Last year’s translation of the popular Everquest universe from MMORPG into console hack-and-slash was a phenomenal success, thanks to Champions of Norrath. Building off the Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance engine as an initial starting point, Snowblind Studios created an engaging storyline of a vengeful god, a world in crisis and a call for heroes. While Champions of Norrath did have a few hiccups, such as a clunky online system, it still provided a large amount of replay value thanks to its numerous difficulty levels and characters. Now, almost a year to the day, Snowblind Studios returns gamers to the world of Norrath with Champions: Return To Arms.
The story of Return To Arms takes place shortly after the end of Champions of Norrath, although players need not have played the original title to enjoy this game. After the defeat of the God Innoruuk in Champions, his spirit was shattered into numerous shards and scattered throughout the planes of the realm. Unfortunately for the peoples of Norrath, Innoruuk’s followers are actively seeking to gather his “essence” to resurrect the god to his former glory. Hoping to prevent this horrible ritual from occurring, Firiona Vie summons the player to stop Innoruuk’s resurrection and destroy his followers once and for all.
Players have the option to choose from one of the five returning character classes: Barbarian, Ranger, Cleric, Wizard or Shadowknight. These classes are joined by two new character types: The Iksar Shaman and the Vah Shir Berserker. The Iksar Shaman, which looks like an overgrown iguana or Komodo dragon, uses energy from nature and from the spirit world to cast damaging spells. This results in everything from poison bolts to swarms of insects attacking foes and even total enemy immobilization. Obviously, as a spellcaster, the Shaman is well suited for distance attacks. By contrast, the Vah Shir Berserker looks like an extremely angry tiger, panther or other jungle cat. A hand to hand brawler that can actually get stronger with each wound inflicted upon him, these animalistic fighters can take down charging groups of opponents with a well timed battle roar or a hurled axe. In fact, the Berserker can summon axes that can be thrown into targets for substantial damage, giving the player a solid ranged and melee attack.
The inclusion of the two new character classes aren’t the only additions made in Return To Arms. Unlike the previous title, gamers will have the option to decide the moral path of their character. You can choose the path of good, attempting to destroy Innoruuk’s followers or the path of evil, personally attempting to resurrect the god with your own hands. This is a choice presented to your character shortly after the start of a new game, and once made, opens specific adventure paths and closes off others. In short, it provides at least two separate plotlines for gamers to follow. What’s more, the game once again provides additional levels of difficulty; however, the overall character limit for the game has now been increased to 80, meaning that you will have the option to create incredibly powerful warriors. Whether you choose to import them from previous adventures or create them from scratch, you’ll also manage to find quite a challenge for your heroes regardless of the difficulty level.
Technically, commenting on the merits of Return To Arms is quite difficult. Don’t get me wrong, this is still an attractive title, regardless of its years-old engine. Character models are still large and decently detailed, and there are still a number of animations that are exceedingly impressive. Water effects are still eye catching, and some death animations are quite appealing (later level “samurai” committing seppuku, for instance, are extremely engaging). However, there is no significant leap forward graphically in this game from the previous title, or indeed even those of other games that use the same engine. Unfortunately, this is really a case of been there, seen that – one which still retains many of the handicaps it featured from previous games. There’s still a disturbing amount of sudden texture draw-in that pops into view from generic bluescreen areas, as if the game is being created from scratch as you’re adventuring through the levels (something that is completely misleading, as I’ll get to later).
There’s still a lot of slowdown, and camera work can range from too close and confining to too wide and environmentally spoiling. In effect, this is merely a repackaged title with supposedly new stages in it (although you’ve probably seen all of this before in other games). There’s also a notable lack of significant cutscenes or even in-game cinematics, which also doesn’t play particularly well with the inclusion of somewhat convoluted storylines. Sound is relatively the same, although the voice acting is still the strongest part of the game. Sound effects are still nicely handled, although it’s somewhat harder to recognize virtually identical sound effects for different objects (broken crates versus broken parcels, etc.)
The homogenous technical features of Return To Arms also manage to spill over to the gameplay. It’s not particularly different from the previous title. Walk into area, get swarmed by opponents, slay all, repeat. In fact, even the one feature that managed to provide even the most unexpected assaults (due to the random dungeon levels) has been removed. This means that once you’ve gone through both moral stances of the game, you’ll know exactly how the title will play out, regardless of difficulty level. Hell, even the “moral stance” is implemented rather weakly. You have the option to make one choice, and then your “morality” is essentially established for you, without the chance to waver or even question your decision. This is not so much a branching path in the typical sense of the word as much as it is a minor plot device and story change. When compared to other recently released action RPGs, this disparity is all the more apparent.
This is not to say that everything with Return To Arms is poorly done. By the contrary, the inclusion of medal rounds and additional side quests are nicely done, and not only serve to increase the level of the character, but can also serve as solid “distractions” to the main adventure. For instance, betting on the gladiatorial prowess of the game’s monsters is a very nice touch that can gain you a large amount of money, and playing a modified form of Pac-Man with frogs and kobolds is hilarious. Even better, the online gameplay, which provides many more server side saves and a cleaner lobby system, is substantially improved. Aside from the improvements in being able to establish online games, you can also take on other gamers in player versus player matches or even leap into arena brawls with endlessly generated monsters.
Yet, even with newly included character classes, new gameplay features and a cleaner online system, the fact still remains that Return To Arms is a title with relatively few advancements within the formula. Even hardcore hack and slash fans might be hard pressed to rationalize taking this title, possibly relegating this to the diehard Everquest fans. I’d definitely suggest this for players who’ve never picked up a Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance-based game or for gamers who didn’t get the first Champions, but everyone else might want to rent this title before enlisting.