Last year, Snow Blind, and SOE of America grabbed the attention of gamers with their sleeper hit, Champions of Norrath. Ubiquitous for it's tedious nature, the world of Everquest has never appealed to the action gamer. Champions of Norrath relinquished any preconceived feelings about the world of Everquest and created an action oriented game suitable for a broad crowd. Recently announced as going gold, Champions: Return to Arms continues right where Norrath left off, promising to deliver improved gameplay, and more of the same epic RPG storytelling that has made the franchise what it is today.
In the world of video games, evil never dies, but rather takes another form; Champions: Return to Arms' storyline is centered around the death of Innorruk, in which his minions are running rampantly to pick up the many pieces of his corpse. It is your duty to get to these pieces before they can, in an ever expansive world. One of the major twists involved with the sequel is the option to choose whether you want to pursue the resurrection or destruction of Norrath. The characters you choose, and the actions you take will all effect how the game pans out. Similar to Fable, this option already adds an immense amount of replay value.
All of your favorite characters return from the first title, along with two new classes: the Vah Shir and Iskar. One of the more notable features of the game is the abillity to import your characters from the first title onto the new one. Where you could only get to level 50 with your character in the first one, you will be able to level up to 80 in Return to Arms. That being said, you will be able to acquire even more weapons, armor, and abilities to create an all new experience with your familiar character.
Gameplay will remain relatively the same as the original, but Snow Blind has added plenty of new features and improvements to smooth out a number of problems associated with the first title. Items will be more sparse, and won't be completely centered around monetary value. You will find that they will be much more of use to you, and will be critical to winning battles. Action and fighting are more important than ever, since you will be graded with the newly incorporated medal system. Depending on your performance, new areas and items will be unlocked, adding a sense of importance that CoN lacked in it's hack-and-slash gameplay. Additionally, earning some of these medals will open up new mini-games that you can go back and play anytime.
Graphically, Champions improves on an already established and engaging engine. All of the textures in the game have been revamped, hiding any signs of age on the Playstation 2 hardware. This graphic enhancement is most seen in the extended character customization. You will now see every piece of armor, jewelery, and weapon on your characters in real time. The surrounding environments are extremely detailed, and even with the graphically intensive monsters and characters on the screen, the game runs at a very smooth frame rate. Even in the beta version, this game is looking very good.
Audio in the game will feature a rich orchestral soundtrack, along with lip-synched voice acting. The opening theme alone was quite engaging, leaving me to contemplate whether or not to hit the start button. Ambience and other environmental sounds seem to be right on track for their respected areas. Notably, there were some audio portions left out, but I'm sure the issue will be resolved with the final release of the game.
One of the more engaging aspects of Champions: Return to Arms is it's inclusion of multi-player. The game supports up to four players with the multi-tap, or you can take your game online with the PS2 network adapter. In addition to new maps and player options, Snow Blind has a completely renovated ranking system, along with buddy and game creation options. Let's face it, the number of online role playing games for Playstation gamers are far and few between, so any title willing to dive into the otherwise PC dominated market is worth a look. Fortunately, this title is looking great.
Raising the bar with console based role playing games for a number of years, Snow Blind looks to be offering a very solid game once again. Boasting over 100 hours of gameplay, and seeming less replay value, there is no doubt that they have taken good care of this one. With a very well established prequel, and now the addition of a new performance-based game facet, fans of the genre better keep an eye on this one.