Champions of Norrath

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Garnett Lee took us online with this addictive Sony offering from February 2004. 

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Legions of PC gamers know Norrath as the expansive homeland for Everquest, the grand-daddy of massively-multiplayer online role playing games. Released by Sony Online in 1999 it still captivates thousands to a degree only hinted at by affectionate fan nicknames like “Never-rest”. That success made a Playstation 2 version to accompany the console’s online capability not only a forgone assumption; it built expectations of a compelling title for which people would add the online adapter. While not a failure, neither that original PS2 version nor a subsequent expansion ever approached capturing either the audience or magic of its PC kin.

Champions of Norrath (CON) opens a new door to the world of Everquest for a more personal scale role-playing adventure (hopefully) better in-tune with console players. Not surprisingly the halls of PC legends again provide inspiration, but not from the expected title. Skipping over massively-multiplayer entirely, the quest for a broader appeal led to one of gaming’s all time most popular (and imitated) titles – Diablo, the game that took goblin slashing from geek to chic. Its refined formula for hack-n-slash fantasy action – guide characters in exploring beautiful fantasy worlds from a god-like overhead view, kill everything in sight and save the world while collecting a veritable fashion show of arms, armor and accoutrements – became the definitive model for action RPG’s.

Followed with masterful precision in CON it once again creates a riveting game while providing a testament to the greatness of the original. Most of Champions’ tale is written on the field of battle, but there is at least enough story for a bard’s chorus. Like many a fantasy world before it Norrath has sent out the call for a hero to stave off a spreading darkness as Goblins and Orcs overrun the countryside. Introduction aside the remaining story advancing cut scenes primarily serve to introduce (and give some personality) the next evil doer before setting them to the sword. Long before reaching the end of the quest a lack of elaborate schemes or dramatic plot twists make saving the world a fait accompli; but that does not detract from the enjoyment of seeing the journey through to completion. Fortunately the hero ark happened to be nearby when trouble arrived and conveniently dropped off five male-female pairs of willing adventurers.

A cross-section of role-playing workhorses the group includes a warrior, ranger, cleric, wizard or shadowknight from which to choose. Character selection depends mostly on the desired style of play, an important consideration since their natural penchant for the sword, spells or a little bit of both determines much of what the game experience will be like. Development of the chosen avatar throughout the game follows a typical (to role-playing games) approach of spending experience points earned in battle to fine-tune character traits and skills. In a page lifted almost verbatim from Diablo, each character has a unique set of skills arranged in a tree system. The two or three skills available initially form the base with branching choices to others that open as levels increase. Specialized sub-classes develop depending on the upgrade path taken (such as fire mage) completing each character. For at least the first play-through of the game, the slow (but steady) flow of experience necessitates focusing growth along one path to keep pace with the increasingly difficult monsters. Training provides only part of the battle preparation.

These medieval monster mashing mavens show they know a thing or two about the value of dressing for success. Every different suit of armor, pair of gloves or boots, set of leggings, helm, shield or weapon offers a distinctive look; and between shops and plundered loot expect to accumulate enough to keep the Paris runways busy for months. All that gear proves to be more than just pretty window dressing. Along with their basic attack and defense qualities each piece of equipment has four slots for enhancement. These can be filled with a variety of items to produce effects ranging from adding elemental attack or defense properties to improving attributes and skills. A complete outfit affords enough slots to mix a formidable array of augmentations. Speaking of looking good at work CON arrives for its shift on the PS2 sporting the best graphics seen on the console for this type game. Richly saturated colors and natural lighting give environments a particularly vibrant quality. Impeccable attention to the fine details, both in the characteristic subtleties given the texture of every surface and the little things like the fine fletching on a shaft protruding from a fallen foe bring the scenes to life.

Likewise story advancing cut scenes spare no expense to deliver a visual treat. Unfortunately all this graphical excellence comes at a cost paid in painfully long load times, so long in fact that “loading, please wait” could be mistaken for the game’s subtitle. Aside from this technical distraction CON delivers a smooth, if nonetheless predictable, adventure across five chapters. The otherwise comfortable flow suffers a slight hiccup as the last two chapters sharply contract into an onrush to the conclusion; but once savoring that final victory no doubt exists that this has been one immensely satisfying trek. For the stalwart this marks only part of the game experience as completion unlocks the next higher difficulty level; and for the especially resolute an extreme level awaits beyond that. Lack of any new twist other than significantly stronger enemies during these return visits undermines their replay value despite the allure of tantalizingly powerful uber gear.

What will keep the disk spinning in many a PS2 is the fiendishly addictive multiplayer. Joining forces with up to three other players intensifies everything appealing about the game. Nothing beats getting to show off a swanky new piece of equipment. Well nothing that is except then giving a practical demonstration of just how powerful that new sword is on a goblin’s head. Playing with friends also adds a rewarding sense of depth to the action with the opportunity for the party to use tactics that take advantage of individual strengths. The multi-tap supports gathering a group the traditional way around one Playstation but the real news is the online play for those with a broadband connection. Hobbled by a lack of critical features to build a community the implementation feels tacked-on. Without any type of pregame communication choosing a good one to join from the simple listing of those available in the lobby depends on the luck of the draw. On the other hand the system offers a welcome alternative for planned adventures when everyone can not be in the same place. Happily voice chat (with a supported USB headset) kicks in once inside the game world but even after much tweaking quality fell well short of that found on Microsoft’s Live service.

The fact that Gamestyle can only highlight a few shortcomings shows how high the bar sits for action RPG’s. A familiar mark to developer Snowblind, as they set it themselves two years ago with the creation of the current standard for the genre; Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance. Champions of Norrath deviates very little from that formula for success instead taking the approach of masters refining each ingredient to perfection. While the result stumbles just short of enshrinement as a legend, the defining bar has been raised, again.

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

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