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Champions: Return to Arms [PS2]

Champions: Return to Arms Preview

"Snowblind is taking dungeon crawlers to Norrath once again, and we've sampled an early build of the upcoming sequel."

Earlier this year, Snowblind Studios brought the wildly popular EverQuest milieu to consoles with hack-and-slash gameplay in Champions of Norrath, a dungeon-crawling action RPG in the vein of the developer's own Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance series. Scarcely a year later, we're already considering a preview build of Champions: Return to Arms, a sequel to the original that amazingly features neither a "Norrath" nor a "2" anywhere in the title. Despite the lack of sequel markings, what we've played of Champions so far indicates that Snowblind is taking the winning framework from the first game and adding a host of interesting new features to it.

Stop the forces of evil from putting Innoruuk back together again in Champions: Return to Arms.

Stop the forces of evil from putting Innoruuk back together again in Champions: Return to Arms.

The alpha build of Champions we've been playing is light on cinematics and other such glue--with no preamble, it sends you directly into the hard-core hacking and slashing that fans of the genre crave. In the final game, your impetus for killing thousands of enemies will be as follows: After you and your compatriots destroyed the dark god Innoruuk at the end of the first game, his essence was spread across the land, embodied in shards of pure hatred (which reportedly make nice mantel ornaments). Innoruuk's followers naturally are formulating plans to retrieve these shards and reassemble the evil deity, so it's up to you, under the command of the benevolent Firiona Vie, to kill a whole bunch of creatures and stop the forces of evil once and for all (or at least until the next sequel).

All the original race-class combinations from the original Champions of Norrath will be available in the sequel--you'll have access to male and female versions of the human barbarian, wood-elf ranger, high-elf cleric, erudite wizard, and dark-elf shadow knight. Even better, you'll be able to import your saved character from the first game into Return to Arms, and the level cap has been raised to a whopping 80, so you'll have room to expand that maxed-out barbarian from last time around.

However, the most interesting aspect of Champions' character lineup is the inclusion of two all-new classes, the vah shir berserker and the iksar shaman. These two classes are male-only, at least in our preview build, and they draw on some of Norrath's animalistic races. Specifically, the vah shir is a tigerlike biped, while the iksar is a man-sized walking lizard. As with the other combinations, you'll be able to play a vah shir only as a berserker, so don't plan on running around with a magic-wielding man-tiger or anything crazy like that.

The two new classes, the vah shir berserker and the iksar shaman, provide some nice new variety alongside the returning characters.

The two new classes, the vah shir berserker and the iksar shaman, provide some nice new variety alongside the returning characters.

As you'd expect, the two classes will offer new abilities and gameplay that aren't quite what you'll find with the existing classes. The berserker is simply a walking tank who can absorb a large amount of damage while dishing it out in kind. This character excels at hand-to-hand fighting more than any other class in the game, and its special abilities will fall in line with this melee focus. For a slightly more well-rounded experience, the shaman will be a good choice, since it gives you reasonably solid physical combat abilities with a smattering of combat-oriented spellcasting skills. The shaman will gain talents that allow it to summon swarms of insects, fire poison bolts, and cast disease upon foes, among other fun things. Finally, as a lizard, the iksar shaman has the added bonus of a health bar that slowly regenerates over time, which slightly alleviates the need for health potions.

Once you've selected your character, Champions: Return to Arms follows a form that should be eminently familiar to anyone who has played the previous game, or even similar dungeon crawls like Dark Alliance or Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel. Essentially, you'll battle through many, many dungeons of disparate theme but similar layout, killing monsters by the scores while collecting gold and equipment, and occasionally returning to town to sell the latter to obtain more of the former. True to the genre, Return to Arms has so far been all about increasing your level, your stash of gold, and the power of your equipment and abilities. That sort of appreciable character development is what makes games like this addictive, and we're interested to see if the curve holds up later on in the game.

One interesting new feature that Return to Arms will add to the series is a sort of branching plot system that will present you with moral choices at various points in the game. The actions you take will, of course, determine the further development of the storyline and your character's personality. For instance, in the first area we played, we were tasked with confronting an evil warlord on the Plane of War. En route to our encounter, however, we came across a woman who attempted to sway us from going to kill the boss of this area, instead urging us to join the side of evil and merely meet with him to deliver an item. When we accepted, our actual mission objective changed, as did the path we had to take to reach the end of the area. This system could have considerable ramifications for the development of the storyline, if Snowblind has implemented it thoroughly throughout the game.

So far, Champions seems to be one of the best-looking entries we've seen in this genre on the PS2.

So far, Champions seems to be one of the best-looking entries we've seen in this genre on the PS2.

If there's one thing we can say about Champions even at this early stage of development, it's that the game's presentation is downright stunning. Snowblind and a handful of other developers have been cranking out this type of game using different versions of the same engine for several years now, and we've been consistently impressed at how much mileage the company has gotten from the technology. Return to Arms looks noticeably sharper than its predecessor, with striking real-time lighting effects and bump mapping adding a lot of detail to each scene. The aesthetic is very similar to Champions of Norrath (and indeed, all the EverQuest games), but we're quite impressed by the implementation so far. Most of the audio has yet to be implemented in the game, but what we heard sounded nice and fantasy-like, and given the high quality of the first game's sound design, we're expecting a similarly classy effort here.

Thus far, Champions seems to be more than a worthy successor to the previous game. The game contains many more features, such as two- and four-player cooperative and competitive gameplay, which we're looking forward to checking out in a more-complete build of the game. Champions: Return to Arms is slated for release in February 2005; look for more on the game soon. In the meantime, check out several new gameplay movies on the media page.

Posted on Oct 04, 2004