When little-known developer Snowblind released Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance in 2001, it came as a bit of a surprise. Though it essentially took a lot of what Blizzard North did with its Diablo games and transposed it to the Dungeons & Dragons pantheon, the game looked so good and was executed with such skill that any borrowing was easy to forgive. Snowblind has since parted ways with Interplay, the publisher of Dark Alliance, and has gone on to hook up with SOE to create Champions of Norrath, an action RPG set in the world of EverQuest. For all intents and purposes, Champions of Norrath might as well still be set in the Forgotten Realms, but despite the blurry lines that differentiate all these different high-fantasy continuums and despite some of the game's rather evident problems, it's still the best game of its kind to come to consoles in years.
In the opening scenes of Champions of Norrath, you're given basically all of the character motivation you'll need for the remainder of the game. The good guys of Norrath, namely the humans and the elves, are fighting a losing battle against the bad guys of Norrath, namely the orcs and goblins. They desperately need a hero--a champion, if you will--to turn the tides of war. Of course, as you get waist-deep into your quest, you start to learn more about the cloak-and-dagger maneuvering that's occurring behind the scenes. Soon your quest becomes less about hunting down some nasty orc chieftain and more about keeping the very planes of existence from being shattered. Your MO remains largely unchanged, though, so you'll spend almost all of the 20 or so hours it takes to finish the game exploring dungeons, fighting swarms of bad guys, and shopping. Once finished, you can play again on two higher difficulty settings, which gives the game a good amount of replay value.
Champions of Norrath's pattern should seem immediately familiar to anyone who's played a hack-and-slash RPG. First, there's character creation. The game features five different character classes, including the barbarian, ranger, cleric, wizard, and shadow knight, and there are male and female counterparts for each class, though the gender choice is purely aesthetic. The class you choose, however, has a very real impact on what you'll be able to do in the game. It's all pretty predictable stuff, so the barbarian is a pure melee fighter, the wizard's a pure magic user, and the other three classes put varying emphases on magic, melee, and ranged attacks.
Once you've gotten your character set up, you'll work your way through dungeons by slaughtering bad guys, pillaging treasure chests, and snapping up the occasional quest item. The combat basically requires you to hammer on the X button to attack, hammer on the square button to pick up any gear your felled enemies leave behind, and hammer on the R2 and L2 buttons to use potions to replenish your health and mana, respectively. The formula that Snowblind established in Dark Alliance gets tweaked a little with ranged attacks, like spears and bows, as they receive the assistance of a little autotargeting. Additionally, the ability to stun and even knock down characters has been added. There's some light strategy to the combat, so it's important to know when to block and when to retreat. However, the game puts a greater emphasis on statistics rather than on hand-eye coordination.
When you can't carry any more stuff, you can teleport back to town, sell off all the gear that you don't need to the local shop, pick up some new stuff, and head back to the dungeons. Some of the dungeons you'll encounter in Champions of Norrath are randomly generated, as are the names of the weapons and armor you'll acquire, which uses a sort of Mad Libs-style naming formula to determine the attributes of the gear. Almost every piece of weaponry and armor in Champions of Norrath can be upgraded by attaching a special jewel to it, which is another little mechanic that Champions picked up from Diablo II. After adventuring for a while, your character will inevitably earn enough experience to gain a level. Consequently, you'll be given a few points to spend on your character's various attributes, and you'll also be given a few points to spend on specific skills, which are presented in a branching skill tree, not unlike the one found in Diablo II. Admittedly though, Champions' skill tree is not as deep.
The numerous quests that you'll be charged with are pretty by-the-numbers affairs, so they either involve killing all the enemies in a certain area or fetching an item. There are a few quests where you'll have to escort nonplayer characters, and, in fact, it was during one of these quests that we discovered a pretty serious bug. About seven or eight hours in, we accidentally broke the game's scripting, thus causing an NPC we were supposed to escort to get stuck in the level geometry, which kept us from progressing any further. We were able to rectify the problem by restarting from an earlier save, but it's pretty serious to find a showstopping bug like this in a retail boxed game, and it's even more disappointing that the game design for this particular section of the game was muddled enough that we were able to break the game without making a dedicated effort. We experienced no other problems like this, so it's entirely possible that you'll play through the whole game without experiencing a bug that's similar to this. However, it's still advisable to save your game early and often, and don't depend entirely on the game's "soft" checkpoint saves.
Aside from the single-player game, Champions also features a co-op mode that can be played either on- or offline with up to four players. The offline game works pretty much how you would expect, and the online mode isn't much different, which can prove to be problematic. Since each player has his or her own screen, you're not limited to sharing the same screen space, so each player can wander about a given area as it pleases him or her, which is good. However, if one of the players decides to go to a different area, chat with an NPC, or go in to a shop, all players are dragged along with them--regardless of their locations. The game features voice-chat support for communicating with your fellow adventurers, which is an absolute necessity, as the lack of a dedicated trading system means you'll have to barter it out over your USB headset and hope that the person you're swapping items with is being honest about what they're giving you. Champions of Norrath is a game that you'll want to play with people you know and trust, since the game leaves too many open opportunities for people who only want to make your life miserable, which, if you've ever played an online game, you'll know there are plenty of out there. The mere inclusion of an online co-op mode is definitely to the game's favor, but it's disappointing that its implementation wasn't better thought out, especially when you consider that the game is published by the EverQuest people, who know a thing or two about the pitfalls of online games.
One of the most apparently stunning aspects of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance was its presentation. For its time, Dark Alliance was easily the most beautifully rendered high-fantasy game anywhere. Champions of Norrath runs on an enhanced version of the Dark Alliance engine, and when it's running right, the game looks absolutely phenomenal. The variety of the places you'll travel to paint a picture of a large, fantastical world, and you get the feeling that you're getting a tour of the most scenic parts of Norrath. From the underwater caves on the Island of Ten Thousand Knives to the mystical, marbled causeways of the Plane of Air, most every environment you see will take a little bit of your breath away the first time you see it. There are a few exceptions, such as some of the later-game levels where the color palette seems to default to earth tones a little too much, but for the most part, the places you'll go look fantastic and are rich with small details. The game uses both static and dynamic lighting effects to enhance the sense of three-dimensional space, and some vivid colored lighting is occasionally thrown in to augment the atmosphere. It seems that Snowblind has somehow tricked the PS2 into rendering bump-mapping effects, or some close approximation, which makes the textures of the decaying stone walls and pebbled floors of many of the dungeons you'll traverse almost tangible.
Dark Alliance's trademark water effect is back, and it puts in considerably more work this time around, as the game includes many more water-bound environments. Additionally, the effect is used to represent molten lava and pools of pure liquid hate. Champions of Norrath makes it a point to present magic as looking truly "magical," so it throws some really grandiose particle effects into the various spells and special moves that your character can cast and make. The creatures that populate the worlds of Norrath, which include high-fantasy staples like orcs, goblins, skeletons, giant spiders, and cyclopes, are all rendered with care, as are the 10 different player character models. Though the game is best played from a faraway camera perspective, you have the option to zoom in close so that you can really appreciate the game's well-crafted characters and razor-sharp textures. It's not too functional, but it's great for admiring just how good the game looks.
But for all of the artistic and technical care that went into the visuals, they're not without some discrepancies, most noteworthy of which is the frame rate. Part of what made Dark Alliance look so great was its unwavering frame rate, so when Champions of Norrath bogs down when the screen is full of enemies and particle effects--or sometimes for no apparent reason at all--it's pretty disappointing. Aside from this, the graphics display some other odd behavior. Fallen enemies will sometimes disappear from the field before they're entirely offscreen, certain lighting effects sometimes won't project correctly across tiles, and, on rare occasion, tile sets won't draw in fast enough, thus making it look as though you're running straight toward the edge of the world. These issues don't really impact the gameplay, but it's boggling that basic stuff like this made it past the QA process.
Visuals are often given unfair credit in creating a game's feel, but Snowblind obviously understands that deliberate, layered sound design is of paramount importance to setting the mood. The voice-acting credits for Champions of Norrath reads like a who's who in the world of video game voice acting. Much of the cast that made Dark Alliance such a pleasure to listen to also pitch in on Champions, including Cam Clarke, Tony Jay, and Michael Bell--the triumvirate of video game voice actors--and they all put in some good work here. And yet, for all the quality voice work that's gone into the game, several of the player characters are inexplicably saddled with chintzy, fake accents of sub-RenFaire quality. The excellence of the music in Champions is far more consistent by featuring an orchestral score that really underlines the grand adventure you're on and by presenting different themes that complement the different locations. For instance, you'll hear the chanting, percussion-heavy theme heard in the orc caves as it cements the culture of conflict oft associated with these beasts. You'll also listen to the unsettled combination of strings and horns that do a superb job of adding tension to gameplay before engaging in a large battle. Ambient sound effects lend further depth to the world, with the cold, echoed dripping of water giving dungeons greater atmosphere. The tortured, twisted screaming of disembodied souls will make a place called the Plane of Hate sound just about how you'd expect it to. The sounds of combat are also expertly executed, as the clash of blades against flesh and armor sound startlingly real. The sound design also has some unfortunate bugs, where the music or the ambient sound effects are mysteriously absent for minutes at a time, though these bugs are admittedly not as glaring as some of the graphical ones. These technical faults aside, the game sounds superb more often than not.
Playing Champions of Norrath can be a little bittersweet. The core components that make up the game experience--the graphics, the sound, the actual gameplay--all come together to create an experience that is, across the board, better than the original Dark Alliance and better than any of Champions' current rivals. The game offers an enjoyable single-player and multiplayer experience, and there's enough to it to keep you entertained for a long, long time. That all of this fun is hampered somewhat by some noticeable bugs, which could have and should have been addressed before the game's release, is a shame. However, Champions of Norrath is still truly great, warts and all, and that speaks to the sheer quality of work that Snowblind has put into its latest game.