Champions of Norrath: Realms of EverQuest Preview

We check out Sony Online Entertainment and Snowblind Studios' promising adventure game.

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Champions of Norrath: Realms of EverQuest is the upcoming action RPG from Sony Online Entertainment and developer Snowblind Studios. The game is set in the realm of the popular massively multiplayer online RPG EverQuest for the PC, but it features far more console-friendly controls. We recently tried out a work-in-progress version of the game and were more than pleased by what we saw.

EverQuest characters have never looked so good on a console.
EverQuest characters have never looked so good on a console.

For those unfamiliar with the EverQuest franchise, the series began on the PC in 1999 and has since gone on to hook millions of players. Part of the game's appeal is the world of Norrath, whose rich history and varied landscape has offered an engaging playground for players to live out any number of lives. Given the fullness of the world of Norrath, it's not much of a stretch to draw on it for the premise of a console game, which is what's been done with Champions of Norrath: Realms of EverQuest. While the specifics of Champions of Norrath's story haven't been revealed, all you have to know right now is that bad things are afoot in Norrath and the call has gone out for some ass kickers.

There are three ways to play Champions of Norrath: single-player, multiplayer, and online. The single-player game is a collection of chapters that will span 50 levels filled with enemies. The multiplayer mode will support up to four players on one PlayStation 2 via the underused Multitap for much hacking and slashing. The online mode, which will likely be one of the most addictive elements Champions of Norrath has to offer, will let you play with up to four friends over broadband or dial-up connections using a PlayStation 2 Network Adapter.

Online multiplayer should rule.
Online multiplayer should rule.

The basic structure and mechanics of Champions of Norrath are similar to those of Snowblind's previous game, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. You'll play through a series of chapters made up of assorted levels. You'll find several different hub areas based on various locations in Norrath, such as the treetops of an elven city under attack by goblins. Within each hub, you can venture into the dungeons to defeat an assortment of nasty creatures, collect items, and level up. Along the way, you'll have the opportunity to engage in side quests and battle boss characters. The catch to all this is the dungeons will be randomly generated from approximately 40 different types of graphic sets. Snowblind has tweaked its own formula to make room for five playable races. You'll be able to play as a barbarian warrior, a wood-elf ranger, a high-elf cleric, an erudite wizard, or a dark-elf shadow knight. The various classes have their own unique attributes that will cause them to play differently. The barbarian warrior has high strength and stamina and can swing a massive weapon around and inflict generous amounts of damage on enemies. The erudite wizard has high intelligence and can earn enough mana to cast a variety of different spells. Other character classes will have slightly more-balanced attributes, such as the shadow knight or the cleric, which have reasonable melee attack skills that are complemented by magic skills. Each race will also feature male and female models to use. You'll be able to customize your character's skin, hair style, and hair color as well.

The gameplay mechanics in Champions of Norrath are similar to the those used in Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, although there have been some tweaks inspired by Diablo II. As in Baldur's Gate, you'll earn experience for killing enemies and eventually start to level up your character. As your character goes up in level, he or she will earn skill points that you can then spend on a special ability of your choosing. Using a large skill tree, you can choose to boost one of your character's existing special abilities or get a new one.

Of course, the forces of evil are no pushovers, so, in spite of your character's unique special abilities, you'll also need some weapons and armor. Champions of Norrath offers more than just your standard armory. The game uses a prefix and suffix system for weapons, so a basic broadsword can be changed into a rusty broadsword of fire, which will give it bonus attack damage for fire. The same sort of effect also works for armor, but instead of boosting offensive strength, it increases your resistance to certain types of attacks--a fire shield will increase your character's resistance to a fire attack, for example. There are also weapon auras that will automatically confer trait bonuses upon characters who are in the immediate area, which is a slick way to keep players close to each other during a game. When weapons won't cut it, you can always turn to the game's wide variety of spells.

Does killing things with friends ever get old?
Does killing things with friends ever get old?

The game's control is accessible and easy to pick up. You'll move your character with the left analog stick and attack with the X button. The D pad will let you call up a spell menu you can use to map any spell your character can perform to the circle and triangle buttons. The square button is a context-sensitive action button that will let you talk, open chests, and collect items. R1 will let you block attacks. R2 and L2 will let you drink health and mana potions, respectively. R3 will let you toggle the automap in the game on and off. Finally, L1 will let you switch your character's weapons on the fly.

The graphics in the game are looking quite stunning, even in our work-in-progress build. Snowblind has gone back and done quite a bit of work on the Baldur's Gate engine to coax even more performance out of the PlayStation 2. The end result is a game that seems poised to surpass the high graphics standards set by its predecessor. The character models in the game are very impressive and feature a high level of detail that's especially noticeable because of the character-customization options. The environments in the game are equally gorgeous, with a generous polygon budget, an eye-popping particle-effect and lighting system, and impressive art direction.

You'll be able to customize the appearance of your characters.
You'll be able to customize the appearance of your characters.

The audio in our version of the game was probably the most incomplete element, although what was there sounded good. The game's soundtrack, while not final, is shaping up to offer a good helping of suitably melodramatic tunes that frame the game's action. Most of the voice work wasn't in yet, aside from the grunts from your character and the death cries of your enemy. The final game should feature voice-overs for the various real-time cutscenes that will be used to move the story along. The sound effects were also being worked on, with much of the sound in the version we played being temporary.

Based on what we've seen so far, Champions of Norrath is shaping up to be one of the highlights of the PlayStation 2's fall lineup. The game's meaty quest, deep gameplay mechanics, and offline multiplayer options would be compelling enough, but the addition of free online play gives the game even more appeal. Anyone looking for a strong action game will want to keep an eye out for Champions of Norrath when it ships this fall. Look for more on the game in the coming months.

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