There must be something in a gamer's DNA in which is encoded the desire to rip through countless hordes of enemies. That would explain the appeal of the hack'n'slash games that have a link to the past that is Gauntlet. It would also explain why developer Snowblind has been so thorough about taking this basic idea to its furthest extent with Champions: Return to Arms. But what needs to happen now is some more innovation or else there will be more games that continue to make improvements without changing the action that is getting stale.
When Champions of Norrath came out a year ago it was clear where its heritage was since it was very similar to Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance that Snowblind had worked on before. The water flowed like mercury and the caves had a delicious glisten to it. As a whole the game had a billion details in the graphics that made it one of the best dungeon crawlers around. It also added an online mode that worked in theory even if this proved to be a horrible disaster once players tried to play together and talk to each other.
So with Champions: Return to Arms we are seeing a game that seeks to make up for past mistakes. There is a more fully fleshed out online mode with server-side saves to prevent cheating and lobbies and a friends list and, hopefully, improved voice support. There are also two new races to create new styles of play as well as new skills and a new maximum level of 80 to achieve an even more powerful character.
But even with all of these new additions there's still no escaping the feeling of sameness that pervades almost everything going on here. There are loads of new well-animated creatures to fight and the other additions, but many of the levels themselves have too much familiarity to them. It feels like we've been here before, and we have, and the excitement is not as strong.
Some of the places in Champions are identical to previous locations. There's the underwater area, the lava area, the dungeon in the sky area, and many others that, especially after playing the previous games for long sessions at a time, feel tired right out of the gate. It doesn't help that the action has not changed one tiny bit either.
The genre is the dungeon crawler or hack'n'slash, but that doesn't mean that the style of play is written in stone and can't be altered in any way. For much of the game this means simply blocking and attacking and then stuffing potions down one's throat if things get too hairy. If the level is especially difficult, then just get more potions and it's party time. People who have not played a game like this before will still find the whole experience enjoyable, but others who have played this almost exact game before may well find themselves wondering why they went back.
It's not quite enough to find something that works and make minor changes to it and add more adventures to go on. This will surely sell boatloads of copies across the country, but fans will be a little bit let down. There just needs to be something else added, or perhaps a whole new direction, to bring the original excitement back.
One new trick here is that there is a good and evil path, but even that is a minor aesthetic choice that has little to do with the game itself. Sure, there are a couple of areas that are unique to each path, but the rest of the game will still have the same places and the same enemies. Good or evil, you're still throwing axes and swinging the sword in the same forests and dungeons.
It's pretty clear that the main emphasis is on fighting and as such the storyline barely makes any inroads into the gameplay. There are a couple of cutscenes with characters giving speeches, but these are minor and can be skipped without fear. Even after finishing the game there's little more than a bit that practically says "you're done!" and kicks you back to the menu screen. It's been streamlined to maximize the gameplay and while this is certainly helpful for those who intend to play through the game a dozen times or so it's a bit disappointing for everyone else.
The one breath of fresh air in Champions is that medal rounds and PvP have been added. Neither of which are large additions to the game itself, but they're pleasant enough diversions on their own. These medal rounds are basically mini-games where the challenge is to kill a set number of enemies or finish some other goal. Playing through them is cool and yet it's curious why they haven't been incorporated into the game itself.
The AI in Champions is straightforward. That means that enemies go straight at the character with no real variation in strategy. This is perfect for a dungeon crawl since that means that the enemies are fed in a constant stream to the player once they're activated, but it deprives them of a little personality. It would be even better to see some group dynamics in action, but maybe next time.
Still, the regular dynamic is that of walking through a series of paths and killing everything along the way. Occasionally there will be an arena for a boss, but that pretty much sums it up. What the medal rounds show, however, is that there are more options to play with, but they're only for one person at a time. There could be ambushes in the game itself or the players have to defend a wall or something besides walking and hacking all the way.
To make the game a little different there are the two new races: the Vah Shir Berserker and the Iksar Shaman. They blend different characters from the other five classes. The Berserker, for example, has the two-weapon fighting of the warrior and the long-range skills of the ranger. He can even summon more axes at any time and become extremely proficient at killing just with those. Both of these help to provide more options, but they still work within the same universe and still feel like an expansion to what's been here before.
But again, if what you're looking for is the action of the hack'n'slash, then this is the right place. Just be careful when walking around because there can be a couple of snags along the way. While underwater a certain clamshell failed to appear in my game after the third seal was broken. Not knowing this, I wandered around the entire level multiple times until I finally started the whole thing over and went through in a different order so that the final shard appeared and let me move on.
Later on in the game there's a dragon's lair that can be entered, but once players have gone in they can't go out. This makes sense for a boss battle, but with no warning beforehand it's possible to get stuck inside with no health potions going in and no other option but to quit the mission or reload from a previous save. If that was an hour ago, then so be it, that's a lost hour.
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