We are the champions...again?
Stare hard enough at the store shelves lined with sequels, remakes and repackaged collections and you'll begin to see the video game industry in a different light, sort of like Keanu in The Matrix, but without the green lines and terrible ending. What look like new games are often just old ones given the annual tune up and spit-shine, plus groovy new box art to fool you into thinking it's a totally fresh experience. Most game publishers firmly believe that you can never get enough of a good thing, and until they hear otherwise, more of what was once a good thing is exactly what we're gonna get.
The latest example of this is Sony Online's brand new old game, Champions: Return to Arms. The sequel to Champions of Norrath offers everything that game did with a few extra bits and pieces, but mostly looks, sounds, and plays precisely the same. That's not such a bad thing if you couldn't get enough of the first game, but considering this formula hasn't changed notably since 2001's Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, it's starting to stink up the fridge a little.
None of this should come as a surprise once you realize that the game was developed by Snowblind Studios, the talented folks behind BG:DA as well as the first Champions game. And at the same time, this should come as a shocker since you'd hope Snowblind would tire of making the same game over and over again. I guess they don't tire of depositing those paychecks.
One day, perhaps they'll see to it to put some of that cash into developing a decent story for the Champions line. Return to Arms picks up where the last one left off, but despite having beaten it twice, I have no idea where it left off. You've killed the supreme bad guy, but somehow evil is still running rampant everywhere and now you've got to stop it again, which apparently involves scouring the Planes of Existence for shards of hate. Fans of the original will be pleased to know that the plot is as meaningless as ever, really acting as just an excuse to wipe out endless waves of ne'er-do-wells.
All your hard work in Norrath is not easily forgotten, though, as Return to Arms thankfully lets you import your character and therefore start at a higher difficulty setting. With a whopping 80 level cap, you can spend hours upon hours buffing out your trusty Erudite Wizard. Alternately, newbies can just create a new character and go at it from scratch.
Two new classes have been added to last year's batch: the Iksar Shaman and the Vah Shir Berserker, the former a lizard battle mage and the latter a crazy cat warrior. Both have some unique spells and abilities and fit well with the five holdovers from Norrath. The Shaman's giant growth spell is particularly satisfying, turning the lizard wizard into an imposing dinosaur powerhouse.
The thing is, new spells and powers don't mean much once you hop into the game's single-player campaign, as the action is still mash, mash, mash, mash. The level design is just as it has always been, meaning twisting labyrinth after twisting labyrinth filled with hordes of mindless enemies. Hammer on that X button to club your way through the evil or use Circle and Triangle to toss spells. It plays out exactly like Champions of Norrath, to a tee.
The story does try to branch a little, although it's done in the most transparent way possible by asking you not 5 minutes in if you wish to work for the side of good or evil. It doesn't ultimately mean much since the paths intersect frequently, although each contains a couple levels not found in the other. This helps the replay value, at least for one extra play through.
But the gameplay is strictly business as usual. You'll smash open four billion crates, barrels, urns and baskets to find items and gold. You'll constantly warp back and forth from the battlefield to the shop in order to sell stuff. You'll go aggro at anything that moves, occasionally blocking, which will protect you from strikes indefinitely. Strategies like "hit them from the side," "hit them quickly," and "cast a spell first, then hit them" make a triumphant return.
While there are some interesting new enemy types, there are lots of old ones, too, and they all just bum-rush you with little regard for their safety or your boredom. As in games past, enemies are specific to areas, although there are often only two enemy types per section. In other words, you'll kill 100 kobolds in a row, 100 zombies, then 100 trolls or spiders or badgers or demons. There might be a lot of different enemy types, but it doesn't feel like it. For that matter, many enemies are just variations on one model. The rock slinging lava giants follow the same pattern as the rock slinging snow giants, and the red tongue demon is just a tougher version of the black tongue demon (which, incidentally, is a really bad movie).
However, there's still something to be said for the Zen-like state you fall into as the hours pass and you whack more and more things. Like the great Diablo, Return to Arms is all about item-collection and nerding out trying to find and tweak the Greatest Polearm The World Has Ever Known. It's mindless, hypnotic fun, but not remotely new.
Fleshing out the single-player is the addition of new 'medal' rounds, which become accessible after you complete a level. These are typically small mini-games that cover the gameplay gamut. Some work well, like the Citadel level in which you must sneak around freeing prisoners without being noticed, while others are either insanely difficult or just lame, like 'Frog Stomp', a stupid Pac-Man rip-off. Completing these will net some extra attribute points, burly weapons and/or unlock some levels for the online play.
This is where Return to Arms differentiates itself from Champions of Norrath, thanks in large part to better online functionality. An improved player lobby, full voice-chat support and a couple different game modes provide a pretty smooth experience. You can still co-op the single-player with up to three others, which is good fun and is the only way you'll be able to utilize some of the more team-centric abilities, like the cleric's Resurrect spell or the barbarian's Ancestral Call. A few other gameplay modes are here, the most interesting of which is the inclusion of Player vs. Player combat. Yep, you can finally show the world that your Shadowknight swings his thing better than anyone. It works well enough, although the lack of gameplay depth makes it all seem a bit underwhelming.
The same can be said of Return to Arms' delivery. You have to give props to Snowblind for building a game engine that, at its core, has survived for four years and still looks pretty good, although the once-amazing water effect isn't so thrilling anymore. It's also annoying that, despite this being a brand new game, numerous levels look just like those in Norrath due to recycled tile sets. However, Return to Arms generally runs smoothly in spite of its age.
If only it sounded better. Though the music is innocuous enough, most of the sound effects were ripped right out of Norrath and the sporadic voices are laughably bad. Engage mute button!
As an expansion pack, Champions: Return to Arms makes sense. It allows you to continue the button-mashing exploits you began in Champions of Norrath, leveling your character up, up and away as you scour the world for new gear. Hardcore fans of the original will be pleased that nothing was broken.
In other words, this game should be priced down…and it isn't. Fifty bucks for what is essentially a game you played last year (and most likely have been playing in one form or another for the last four years) is simply too much, especially when, after so much mashing, you tack on the cost of the replacement X button. The new box art is cool and all, but it's time for Sony Online to champion the cause of creativity and let this hero return to his homeland.