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Hack-and-Slash at its Finest
By: Matthew Graham
When Snowblind Studios released Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance in 2001, it was a big hit with console gamers. Set in the Dungeons & Dragons world of the Forgotten Realms, Dark Alliance boasted an entertaining mix of cooperative hack-and-slash gameplay and graphics that were impressive for the genre. The reins of the Dark Alliance franchise were taken over by Black Isle Studios for the sequel, Dark Alliance II, while Snowblind moved on to the world of Everquest with Champions of Norrath. The gameplay in all three of these games is similar, but Champions stands out as the best entry into the genre to date.
The story of Champions is typical, and just strong enough to keep the game moving. The humans and elves of Norrath are at war with orcs and goblins and the player is charged with the task of turning the tide of the war. Starting off in the Faydwer wood elf city of Kelethin, the player assists in ending a goblin invasion before moving on to larger conquests in the realms of Everquest. As the story evolves, ties between the evil races of Norrath emerge, and the player moves from realm to realm battling progressively more powerful enemies. Five classes are available including a Barbarian Warrior, Wood Elf Ranger, High Elf Cleric, Erudite Wizard, and Dark Elf Shadowknight, with each having their own characteristic set of skills. There is little character motivation to speak of, as the stories behind the characters are never explored. Each character's appearance can be customized through choices of gender, skin color, hair style, and hair color. Attributes are also customized, with 20 extra points available to allocate between the base values of strength, intelligence, dexterity, and stamina. At level up, in addition to acquiring skill points to distribute between each characters' 14 available skills (17 for the Erudite Wizard), 3 more points can be allocated to attributes.
Champions follows the simple hack-and-slash formula made popular by the Baldur's Gate series. Mashing one button attacks, mashing another uses a skill or spell, and yet another picks up treasure dropped by enemies. Champions doesn't add much to the formula; in fact, it takes away the ability to jump like in Dark Alliance. Skill selection is not particularly expansive either, with only a handful of active abilities available to each character. So what sets Champions apart from its Dungeons & Dragons brothers? The answer is in multiplayer and online compatibility. Champions can be played in cooperative mode with as many as four players simultaneously, although this will seriously cut down on the difficulty of the gaming experience. For players unlucky enough to have no friends, yet lucky enough to own a network adaptor for their PS2, it's always possible to find cohorts online to join in on the fun. One drawback is that with three or more players, it is not possible to rotate the camera, which makes navigation a bit difficult at times. In addition, it is not possible for two people playing on one PS2 to look for online players to fill in the other two spots, as online play requires one player per PS2.
One other feature of Champions of Norrath that sets it apart from the Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance series is the weapon and armor customization system. Simpler and more accessible than the Dark Alliance II system, it involves adding gemstones acquired by defeating monsters into one of the four available slots of a piece of equipment. The effects range from simply boosting an attribute by a few points to increasing attack speed or critical hit rate.
One major flaw with the title, at least for players with older PS2s, is that Champions comes on a dual-layered DVD, meaning that for old systems with dirty laser lenses or other tracking problems the game will occasionally have difficulty loading and may have graphical glitches. If encountered, this problem can usually be solved by opening up the PS2 (and thus voiding any warranty it may be under) and cleaning off the lens. Most players shouldn't have any problems unless their system was purchased at launch.
Since Dark Alliance, Snowblind has updated the graphics engine for Champions and the results are a noticeable improvement in quality. As players travel through the world of Norrath, multiple environments are encountered ranging from tropical beaches to underground lava fields, all of which look stunning. There are also a number of nice lighting effects in the environment and particle effects during spell casting. Player and creature character models are also intricately detailed, and in one player mode it is possible to zoom in on these features to really appreciate them. Sound effects and voice acting are adequate, while not standing out as anything spectacular. The music of Champions of Norrath, however, is excellent. Featuring an orchestral score, many of the pieces really stand out, including a rousing piece full of drums and chanting encountered early in the game which is reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings.
As previously mentioned, the difficulty of Champions is highly variable, depending on how many players are adventuring together. A single player game can be quite difficult at times, as enemies tend to be found in large groups and have reasonably intelligent AI. Two players make the game a little easier, but occasional problems might be encountered. Three or four players will make the game absurdly easy for the most part, save for the occasional boss encounter. To help overcome this problem, multiple difficulty levels are available including Adventurous, Courageous (unlocked by beating Adventurous), and Champion (unlocked by beating Courageous). Individually, each mode requires about 15-20 hours to complete.
Despite a few flaws, including glitchy graphics and low multiplayer-mode difficulty, Champions of Norrath stands out as arguably the best entry into the hack-and-slash fantasy genre to date. For players looking for a fun multiplayer experience, Champions is one of the best options available. Hopefully, the few problems it has will be fixed for the upcoming sequel, Champions: Return to Arms, which is scheduled for release in early 2005.
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