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Platform

Playstation 2

 

Genre

Role-Playing Game

 

Publisher

SOE

 

Developer

Snowblind Studios

 

ESRB

T (Teen)

 

Released

Q1 2004

 

 

- Great graphics that improve on every element of the Dark Alliance game

- An amazing level of customizability

- Clever boss battles and a compelling story

 

 

- Some graphical glitches and the occasional lock-up

- Everquest license isn't exactly inspiring

 

 

Review: Baldur's Gate - Dark Alliance (PS2)

Review: Baldur's Gate - Dark Alliance 2 (PS2)

Review: R-Type Final (PS2)

Review: Final Fantasy X-2 (PS2)

 

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Champions of Norrath

Score: 9.3 / 10

Around half way through my first single-player campaign of Champions of Norrath I realized I had a new favorite genre.  For years if anyone asked me what kind of game I liked best, I would say shoot-em-ups — games like the R-type series and Radiant Silvergun.  But when I think back on the past three or four years, many of the games that I enjoyed the most were updates on the Rogue-style dungeon-crawling experience —Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, Hunter: the Reckoning, Diablo 2, Guantlet Legends (if only for the multi-player).  Now comes Snowblind's Champions of Norrath, a game from the same design team that put together the excellent Dark Alliance, and Champions of Norrath is so good and so deep as to put the previous games in the genre to shame.  After a couple of single-player play-throughs and a good deal of time spent with the offline and online multi-player, I have no problem saying Champions of Norrath is my favorite dungeon crawler ever and maybe the best ever designed.  I can hear the Diablo 2 fans cringing and gathering their flaming torches as I type this, but no game of this genre has ever been as deep and detailed as Champions of Norrath, nor has one ever offered as many compelling reasons to keep playing once the game has been beaten.

 

champions of norrath ps2 review           champions of norrath ps2 review

 

Anyone out there who has played Dark Alliance, will be familiar with the gameplay of Champions of Norrath.  Players take on the role of a fantasy hero then bash their way through hordes of dark minions only to be faced with huge, powerful boss battles that are always challenging.  The ability to jump is gone from Champions, along with the annoying platform elements of Dark Alliance.  Strangely, losing the jumping ability didn't flatten the level design as the rise and fall of terrain plays a bigger part in this game than it did in Snowblind's earlier creations.  Though it is possible to plow through the game using only Melee weapons, the cover provided by items like overturned carts and rock spires and the like makes mixing in range weapons an attractive proposition. 

 

I found the battles, especially the boss and mini-boss encounters, felt more strategic, especially in the multi-player games, where a player playing one of the tough, in-close fighters could go toe to toe with a boss while the better archers could hang back and do devastating damage from afar.  Discovering the patterns of some of the bigger bosses was challenging and fun.  It reminded me a lot of the boss encounters in the classic platformers.  Just charging in with swords a' blaz'n is usually a way to get killed in Champions of Norrath.  The later boss battles especially really require a slow, balanced assault, or will at least require most players to alternate frantically between defense and offense as many of the bosses are capable of one hit kills.

 

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So the gameplay isn't a huge leap over its predecessors in the genre, but where Norrath really shines is in its depth and options.  These dungeon crawlers are often called RPG-lites or action-RPGs because, though they share a lot of elements with the traditional RPGs, what they offer in the way of role-playing rarely feels like an actual role-playing game.  Norrath changes that, and it does so with a vengeance.  In fact, Norrath's character creation and advancement, along with its thousands of weapons and items, makes it feel not only like a real RPG, 

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but a pretty darn deep one at that.   On top of the opportunity to choose the way a character will advance as he or she goes up in level, Norrath also gives players ample opportunity to customize the weapons and armour that their character is equipped with.  I was surprised just how different the game played with not just different classes, but how different it played when I decided to play the same character class with a different focus.  Even the barbarian, the simplest of all the characters, can be played with a focus on up close and personal combat or stealthy, ranged combat.  I played through the entire game with a barbarian without once voluntarily moving into melee range (of course, the adversaries close fast, so I found plenty of opportunity to use my swords and shields).

 

Like many of its PC cousins, Norrath generates its levels fresh each time a game is started.  Unlike those earlier games, the graphics seem to suffer no restrictions because of a reliance on pre-constructed tile sets to build the world.  In fact, Norrath looks even better than Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, the best looking game in the genre up until this point, and it looks considerably better than the rushed, disappointing Dark Alliance 2.  In fact, Norrath features truly impressive graphics.  The textures are amazing, reminding me more of a Xbox game than a PS2 one.  The creatures look wonderful, especially the creepy spiders at the beginning of the game and the impressive bosses throughout.  Everything features smooth anti-aliasing with not an edge or flicker in sight.  Other than some graphical glitches that are present (sometimes) after returning to the game from a menu screen and the occasional bout with camera-related slowdown, there is little fault to be found with the graphics of Champions of Norrath.  It is truly an impressive looking game.

 

Though it is possible, and enjoyable, to play through the game alone, since Gauntlet, much of the joy of this style of game has been in the multi-player experience.  Champions of Norrath doubles Dark Alliance's limit of two players in co-op mode, allowing four intrepid adventurers to gather around the same console and hack and slash together.  The game's difficulty scales well in multi-player, making a three-player game just as challenging as a solo game.  In a multi-player game with players playing different classes, weapons and armour change in appearance to match the character, so if a barbarian drops a shield and a shadow knight picks it up, its appearance will change in relation to whom has it equipped.  It is a neat, if unnecessary, feature and gives a little hint into just how much love and attention went into this creation.

 

champions of norrath ps2 review          champions of norrath ps2 review

 

PS2 owners with broadband and the network adapter will be able to join up to three other players online.  Online games work much like offline ones, but here players have an entire screen to themselves, and they can go off in different directions to clean out different parts of a level or claim different items simultaneously.  Communication can be done through use of a keyboard or using the headset.  I found getting online and getting into a game to be quick and simple.  Most of my online games were a lot of fun, though, as with most online game, cheaters abound.  I ran into one player with a level fifty character who had clearly never even played through the game once, but, at least in contrast to the Diablo games, Norrath features no player killing making the cheaters more of an annoyance than a real threat to enjoyment.

 

Those level fifty characters are much of the reason to play Norrath online.  Finishing the game solo will leave a player with a character around twentieth level.  The level cap for the game is fifty.  This means in order to max out a character, a player must play through the game multiple times, cheat, or be dragged through the levelling-up by a much higher level character (which I suppose some would see that as cheating).  Most of the games I entered were clearly simply levelling-up exercises, but they were still fun.  I also managed to find a group that was willing to play from the beginning and from first level.  We managed to play through to fifth level in one sitting and it was great fun.

 

Online or off, single-player or mulit-player, Champions of Norrath is a great game.  I can think of a few things to complain about, but they are so minor as to amount to nitpicks.  The only really damning thing I have to say has little to do with Norrath and more to do with the license.  The world of Everquest is so boring and so derivative that I never got the feeling I was in some amazing fantasy world while playing.  That is the only advantage the Dark Alliance games have over Norrath — the appeal of the D&D license vs. that of the Everquest one.  A giant, screen-filling Beholder is simply a cooler boss than a giant queen ant or a big, generic looking demon.  Hopefully Snowblind will get another shot at a Dark Alliance title and use Norrath as the model.  The combination of the D&D license with the Champions of Norrath gameplay would make for a perfect game.  As it is, Norrath is good enough.

 

- Tolen Dante

(April 18, 2004)

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