Champions of Norrath Review

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Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
Developer: Snowblind Studios

Platform: PlayStation 2
Reviewed on PlayStation 2

Hundreds of years before the events of EverQuest, the Wood Elves of Kelethin are threatened by an army of goblins and orcs. King Liethkorias is desperate for the aid of a few heroes to turn the tide of battle. Players start in the treetops of Faydwer, embarking on a quest that will ultimately extend to the Planes themselves, with the fate of Norrath depending on the strength of those very heroes.

Kyle Ackerman

Diablo II was an earth-shattering game. With its appeal to social gamers, action gamers, min/max fanatics and people just in for a game of "dress the necromancer," Diablo II turned point-and-click death and shopping for magic items (by slaughtering denizens of the underworld for their stuff) into a fanatical pastime. Don't be Confused – this is a review of Champions of Norrath (CoN). But with CoN, Snowblind Studios surpasses its accomplishments in Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance (BGDA) and adds the best elements of Diablo II. Those elements are set in the type of attractive environs (including exceptionally buxom women) that Snowblind designed for BGDA, and places it all in the EverQuest universe, complete with a guest appearance by Firiona Vie.

This isn't the first time such a game has come to CoNsoles. The original Diablo was released for the PlayStation, but CoN adds the key element of online play and mixes in the sorts of skill trees and varied character development that made Diablo II such an improvement over the original. By no means is everything good about CoN the result of lessons learned from developer Blizzard Entertainment. BGDA was a strong fantasy action title, and CoN does a superior job of rendering an attractive and 3D world on the PlayStation 2. Beyond the array of special attacks and abilities available in CoN, even basic combat is tactical. Characters (with melee weapons) in CoN can block enemy attacks, so facing and timing define success in close-quarters combat. Aim and timing for spells and arrows are as important, as enemies can block. Together, the action is involving, and doesn't leave you idly wondering about what item will drop next. You need to wait for the frenzied battle before you stop to take a look at the loot lying about.

Choose Your Means of Destruction

Above all else, CoN is about battle. Be they orcs, giants, beetles or sebaceous tentacles that are mostly eyeball, you need to kill them. There are many ways to go about that. The five available characters can be played as either male or female, and they adhere to action/role-playing game archetypes while remaining true to their EverQuest heritage. The burly fighter type is a Barbarian Warrior with weapons expertise and special talents like the Ground Pound area attack or Cyclone spinning attack. The Erudite Wizard is the typical mage with powerful elemental magic. The High Elf Cleric is talented at both melee and divine magic, while the Dark Elf Shadowknight mixes hand-to-hand and necromantic skills. To round out the mix, the Wood Elf Ranger is gifted in matters of the bow, capable of powerful attacks from a distance, as long as he has enough arrows.

Each character type has a branching tree of special abilities and a certain number of points to allocate to those abilities at each level. Most abilities have prerequisites and a minimum level at which they can be activated. CoN isn't miserly in its distribution of such ability points, so while there are two or three reasonable CoNfigurations for each character, no character is a one-trick pony, and little is lost through experimentation. The different characters and ability trees are the biggest source of replayability in CoN. Even though players will be familiar with the game's mostly linear path after a single time through, the temptation to play the game (all the way through) just one more time with a different type of character is enormous. Unfortunately, players will find they need to spend some points on mundane skills just to function. To upgrade to better armor, or just hold onto good items (given the absence of a "stash") everyone will need to invest in the Endurance ability (to carry more).

Fine Alone, But Better With Friends

CoN is decidedly designed for multiplayer play, with a diverse party facing peril together. As such, the characters are distinct, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. Playing the game alone, that means some portions will seem amazingly easy (if they play to your character's strengths) or very challenging. Of course, a well-equipped player who methodically explores every nook of each area is unlikely to feel unfairly challenged. At the same time, there are clearly better and worse character plans, so gamers will have to overcome the urge to maximize damage efficiency in order to enjoy the many options available. There are also limitations for certain characters, such as arrows for Archers and mana for Wizards. The need to carry arrows or potions burdens the characters with the smallest capacity for heavy loads, but also limits their power in a clear attempt at balance. Get a group together, however, and the characters will feed off each others' talents to create a powerful and entertaining team. The mild inCoNvenience of joining a game is more than offset by the ability to use PlayStation 2 headsets for voice chat while playing. Fortunately, no boss is so difficult that a player could fatally misCoNfigure a character.

The variety of equipment is tremendous. In addition to a decent assortment of normal items, items have random prefixes and suffixes (such as Sturdy Padded Boots of Tainting) that modify them. Using a familiar CoNvention, ordinary items have white names, magical items have blue names, and rare items are yellow (with names and set properties). Items also have open spaces, into which special items (such as a Bone Chip or Soul Gem) can be inserted to improve the resulting item. While the number of slots available is clear, sometimes you will get a disappointing message that a given combination would be too powerful (such as giving cold related effects to a good bow). Its always better to find some CoNtextual explanation rather than just telling the player, "Oh. You can't do that." As a CoNsole game, there is little chance that CoN will be tweaked for balance in character power or item improvements, but there is enough variation to keep you interested. And differences in appearance (including color) combined with differing item stats will have people enjoying "shopping" for items for a while yet.

Attractive, With Minor Glitches

Occasional problems with CoN make it feel like it could have used just a touch more time before release. There are sporadic graphical glitches in which sections of the floor appear to be a black abyss your character can run across. These will fill in if you rotate the camera. Dialog also doesn't always follow game events. Rondo Blackwright will Continue to forlornly ask you, "No sign of Lazlo?" long after you've found his brother Lazlo and enlisted his aid. Other problems are just a function of the PlayStation 2. Because the monsters and environments look so great (thus taxing the CoNsole's resources), you'll often only encounter a single creature type or two (with several weapon or spellcasting variations). And online there is the ever-present problem of lag. Try playing a ranger online during a moment of internet latency, and you'll wish you had a melee bruiser.

Despite the limited variety of enemies on screen at the same time, there are many types of creatures, and the environments and enemies really eke great graphics out of the Console. Every area has its own harmless inhabitants, so frogs will hop around swamps, and penguins happily waddle around icy expanses. You can take pleasure in wrecking a vampire's fine art, or watch lost kittens leap playfully. The Dungeons of Khathuun are an organic horror, with eyeballs blinking from the membranous walls and ghoulish undead that thrash uncontrollably, sometimes faking death to leap up and startle you. Most enemies charge straight at you, but feral vampires (nosferatu) will circle while seeking to attack your back, and enemy spellcasters will resurrect their fallen comrades.

Truly, CoN has brought the most enjoyable and consuming aspects of Diablo II to the PlayStation 2. Gamers can argue about minor issues of balance, or that even the hardest difficulty level can seem easy for an experienced and solidly-equipped character. That misses the point – CoN offers so much enjoyable gameplay between different character combinations, items and difficulty levels that it is an exceptionally worthwhile purchase. Besides, missing out on CoN would mean missing out on one of the more strangely satisfying gaming moments – the ability to "purge yourself of hate" with a mere press of the square button, in preparation for the final conflict.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on February 17, 2004 6:39 PM.

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