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In Memory
Sean Pettibone

Champions: Return to Arms (PS2)


By Michael Palisano

This solidly entertaining action RPG offers plenty of challenging levels of excitement and thrills. The graphics upgrades are impressive, with more detailed and better animated character models, intricate environments and a much smoother interface. The action is still relatively straightforward with a ton of new enemies such as Orcs and demons to face. More interesting this time around is the new character path, where you can choose good or evil and offers branching storylines. Champions: Return to Arms is an excellent action-oriented RPG and a perfect title for those who want more action than strategy. Add in a superb online mode, and you have all the makings for an excellent installment for this burgeoning franchise.

As the follow-up to the original Champions of Norrath, players have had high expectations for the sequel that has finally arrived on the PS2 thanks to SOE. Fortunately, Champions: Return to Arms delivers more of the action-packed RPG adventuring players loved about the first game but with a few changes. The storyline picks up where the last game ended, as the Champions of Norrath are called upon once again to destroy evil, this time the loyal forces of Innoruuk have begun to reassemble his shattered remains, threatening the peaceful world of Norrath once again. There are two new character races, the Van Shir Berserkers and Ikshar Shaman, which gives the game a different feel. In addition, all the older characters and races have new sets of spells and abilites they can use in their quest. It's that way with the majority of the game where the improvements range from incremental to quite significant. The majority of Champions of Norrath's more familiar elements have been polished or enhanced in significant ways that makes for a much smoother experience. In all, the new game features more than 80 distinct gameplay areas, each of which contains multiple environments and with hidden levels to unlock. You can unlock many of these levels by earning medals in the main game through your performance in battle. This is an interesting idea that rewards players not for playing, but for playing well. It definitely gives you motivation to really sharpen you skills in the early levels, instead of walking through them.

From a gameplay standpoint, the action still takes place in the familiar isometric top down perspective, but the detail and rendering is much improved from Norrath, making for a slicker presentation. The standard perspective is adequate and you can spin the camera, zoom in or out for a better viewpoint on the action. Players will immediately notice the increased speed and intensity, which starts right from the first level and only gets more intense as you delve deeper into the game. Your normal enemies are more aggressive, and some of the boss battles can offer a surprising amount of challenge. Champions Return to Arms is a much more intense game than the previous title with a lot more action and many more real-time battles than Norrath. Players will find that enemies attack aggressively this time around, and usually attack in groups. This makes for a much more intense and challenging game where you'll find yourself completely surrounded frequently. These more aggressive enemeies making the quests seem much harder than previous games. This action orientation solidifies Champions: Return to Arms as a hack and slash RPG. It's quite a lot of fun with a great single-player mode and even better multiplayer, online action. Even though this is unapologetically aimed at the mainstream gamer, there's still enough depth in Return to Arms for traditional RPG fans to sink their teeth into.

While the combat is intense, Champions: Return to Arms features extensive role-playing elements allow you to build and customize your character. Obviously, which class and species of character you decide to use plays a big role in how you'll go on your upgrade path. This is done using the hundreds of items you find throughout the game. Players will find the usual items such as gold pieces, weapons and potions along with other useful items such as gate scrolls and rejuvenation potions. You'll also come across a number of items that characters in your class won't be able to use, but can trade with other characters for additional items. As you progress through the game, you can enhance your character attributes and abilities by leveling up, which is accomplished through gaining experience in battle. The interface is very much like the first Champions title, allowing you to switch, equip and drop items with ease. Return to Arms' menus also allow you to customize your characters' armor, clothing and assign weapons to the controller easily. The increased number of items and weapons in the game makes the inventory management more interesting for players, giving them more options and flexibility.

One of the biggest differences between this and the previous title is the storyline, which feels much richer and more developed this time around. At the start of the game, players can select from one of seven unique playable characters of different races and classes, and can customize their appearance with hair, facial structure, and gender. Once the game begins, you'll find many of the familiar EverQuest characters in this new realm. Interacting and talking with them allows you to set upon different paths, the main ones being good or evil. Which path you take plays a huge role in how the rest of the game's story unfolds. This new branching element adds to the challenge, and there are multiple routes in the game, making it much less linear this time around. While players will encounter many familiar faces, the additional new character classes, new enemies and bevy of new items keeps the game from feeling like a stale rehash.

Players familiar with the first game will find Return to Arms' basic approach and structure are similar to the first game, though there have been some enhancements made to the interface. The in-game map is much easier to use and more intuitive this time around, allowing players a better sense of direction than previously. Players can also level up to much higher levels than before and can use their saved characters from the previous Champions of Norrath in the new game. This is a cool idea that rewards veteran players and means you won't have to start over from scratch. Other significant improvements come in the game's online modes. The game allows up to four players to go through a level together, and offers headset support for the first time to allow for faster communication between players. These improvements are impressive, and the online game itself is great fun - some of the best cooperative play we've seen in any PS2 online title to date. The missions are seamless and setting up parties is a snap thanks to the user-friendly interface. Performance in the online modes was superb. We faced little in the way of lag time or drop out while playing Champions: Return to Arms. The overall pace of the online game was just as intense as the single player mode, making for a brutally exciting title that kept us challenged throughout.

Champions: Return to Arms is a solidly entertaining sequel that should please fans of the original. Sony Online Entertainment has added several new features including two entirely new character classes, numerous spells and many new enemies as well. The increased variety of items is helpful, since the action-oriented gameplay is faster and more intense this time around. The game's upgraded interface makes playing much easier, with better maps and camera systems giving it a smoother look with highly polished production values. From a gameplay standpoint, the single-player missions are excellent, but the game really shines with its impressive online mode that adds an entirely new level of excitement to the experience. While it's more accessible controls, action-orientation and fast gameplay means Return to Arms is more likely to appeal to mainstream gamers, there's more than enough substance underneath the flash to impress RPG die-hards.

Grade: B

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