Champions: Return to Arms Review
For better or worse, Return to Arms scratches the exact same itch as its predecessors.
- Good coop play
- Side quests add variety
- Same visceral action.
- Too familiar for its own good
- Visuals starting to show their age.
Starting with Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, Snowblind Studios has carved itself a decent little niche producing high-fantasy hack-and-slash dungeon crawlers that take more than a little inspiration from Blizzard's genre-defining Diablo games. However, it's been a winning formula thus far. Snowblind seems pretty comfortable with it, as Champions: Return to Arms is virtually indistinguishable from last year's Champions of Norrath, and to a certain extent, the game feels more like an expansion pack than a proper sequel. It would've been nice to have seen Snowblind put a little more elbow into it, but the volume of content in the game helps compensate a bit, as does the sheer quality of its action. For better or worse, Return to Arms scratches the exact same itch as its predecessors.
Return to Arms ostensibly picks up where Champions of Norrath left off, and the game even allows you to import your character from the first Champions. But the story is severely underplayed and essentially boils down to Firiona Vie, the hot elf-lady seen on the cover of EverQuest and its many expansion packs, asking you to save the world of Norrath--to be its champion, if you will. This is arguably where Return to Arms suffers the most. The original Champions was no Tolkien-esque epic, but it had more-memorable characters and a more compelling narrative to push you through hours and hours of dungeon-crawling. In Return to Arms, you largely get the feeling that the order in which the levels are presented could be completely shuffled with little or no consequence.
And so begins your journey across Norrath, which isn't presented as a single cohesive globe, but rather, as a disjointed series of "planes," each with its own unique look and feel. Before you begin your trials, though, you'll have to choose your champion. In addition to the return of all the character classes found in the original Champions, Return to Arms introduces an iksar shaman and a vah shir berserker, known more colloquially as the lizard man and the cat man. It's somewhat disappointing that, unlike the character classes that return from the original Champions, there are no gender options for the iksar and vah shir characters. It's a missed opportunity to tap into the burgeoning furry market, but more importantly, it makes the two new character classes feel a little tacked-on. Of course, the different character classes aren't entirely about aesthetics, so each has abilities that cater to a different play style. There's something inherently more accessible, at first blush, about the more melee-intensive classes, such as the barbarian or the berserker, but a few hours of play reveals that the classes otherwise seem fairly well balanced.
Regardless of which class you choose, though, the action remains largely the same: You smash barrels, plunder treasure chests, and slay hordes of enemies. The controls are responsive and flexible, letting you easily switch between ranged and up-close melee attacks, as well as letting you swap out your secondary abilities on the fly. Furthermore, over the course of the game, you'll travel across a myriad of landscapes. But the basic hack-and-slash gameplay tends to prevail. The branching skill tree, which lets you either enhance specific character traits or develop entirely new skills, and the socketed equipment system, which lets you enhance your weapons and armor with special items taken from fallen enemies, both do their parts in fleshing out their experiences. But after four years of playing what is roughly the same game three times over, the core action can just become a bit monotonous.