When Snowblind Studios unleashed Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance on PS2 owners back in December of 2001, the results were largely positive. The title, which was a more action-oriented RPG than its PC namesake, allowed console owners to hack and slash their way through the famous Dungeons & Dragons setting.
Dark Alliance garnered positive reviews and has since spawned a sequel-but developer Snowblind has moved on. Instead of working on the follow-up to their hit, the company was enlisted by Sony to make a similarly themed game based on the company’s immensely popular Everquest license. The result is Champions of Norrath.
Champions of Norrath might best be described as Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance on steroids. While the engine and the core gameplay remain largely unchanged from the first game, everything about Champions of Norrath is bigger than that earlier title. Comparing the two side-by-side is a lot like looking at Barry Bonds in his days as a Pittsburgh Pirate compared with his present day appearance as a San Francisco Giant-the look is similar, but the newer edition is certainly more beefed-up…
The game features another convoluted and almost pointless story-much like Dark Alliance. To make a long tale shorter, there’s a demon causing a lot of havoc in the lands of Norrath. As such, your skilled fighter has been enlisted to help in defeating him. This means you’ll travel across the many different geographical regions, slay countless thousands of monsters, find lots of items, and level-up your character repeatedly. The story itself serves no real purpose other than to give the most rudimentary reasoning for all of the hacking and slashing.
Fortunately, the gameplay is so engaging you won’t care about the story and its definite lack of depth. At its core, Champions of Norrath is a simple dungeon crawler, not unlike the original Diablo. Players will choose an avatar from one of five classes, with each class having a male and female version. From there, they’ll join the fray, saving a city in the trees from a goblin invasion. What keeps Champions interesting are two things-the fact that the game’s dungeons are randomly generated (meaning the game has a fair amount of replay value) and that there are over 10,000 items to be found and equipped by your character.
Working through the land of Norrath is done almost exclusively in the hopes of finding new items and rares. I can’t count how many times I found myself saying, “Just one more area, then I’ll quit-there might be something really good here.” If you’re one of those people who like finding the ultra rare items in a game like Phantasy Star Online, then Champions of Norrath is going to appeal to you.
The comparisons to PSO don’t end there, though. Like Sonic Team’s game, Champions of Norrath has an online component that will allow up to four players to quest together in pursuit of fame and fortune. Unfortunately, the game’s online component has many of the same problems PSO has faced over the years-duping, connection issues, players stealing stuff, and so forth. In fact, Champions of Norrath is actually worse than PSO when it comes to online play for a number of reasons.
The first is that the title doesn’t feature a lobby or a friend’s list. Players simply log on and create or join a game. This makes meeting up with people incredibly difficult. Sure, you can take your chances in an open game, but if you’re looking for specific players who you’ve quested with before, then good luck.
Another problem involves joining games. If the host quits a game before you manage to save, you lose all the progress you just made. To say that this sucks is a no-brainer…and while most hosts are good enough to give you warning, there are always going to be griefers who think it’s funny to just bail and screw everyone over. Needless to say, this was something of a boneheaded design decision.
Despite the flaws, online play is still pretty fun-and adding in that there’s no subscription fee to play Champions of Norrath online makes a lot of the flaws far more forgivable-if you’re getting it for free, what do you expect?.
The game’s graphics are one of the highpoints of the Champions of Norrath experience. Dark Alliance was a real looker back when it was released, and this game continues that tradition. Character models are detailed and animate fluidly, environments are rich and varied, and monsters run the gamut from tiny and non-threatening to massive and overwhelming.
The only downside is that the game does feature a bit of pop-up in some areas and a noticeable amount of slowdown at certain points. It’s not a gamebreaker, but it does mar the overall presentation a bit.
A new and far more interactive camera system allows players to drink in all this graphical splendor with ease. The traditional bird’s-eye view is back, but players can zoom down in on the action to get a much more up-close and personal look at the carnage. This is one of the areas where the game is a major improvement over Dark Alliance.
I wish I could say the same for the music and voice acting. It’s a shame, really, since the voice acting in Dark Alliance was top notch. The characters here vacillate between generic and over-the-top. My barbarian’s Scottish brogue was pretty cool for the first few levels, but then it got real old, real fast (“can’t carry annamore!”).
The music fares better, but it lacks variety-I like most of the orchestral pieces featured in Champions of Norrath, but I wish there had been more of them. Many of the pieces are looped over and over throughout the adventure.
Champions of Norrath features a fair amount of replay value-even without the online and multiplayer components. Characters can be leveled-up until they reach the level 50 mark. As players beat each difficulty setting, a new one opens. The newer settings are the same game, just with tougher enemies, better items, and more gold. Getting to 50 is a grind in the true Everquest fashion, but the rewards in reaching that mark make it worthwhile-there’s some really cool armor and weapons that only level 50 characters can use.
Finally, this is a tough game. It’s not 8-bit era tough, but I died a lot more often in Champions of Norrath than I did in Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel or either of the Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance games. While the core gameplay is hack-and-slash, there is a bit of strategy and planning required. Even with the melee barbarian, running into a throng of monsters isn’t always the best course of action. This is a welcome change from the recent games in this genre-titles that have been almost too easy.
Overall, Champions of Norrath is an impressive title. The Everquest license lends itself surprisingly well to a hack-and-slash game, and the inclusion of an online element is genius. It’s a shame more planning and forethought weren’t put into the online portion of the game, though-this could have been the next Phantasy Star Online but it falls short of that mark. A few negatives keep the game from being an A level game, but if you like dungeon crawlers or hacking and slashing your way through hordes of enemies, then this game is well worth your time and money.