Champions: Return to Arms Single-Player Hands-On

We check out an offline work-in-progress version of Snowblind's upcoming action RPG.

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Champions: Return to Arms
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Currently scheduled for release early next month, Champions: Return to Arms is an action role-playing game from Snowblind Studios, the developer responsible for both Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and last year's great Champions of Norrath. One of Return to Arms' most exciting features is sure to be its support for up to four players either on a single screen or online. For this preview, however, we've actually been playing the game solo, and we've found the experience to be very enjoyable we might add.

The character-customization screen will help to ensure that you never run into your doppelganger online.
The character-customization screen will help to ensure that you never run into your doppelganger online.

Fans of Champions of Norrath will find much that's familiar in Return to Arms, including all but two of the character classes that you can choose from at the start of the game. The existing roster of human and elf warriors, rangers, clerics, wizards, and shadow knights (now with new spells and abilities all around) has been bolstered with two additional characters: the iksar shaman and the vah shir berserker. The iksar shaman is a well-rounded lizard character with decent melee and magical abilities. The vah shir berserker looks like a bipedal tiger (or a leopard, panther, or lion, depending on your skin choice) and will be the most powerful melee character in the game. Once you've settled on a race-class combination that's to your liking, you'll be able to customize your character's appearance using options that vary according to your character's race. The aforementioned vah shir berserker, for example, simply has five different skins to choose from, while the human and elf classes boast a number of different skin tones, hair styles, hair colors, and facial hair options. The lizardlike iksar race can be customized in much the same way as the humans and elves, except that the word "hair" is replaced with "horn."

If you played Champions of Norrath previously and still have your character on your memory card, you'll be pleased to hear that you'll be able to import him or her into Champions: Return to Arms. This will not only allow you to skip the new game's easier difficulty levels (there are four in total: adventurous, courageous, champion, and legendary) and jump straight into a game that's suitably challenging for your returning hero, but also you'll have the opportunity to take your character's progression up to a whopping level 80. The level cap in Champions of Norrath, you may remember, was 50. Each of the difficulty levels in Return to Arms is designed to cater to a particular character level rather than to players of varying ability. The legendary setting is considered suitable only for characters rated at 65-plus, so even those of you importing high-level characters can expect to play through the new adventure at least twice. For the record, Sony Online Entertainment claims that Return to Arms has been designed to offer over 100 hours of gameplay per character--and that's without factoring in the game's all-new online head-to-head mode in which you'll be able to fight against other players for bragging rights.

The up-close camera angle isn't terribly useful, but it looks great all the same.
The up-close camera angle isn't terribly useful, but it looks great all the same.

If you've played either Champions of Norrath or Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance before, you'll have a pretty good idea of what you can expect from Return to Arms in terms of gameplay. The action is viewed primarily from a camera that is positioned behind and quite high above your character, and you can rotate the camera at any time using the right analog stick. Pushing the right stick up and down will allow you to switch between the default view and the view positioned much closer to your character, and clicking the R3 button brings up a minimap that makes negotiating the often repetitive-looking levels much easier. Even the default camera occasionally feels like it's a little too close to show you as much of the surrounding area as you'd like. However, moving the camera any farther away would most likely make it too easy for you to spot enemies before they're alerted to your presence and come after you.

Strength In Numbers

Regardless of which character you choose to play with, the majority of your time in Return to Arms will be spent battling your way through groups of enemies that, although not particularly intelligent, invariably outnumber you quite significantly. Solo players will most likely find the game a little easier if they choose a character that can hold his or her own in a melee situation, since the first goal of many of the enemies in the game is to get up in your face. If you don't mind running around the levels to keep enemies at a safe distance, you'll find that the predominantly ranged classes can dish out just as much damage without taking half as many knocks.

You won't need to access your character screen nearly as often as you might expect.
You won't need to access your character screen nearly as often as you might expect.

We've found the controls in Champions: Return to Arms to be both intuitive and responsive thus far, and because frequently used items such as health and mana potions (as well as switch weapon commands and spells) are all mapped onto different buttons, you'll rarely have to pause the game and go into your character screen when you should be fighting. In fact, the only times you'll really need to refer to your character screen are when your character gains a level (so that you can spend your additional attribute and skill points) and when you want to equip a new item that you've found.

As is the case in most role-playing games, items such as armor, weapons, and potions play a very important role in Champions: Return to Arms. As you progress through each level you'll literally acquire far more items than your character can carry. Some of these items you'll want to equip because they're better than your current gear; some of them you'll want to hang onto so that you can sell them for gold; and others you'll end up dropping because they're of no use to your chosen character class and don't sell for enough to make an unscheduled visit to the shop worthwhile. According to Sony Online Entertainment, Return to Arms adds "thousands" of new items to those that you may have collected in Champions of Norrath, the most powerful of which will often be well hidden in unlockable side quests.

Since the character-customization options at the start of the game are a little limited, it's also good that any items you equip will alter the appearance of your character in-game. You'll never really get close enough to your character during gameplay to get a good look at your new items in action, but we'll wager that the odds of you ever running into a doppelganger of your character will be practically zero once you've played through a few levels and started to collect new armor and weapons for yourself. You'll most likely want to group with different character classes when playing online anyway, not only because every one of them brings a different skill set to the table, but also because many of them are limited to certain types of weapons, which means you're less likely to be competing with colleagues for ownership of items that are a perfect fit for you (provided you don't have the misfortune of grouping with particularly greedy players, of course).

Massive numbers of players aren't always necessary in an online RPG, as Return to Arms demonstrates.
Massive numbers of players aren't always necessary in an online RPG, as Return to Arms demonstrates.

As it nears the end of its development cycle, Champions: Returns to Arms is looking very promising indeed. In many ways, the game is reminiscent of the massively multiplayer online role-playing games that are proving to be so popular on the PC right now. At the very least it's reminiscent of those games' instanced dungeons, in which groups can attempt lengthy quests without having to worry about interference from other players. Regardless of whether or not you're a fan of MMORPGs or multiplayer games in general, Champions: Return to Arms has a few things to offer: it's like Snowblind took one of the best aspects of any PC MMORPG (the instanced dungeons), got rid of one of the most irritating aspects (players you're not actually grouped with who have nothing better to do than annoy you either in-game or via chat channels), got the whole thing running and looking great on the PS2, and then decided not to charge an MMORPG-style monthly subscription fee for the privilege of playing it. Looks like everyone's a winner come early February.

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