Early last year, Champions of Norrath: Realms of EverQuest was released. The game was essentially a cross between the popular MMORPG, EverQuest, and the typical hack-and-slash, overhead-view dungeon crawler Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. Coincidentally, produced by the producers of EverQuest and developed by the developers of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, the title received a warm welcome in North America. Henceforth, it's only natural that Sony and Snowblind Studios should team up once again for a sequel to their popular brainchild. Roughly one year after the release of Champions of Norrath, Champions: Return to Arms will be born.
The story of the game, as one might expect, is a direct continuation to the story of Champions of Norrath. The game picks up where the first one left off and delves deeper into the mysteries of Norrath. However, this title offers a split in the storyline. Players will be able to choose to play the story on the side of good or evil. Each side will have its own separate storyline as well as unique levels not seen in the other path. The ability for veterans of Champions of Norrath to import their saved characters into Return to Arms is sure to be a welcome addition for players who wish to continue what they began last year. Even with characters loaded from the good-path-only prequel, players will be able to make their clean-streak characters turn to the side of darkness if they so choose. Unfortunately though, once the character has made the jump to Return to Arms, there's no going back to Champions of Norrath.
The core game play of Champions is virtually identical to its predecessor and is its strongest selling point. Everything you can expect out of a dungeon crawler seems to have made its way to the sequel: running around, casting spells, looting treasure chests, and hacking away at demons and undead warriors. However, expect some new ways to be able to play the game, including player-versus-player options. Some other additions to the game play include new spells and a new level cap 30 levels higher than the previous game's; any character will be able to attain level 80 this time around. With five different levels of difficulty and an estimated 20 hours to complete the 50-plus levels of the main story, the game is sure to keep players busy for hours on end. Also built into the game is an arena mode, which pits players against waves of monsters, each one stronger than the last. Furthermore, at the end of each level, players will be put in a one-on-one battle against a tough opponent. Depending on their performance during the fight, the player will receive either a gold, silver, or bronze medal. These medals can be used to unlock secret stages in the game.
As most players can attest to, the multiplayer aspect of Champions of Norrath was a huge factor of the game play. The case is no different with Return to Arms. In addition to playing through the main story of the game, solo, players will have the option of going through the game with anywhere from one to three additional players in an all-out battle-fest. If four-player cooperational play isn't enough, the game can be taken to the servers; however, the online aspect is handled a bit differently this time around. In addition to taking offline saved characters to play with online, players can make a character that is saved on the game's servers and can only be played online. This was done in response to the ease of money and item duplication that came with the first game and its lack of server-saved characters. Though the problem hasn't been totally remedied, this is certainly an important step in limiting cheating in the online mode. Also, voice chat will be the main medium of communication through utilization of a USB headset, as was with the first game.
Another noteable difference from the previous game is the addition of two new playable races: the Iksar and the Vah Shir. The Iksar, a reptile-esque race, have been described as magic users, while the Vah Shir, a cat-like people, are more physically capable of dealing damage. Also, new foes will be seen pillaging the lands of Norrath for players to put a stop to or join in their conquest.
With little improvement in the audio and visual departments, players can expect the same look, feel, and sound of Champions of Norrath. However, one noticeable improvement is the animation and movement of on-screen characters. Characters will look and move a little smoother and more realistic. Also, the random dungeons of the prequel have been done away with. What the player will see when they enter a particular dungeon the first time will be the same thing they see when they enter it the second, third, or hundred-billionth time.
From the looks of things, Champions of Norrath: Return to Arms is shaping up to be similar to the original game, only with some minor tweaks and improvements as well as some substantial additions and an expanded storyline. Look for the title on store shelves in early February to see for yourselves how this game stacks up against its predecessor and other titles of the genre.