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.
To its credit, Return to Arms does try to stave off the monotony a bit. It does so most significantly by incorporating a new side quest system, which gives you specific challenges in areas that you've already visited. These challenges tend to go pretty quickly, but they can offer substantial rewards for your troubles, such as increasing your character's stats, unlocking maps for use in the online mode, or giving you extremely powerful weapons. Like the original Champions, Return to Arms offers multiple difficulty levels for the single-player game, as well as co-op play for up to four people, both on a single system via a multitap or over the Internet. The single-player game is fun, but like most hack-and-slash games, the experience really flourishes when there's a full party in the fray. Of course, the game ratchets up the number of enemies you'll face with a full party, which can create some unique dynamics in the action, as the melee fighters take the brunt of the attacks, acting as a screen for the magic user and ranged fighters. To keep the situation under control, you can communicate with your teammates via a USB keyboard or a USB headset--obviously, the headset makes for a more dynamic experience, and functionally it works pretty well.
A subtle but significant change that Return to Arms makes to the online play is the serverside storage of characters. This unfortunately means that you cannot use the same character for both online and offline play, which made for a nice, seamless experience in the original Champions. The upside is that by keeping the characters on the servers, it should squash the rampant exploits and cheats that curbed the enjoyability of Champions of Norrath. Additionally, Return to Arms introduces the arena mode, where you can either go through what is essentially a survival mode with a team of players, or you can throw down against your teammates for hot player versus player action.
Snowblind has been using roughly the same engine for its hack-and-slash dungeon crawlers since 2001. It looked stunning when it was first unveiled, and thanks to some incremental improvements, it still looks pretty nice. The scale of the visuals always tends to feel pretty tight, but by focusing on a small area, Return to Arms is able to fill it with a lot of detail by using sharp textures and texture-mapping effects to lend a very tangible feel to the world. Some facets of the presentation are starting to show their age, though. Since the camera is usually panned out fairly wide (you won't notice during actual gameplay, however), when the camera zooms down during conversation with a non-player character, the character models look a bit muddy. The frame rate is also a bit suspect in some areas. It's usually limited to when there's a horde of enemies onscreen, but occasionally it'll bog down for no real apparent reason. The lighting still has a nice, stark look to it, but the special effects, which used to be Snowblind's bread and butter, just look kind of dated now. The game also recycles an awful lot of visual elements from both Champions of Norrath and Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, from small stuff like crates and barrels to more significant components such as enemy models and environment tilesets. Familiarity is definitely important in creating a link to the first game, but in certain points, it can evoke a sense of déjà vu.
As you might expect from a game set in the universe of EverQuest, Return to Arms is pure fantasy through and through, and its sound design backs up the look nicely. The rattling of your armor gives your character's movement weight, and the sound of your weapon cutting through the air, and in turn, through your enemy, adds to the inherent satisfaction of the combat. Magical spells are unleashed with an ethereal whoosh. The battle cries of your enemies, as well as their death knells, also add to the action. Music in the game is generally underplayed, though when it does kick in, it's usually a sign that you're about to enter a real nasty fracas, making those encounters that much more intense. There's not a huge amount of voice work, but what's there is serviceable, if a bit bland. The sound rarely stands out as being particularly stunning, but there's a subtle craftsmanship at work here that helps it do its job well, though without stealing the spotlight.
The improvements that Champions: Return to Arms makes over its predecessors are modest, and after four years of roughly the same game, the fundamental formula is starting to feel a little tired. That said, this is Snowblind's most accomplished game to date, and those who haven't yet burned out on this very specific brand of hack-and-slash action, or those who are just being introduced to it, will find a lot to like here.