Champions of Norrath Online Multiplayer Impressions

We go toe-to-toe with the dark denizens of Norrath--online with a friend.

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The first weeks of 2004 are shaping up to be pretty exciting for the hack-and-slash action RPG fan, what with the recent release of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance II and the impending appearances of both Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles and Champions of Norrath. This last game is especially notable not only because it was created by Snowblind Studios, developer of the original Dark Alliance, but also because it's the only game of the bunch to feature online cooperative play for up to four people. We took a preview build of the game online for a few minutes yesterday and were generally pleased with the way Snowblind has implemented what will likely become a must-have feature for future entries in the action RPG genre.

Starting an online game in Champions of Norrath is as simple as creating your character, whose stats and appearance can be extensively customized to suit his or her class, and then connecting to Sony Online Entertainment's game servers. After this, you can create a public or private game with a predetermined number of players (from two to four), and then you simply just wait for others to hop into your game. Once the desired players have joined, you're off and running. Thankfully, Champions of Norrath doesn't mire the multiplayer experience with the more intrusive story elements, such as a lengthy intro, that you'll find in the single-player game. Once we got connected, it was a scant couple of minutes before we were cooperatively bashing in the skulls of a raiding goblin party. Teamwork is truly a beautiful thing.

We played Champions of Norrath on a high speed Internet connection and had no problems whatsoever with lag. In fact, aside from the conspicuous absence of a second player holding a controller attached to our own PS2, the experience was nigh indistinguishable from simply playing an offline two-player game. Things occasionally slowed down a little, and the frame rate became a bit choppy when we were assaulted by especially large hordes, but from our initial experience, we can say that playing Champions of Norrath online with your friends may be a perfectly acceptable substitute for actually getting them all together to play in one room.

Though going online with Norrath felt like playing a normal offline multiplayer game, Snowblind has introduced a few tweaks and modifications to make the online experience a little smoother. For one, since each player has his or her own screen, obviously it would be a little constraining to force each player to remain within screen's distance of each other. Fortunately, that's not the case. You can roam around anywhere you like, thus allowing you to leave your friends at the other end of the level if you foolishly choose to do so. The helpful minimap lets you keep track of your teammates' positions, which adds a degree of freedom you don't get when everyone's playing on the same TV. The game handles things like dialogue and shopping interactions reasonably well, since it'll switch every player's view to a new cutscene or to a shopkeeper view whenever one player initiates it.

Though we haven't had a chance to directly compare numbers yet, it also seemed like the difficulty of the game was noticeably ramped up to challenge our team. Champions of Norrath isn't the easiest game to begin with, and we were certainly stymied a few times--even in the first dungeon--by the pressing goblin hordes. Weapons and armor were fairly plentiful, but powerful items were a little harder to come by, so we found ourselves trading items frequently to make our fighters as strong as possible. Even the very first dungeon in the game was pretty tough with two fighters (though we had ample experience reviving our characters at checkpoints). In short, don't expect to blow through the game easily just because you've got some help.

Champions of Norrath is due for release in just one week, so you PS2-owning adventurers who are eager to get your quest on won't have much longer to wait. Thankfully, we'll finally have a multiplayer game, in the same vein as Diablo and Dark Alliance, that doesn't require multiple people to physically assemble for a good cooperative experience. The biggest question now is how online play and etiquette will evolve after the game's release. Considering the ease of setting up a public game and playing with strangers, it seems like there's some potential for poorly mannered players to abuse their more trusting cohorts by stealing items and gold and otherwise being annoying. Hopefully players will respect the game and their teammates and will maintain the enjoyment for everyone. Look for a full review of Champions of Norrath next week.

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