The previous generation of games saw a sizable explosion of action RPG hybrid titles. From the magical realms of Norrath right on through to the comic book capers of the Marvel and DC worlds, the genre wasn’t just isolated strictly to dungeon crawls with a warrior class, vanquishing goblins with rusty swords. The focus on this special seven part Comparison Series/Action RPG week will be on a handful of the prominently represented games within this genre. On the Sony PlayStation 2 we’ll visit Champions of Norrath, Champions: Return to Arms and Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, while on the Microsoft Xbox we’ll take a look at A Bards Tale, Baldurs Gate: Dark Alliance and Baldurs Gate: Dark Alliance 2, with Justice League Heroes representing the Sony PlayStation Portable. As always, on the final day, we will see who won in the battle of Visuals, Audio, Gameplay and Replay Value, as well as the ratings for each title, and the overall winner.
Today’s focus will be on Champions of Norrath on the PS2.
Everquest’s origins in the world of gaming have lead to ridicule for its addictive nature, labeling a long line of fans to the genre as “folks who have no lives” which was never the case. The copious amounts of time individuals made for their “phat lewts” and level grinding was all upon their own accords. With the amount of content present, the lack of any true competition for years, and a myriad of reasons why people kept on playing, Everquest went on to become a somewhat prominent figure in gaming.
Being a veteran of this MMORPG for the better part of ten years, I can attest to the addictive nature, both in raiding for that “phat lewts” as well as the social aspects, which have created quite a few longtime friends that were made from the hundreds of /played days on my character. The first time I had stopped playing, it was to focus more on accomplishing plenty of tasks that had built up over the years.
Not long after I packed up my Ring of the Coldain Heroes, Incarnadine Breastplate and Scepter of Destruction and headed away from the world of Norrath, a PlayStation 2 title based around the fantasy world of Norrath was released, called Champions of Norrath. Instead of the gameplay being based upon the maasive multiplayer online role-playing game build, Snowblind Studios built an action RPG title using the engine featured in Baldurs Gate: Dark Alliance 2. Although Everquest and the franchise in general was a more PC centric phenomenon, would a new batch of gamers even care about the lore of Norrath? Should seasoned veterans to the MMORPG even bother to give this a shot, with vivid flashbacks of previous late night addictions still fresh in their minds?
The short answer to both questions would be yes.
While the lore, item potency and even realm gods might have gone through a bit of a retooling, there’s quite a few common interests shared between CoN and EQ, mainly the addictive nature of the gameplay. Unlike the PC title, CoN contains save points in which you can save your progress, come back any any time, and not have the worry of missing anything in your absence. Between the four classes you can choose from, you’ll encounter exclusive items for each class, most of them named after loot acquired from its EQ brethren, though you’ll run across some with effects that might be slightly altered.
Working off an enhanced Dark Alliance 2 engine, Champions of Norrath is a sight to be seen. The amount of detail can be staggering a times, with minute armor details, foliage and other small details coming to life in vivid fashion. Animation quality holds a high standard as well, with mostly seamless and fluid motions through. Mostly being the keyword here. The detail and animation all come with a price, as the frame rate will dip down when the action gets intense. It can hamper your enjoyment considerably, as the slowdown really does affect the pace in general. Online gaming would suffer as well, which we’ll get into in just a bit.
If you’ve played the Dark Alliance series or A Bard’s Tale, the controls and gameplay will be instantly familiar and thoroughly welcoming. Whether you’re spamming melee attacks with your Barbarian Warrior or shooting mobs down with your Wood Elf Ranger’s bow and arrow, the ease of combat flows through each class you select. If you’re low on health or mana, just like the Dark Alliance series, you can refill them both with designated potions. You can also learn a plethora of skills and abilities through your ability tree, which will either augment current skills, or provide you with a brand new offensive or defensive skill.
One of the weaker aspects of CoN is a shared weakness with the MMORPG on the PC — the audio. While the music will have its moments of brilliance, it develops into something resembling background noise than anything. It’s there, but you quickly tune it out. Combat and environmental sounds don’t raise the bar within the genre in any profound way, but they don’t serve to detract your interest with the game as a whole.
Champions of Norrath had an online portion to the game which, while a novel idea, did not necessarily garner much of a following. In fact, out of the eight times I tried to play a multiplayer game online during its early days, three successful connections were made, though no one stayed for more than two minutes. In fact, a Shadowknight once joined in a game with me and he left within 30 seconds after the graphics lag started to really kick in. After he had left, his pet skeleton had managed to get bugged onto my Wood Elf Ranger, becoming his mindless pet. These days, the online multiplayer component is more of an afterthought than anything. It’s a true shame that gamers didn’t flock towards this addition to the package, as the gameplay and replay value is vastly superior to just about any title in the genre today.
Even if you’re not an Everquest buff, and you’re coming into Champions of Norrath cold, the gameplay and even the narratives drive the experience along in a pleasant manner. Dungeon crawls take place within randomly generated dungeon layouts, providing you with a fresh route with each visit you pay each dungeon. Along with the random loot drops, both off regular mobs, as well as the random rare drops off bosses, the incentive to keep playing multiple times can be astronomical. Throw in the fact that you can play through the main story with the same character, with the same items obtained from previous play-throughs, on a higher level cap, only adds more reason to return to the world of Norrath. You can even save the game right before the battle with the final boss, defeat him and load the game once gain, until you obtain a desirable drop. Some may call that cheating, or exploiting an opportunity, however the trade-off between raiding 40+ hours a week on the MMORPG Everquest versus reloading save points to obtain the gear you want the most, most certainly benefits Champions of Norrath, if just for the time sink lessening.
Champions of Norrath, in this reviewers opinion, is one of the most underrated and under appreciated titles in the PlayStation 2 library. The gameplay is much more welcoming to the general gaming audience than Everquest on the PC, offering a healthy amount of content to to explore, tons of random drops you can look forward to coming across and a rather enjoyable and a game world you can fully immerse yourself in. Fans of titles such as Diablo 2 can find an extensive amount of replay value with Champions of Norrath, though nothing as engrossing or addicting.
Check back in tomorrow for the fifth part of this seven part Comparison/Action RPG Week, Champions: Return to Arms on the PlayStation 2.