fawder, where the player is recruited by the Wood Elves to stop the oncoming Orc/Goblin army.
If any of the above has sounded similar to Balder's Gate: Dark Alliance, it's no coincidence. Snowblind previously worked on that illustrious title, and they're using a slightly enhanced version of BG:DA's engine for this one. One improvement is that CoN uses four times as many character polygons. For the most part, the characters are so small that it's hard to notice detail anyway, but the game does include a "Combat View Cam" that the player can use to zoom in on the action. The game actually looks a lot better in this pseudo-third-person mode. The developers boast that the engine can handle up to 40 characters pitched in battle at once, and environments look lovely too. If there were one complaint, it would be that some areas are a bit too dark. As for sound, the developers employ a pleasant combination of soothing sound effects and classic medieval music.
The press around this game claims that an RPGamer can get as many as 100 playing hours out of this title. Even if the main quests don't take that long, that figure becomes quite reasonable if one were to take into consideration the multiplayer options, and the ability to create as many characters as desire allows and swapping them around via memory cards. Will this game become a new Champion for the PS2?