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EQ: Champions of Norrath Review
Enich, 2004-05-26

Snowblind Studios, the people who brought you the original Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, returns to the hack-n-slash fray with Champions of Norrath. This time around, the action is set in Norrath, the world of the long-running MMORPG Everquest, and the adapted 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules are out the window. In its place is a system almost identical to Diablo II's. One notable exception is that the more advanced skills on the skill tree have simpler prerequisites: If you can reach a skill by more than one path through the tree, you only need to follow one to it to gain access to it. Given that each skill also has a level requirement and that you eventually get a ridiculous number of skill points, it's a wonder they bothered with the tree structure at all.

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Champions also uses the same engine as the BG:DA series. The interface is essentially the same, with the exception of the ability hotbutton assignment method. Champions' two button setup is a step up from Snowblind's first shot with only one button, but pales in comparison to BG:DA2's five button "shift key" method. Finding and choosing an ability you want to use is easier now, though: press the D-pad and a ring of abilities you've arranged pops up, then just point and punch. The Baldur's Gate games used a tape-loop like menu that could take forever to find anything in, especially if you were a spellcaster. Quicker skill changes can't make up for having only two assignable buttons, though.

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You may notice that there is no Charisma stat. Don't expect to tweak your way to massive discounts on your equipment in this one, folks. Don't worry; equipment prices are set to be fair and even across all kinds of similar items. A sword that does 39-50 damage costs exactly the same as a maul that does 39-50 damage, and a helm worth 50 points of armor class costs the same as a suit of armor or pair of gloves worth 50 armor class, and so on. Weight and the number of available sockets don't seem to be taken into account in the price. This makes it very easy to customize your equipment, since no piece of armor is the "main" piece, and regardless of what weapon type you choose to specialize in you'll never lack access to a decent weapon.

Speaking of sockets, yes, you can customize your equipment by plugging vampire fangs, crystal shards, mummy tongues, and other odd items into the available slots. Each weapon or armor piece has at most four open sockets. More powerful equipment tends to have more open sockets, as you might expect. Fortunately, the socketing system in Champions is neither as hideously expensive nor as essential to properly equipping your character as it was in BG:DA2, though socketable item drops are less common than they should be.

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Veterans of the BG:DA series may be disappointed to learn that Champions does not allow you to jump. I know I spent many a happy afternoon hopping around towns and dungeons alike, partly for the small boost of speed it gave and partly for the humor value. "They must be adventurers, they're the only ones hopping around like ninnies!" This lack of verticality wouldn't be worth mentioning except for the fact that treasure still rockets out of chests and has a tendency to get wedged up on ledges, making it impossible for you to pick it up. Who the hell springloads treasure chests anyway?

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As for the plot, well, it's your standard save-the-world excuse to kill things and loot stuff in randomly generated areas. Cutscenes tend to either be irritatingly long monologues (you must be the most courteous heroes ever to stand there and allow the villain to taunt you for several minutes) or short clips of some trivial action like a door opening or someone walking across a room. Cutscenes between acts are mere scrolling text. Make no mistake, this is not a game you play for depth of plot or character. It does include a few diversions from the killing, though, the most interesting being the lava runner. It's a giant, clunky beast of a vehicle you get to drive across gaps between islands in a sea of lava. It's great fun running down hapless enemies and plowing through crates, but be careful how and where you park. It's an awkward moment when the driver accidentally bails out over the lava, leaving the other players stranded with no way to take the driver's seat and nothing to do but jump out to fiery doom.

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Cutscenes aside, the graphics are a notch or two up from the previous games. It's the little touches they added that manage to give each area more personality and believability. Jagged drifts of sand block your path through the desert; portraits (breakable!) hang next to the stained glass windows in castle hallways; grotesque walls of pikes and corpses stitch their way across caverns. Frogs and penguins wander around you, killer whales swim by; eyes growing in the wall track your movements, and skeletons on the sea floor sport pirate hats. Yarrr.

The voice acting is also excellent and lends both PCs and NPCs much needed color that goes well beyond complaining that their inventory is full. Your Elven allies at the beginning of the game lament your n00b characters' unpreparedness, and one elf refers to you as his commander's "designated madman" when you succeed at pushing back the orcish horde. Gnomes talk smack to you, a vampire gives you the old "I'm invincib-aaaarrgh!" speech, and there is a very convincing madman in Act III. The music is decent, but often seems a little out of place for the area.

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Unfortunately, due to either limitations of the PS2 hardware or poor memory management, there are some glaring A/V glitches. Cutscenes often completely black out while the camera angle changes, and you occasionally get to watch as the landscape renders itself around you. The audio suffers in much the same way. Talk to a shopkeeper, and you may wait a good ten seconds before they greet you. Try to pick an item up off the ground, and by the time your character informs you that your inventory is full, you've already gated back to town. The game is also known to crash, albeit infrequently; it's no more a problem now than it was in BG:DA1, which wasn't much.

Its biggest flaw, however, may be that it is strangely lacking in Everquest-related content. About the only imagery that is recognizably from EQ is Firiona Vie. The rest seems to consist only of names of locations, races, and unique weapons. Change these and you could easily shoehorn this game into nearly any high fantasy setting. The Baldur's Gate games at least had the Dungeons & Dragons game mechanics to help anchor it to its setting, but Champions doesn't even have that.

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Do NOT buy this game if you are expecting it to be the offline equivalent of EQ. Instead, buy this game because it is a highly enjoyable multiplayer hackfest. Ohhhh, yes, the multiplayer... Champions supports up to four players, and it is this fact that sets it apart from its predecessors and more than makes up for its minor flaws. The difficulty scales up appropriately, and the amount of loot the game doles out keeps the party in enough upgrades to make things interesting without giving you everything you could want. Every class has an active role in combat, and cooperation is key; you can't set out in four directions at once, and failure to follow some kind of party strategy is sure to get someone's character killed. You can't adjust the camera in 3 and 4 player modes, but after about ten minutes of playing you won't even notice. The sole drawback is that with only two people allowed to shop at once, town trips take longer than they should.

If you liked the Dark Alliance games, or if you're just itching for something new to hack your way through, pick up Champions of Norrath. Grab a few friends and hit the trails, or dungeon delve by yourself, either way it'll fill more than a few afternoons with all the experience and loot you can eat. Just a word of advice: when the barbarian starts roleplaying his intelligence score, don't let him near the driver's seat.

Now, is anyone in the market for a dozen Gatorsmash Mauls?

The Verdict
Graphics (15%) 90%
Sound (15%) 80%
Control (25%) 85%
Fun (45%) 95%
Overall 90%

The ups and downs:
4 player capabilitydelayed voice clips
beautiful environmentswatching scenery render
easy character customizationonly two ability buttons

Reviewer's System
Version: PS2

Average Reader Ratings: 8 (1 votes)
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