Everquest gets a little action.
In game design, practice makes perfect, or thereabouts. The Madden series is so dominant because the developers at EA Sports have been building football games for well over a decade. The awesome Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is the result of Bioware's tireless obsession with role-playing. Forget diversifying - if you want to make good games, you have to focus, focus, focus.
Apparently, that's the new mantra of Snowblind Studios. Though the developer originally started out making driving games, they switched gears to crank out the hit Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance a few years ago. That turned out to be just about the smartest move ever, evidenced by the fact that Sony Online Entertainment hired them to make Champions of Norrath, the first single-player Everquest game for the consoles. The similarities between this game and BG:DA are striking, but that's not a bad thing at all. With great looks and addictive play, Champions of Norrath marks the next step in the evolution of the action RPG genre, even if it isn't exactly new.
The story, though, could use a good steroid injection. It starts off with you, Ye Olde Hero, helping to defend the Elven city of Kelethin from goblins and orcs. Sure enough, there's more going on than just a simple attack. Through obtuse twists of fate and at times ridiculous twists of geography, you wind up fighting just about every evil thing in the EQ universe on a mission to save the world. The writing isn't particularly good, sort of haphazardly coming up with reasons why you need to keep moving forward. Eventually, you'll forget about the plot altogether.
But that's okay, because the point of Champions of Norrath is not to immerse you in a brilliant story - it's to immerse you in tons of enemies to kill, items to find and stats to increase.
Unlike the rigidly fixed character approach of BG:DA, here you get to choose from one of 5 classes and are able to tweak the appearance and starting stats a bit. Basic class limitations apply, so if you choose the Erudite Wizard, don't expect to use heavy armor or swords, while the Barbarian can kiss those spells goodbye. The balance is a fair bit better than most of these games, though the multipurpose characters like the Shadowknight and the Cleric tend to be the more effective.
From there it's off down the beaten path of town/dungeon/town across a variety of interesting environments. Though the game is linear, the world feels pretty lively thanks to randomized dungeon generation, a smart idea that helps keep the game fresh. Slain enemy bodies are also persistent and the world is linked together; you can actually go back to earlier levels just by walking.
Not that you'll really notice, since most of the time you'll be smashing buttons in an effort to make all the bad things stop moving. The combat system is largely the same as BG:DA, with one button for melee attacks and two buttons for spells or special abilities. The Feat system from BG:DA is gone since we've switched myths from Dungeons and Dragons to Everquest, but it works much the same way. As you level up, you gain points to put towards spells or abilities, many of which are only useable at the higher XP levels. There's a fair bit of strategy in trying to decide if you should beef up one spell/ability in particular or go for variety. It's a good system that keeps you from becoming too powerful too quickly.
Still, I'm a little bummed that Snowblind hasn't come up with some sort of combo system for melee attacks since so much of the game has you chopping at things. Swinging your sword/mace/polearm in the same three strokes can quickly get repetitive, a fact made even more noticeable by the clumping of the same enemy type on each level. It moves in segments - you'll fight tons of goblins, then tons of orcs, then tons of spiders, or ants, or whatever happens to inhabit the particular level you're on. There's actually a decent number of enemy types, but the variety gets lost since it moves in these big chunks.
Luckily, there's always the combat payoff of sweet new gear. Champions of Norrath puts a huge emphasis on item hunting and there's plenty of them to be found. The game even employs an item building system where you can equip weapons with elements to imbue them with magical properties. There's some strategy to be found here, too; rather than buy some fancy weapon at the shop that can't be upgraded, you could buy a cheaper one and turn it into a nuclear warhead.
The game uses the EQ system of item identification, which is kind of odd if you're used to the more classic D&D approach. For about half the game, most of the items you find are described using words like "Tattered," "Torn," "Ruined," and "Charred," and sometimes more than one of those adjectives at a time. It can get ridiculous, evidenced by the time I found "Tainted Elven Gloves of Tainting" (which made me feel dirty), but it does work to keep you glued to the set hoping for something rare.
The delivery also keeps you playing, as Champions of Norrath is a very pretty game. It's based on the same engine that powered BG:DA, but now three camera zooms are here to spice things up alongside better animations, great particle effects and, of course, that awesome, rippling water. Some of the locations, particularly the underwater levels, look simply gorgeous. The occasional clipping error is forgiven, though the usually steady framerate can dip when too many beasties are wailing on you at once. Tack on good voice acting and sound effects and it's clear that Champions of Norrath is a cut above the standard fantasy fare.
Most seasoned gamers will hack and slash their way through the story in about 15 hours, but three difficulty levels coupled with the randomized dungeons give it some nice replay value. The search for better items and burlier spells is probably enough to tempt gamers back into the story for a second or third run through, both of which are designed for higher experience levels.
Plus, Champions of Norrath goes the distance with its multiplayer support. Co-operative play is available and works well - you can import new characters during a single-player game so as not to break up the flow - but the real gem is the ability to play co-op with total strangers online. The online game lobby is a little thin on info, but lag is generally mellow once you hook up a game and works well thanks to USB headset chat support.
It isn't always peachy keen, though. Despite no longer being constrained to just one TV, online multiplay still requires that players are on the same screen at all times, so get used to waiting while you friend putzes around at the shop. Plus, you're still just playing through the single-player game, boring FMV and all, which is annoying if you've already beaten it once and now want some help trying to level up your character. How about those randomly created dungeons? How about randomly creating mini-quests or something? These are the guys behind Everquest, after all; putting a little more thought into the online aspect would have done wonders.
But regardless, Champions of Norrath does what it sets out to do with aplomb. It's a larger, more complete game than BG:DA and offers enough enhancements to please RPG and action geeks alike.