"It might just be me, but it seems a bit awkward when one starts a review with some sort of a disclaimer — but with Champions of Norrath, it seems almost necessary to do so. "
It might just be me, but it seems a bit awkward when one starts a review with some sort of a disclaimer -- but with Champions of Norrath, it seems almost necessary to do so.
You see, this PS2 hack-and-slash offering has generated no small amount of controversy since its release earlier this year. Reports of glitches, bugs and downright abysmal programming have flooded message boards, leading one to wonder if this game is even worth $5, let alone $50.
And that leads into my disclaimer. Before going into the actual reviewing of this game, I feel a need to say that I have gone through the entire quest more than once and I have had virtually no difficulty with it. Has it run perfectly? No. It has frozen twice on me. At times, it takes awhile for the background graphics to load onto the screen. During dialogue sections, it will occasionally take quite some time for the voice-acting to kick in. Items that enemies drop will sometimes disappear off the face of the earth. At a couple of points, I did notice minor slowdown.
What I’m trying to say is that this game is not perfectly designed. I noticed a ton of minor flaws, but you know what? After diving headfirst into this game, I realized that I didn’t care. Champions of Norrath is just that good. If your playing experience is ruined by you falling victim to the alleged “Disk Read Error” messages and other assorted game-breaking problems, you have my sincere condolences. But I have not had any such setbacks -- therefore, my review cannot take them into consideration.
Veterans of the Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance series will have no trouble in getting acquainted with this game. Essentially, Champions of Norrath lifts their operating system, makes a few tweaks and drops it into the world of EverQuest.
Players get to choose between five different classes. You have the melee-loving Barbarian, the magic-loving Wizard and three other classes that combine elements of melee and magic. The Ranger has plenty of magical bow-and-arrow attacks, the Cleric is a master of casting healing and support magic and the Shadow Knight is quite proficient at summoning undead allies and casting spells to afflict foes with status ailments.
All in all, the character you choose to be your representative in Norrath will have a dramatic effect on your playing style. Pick the Barbarian and you’ll spend most of the game in hand-to-hand combat. Rangers prefer to snipe at enemies with their bows. Wizards want to keep as far away from evil creatures as possible while bombarding them with magical spells.
After selecting your character and its gender, you also get to make certain alterations to his/her features. While the changes are minor in the overall appearance of a fighter, it is a nice little addition to the hack-and-slash genre.
And then, the games begin. You open by offering to help a clan of elves who find themselves besieged by a well-organized army of goblins and orcs. Your first mission -- clear the elves’ treetop village of a horde of invading goblins.
From the start, I was impressed with the game’s attention to detail. While you’re fighting these goblins, elven warriors will attempt to lend a hand. While their attempts to slay the goblins are less than effective, they do provide a distraction, allowing you to slip in and earn the easy kill. But, the village isn’t just under attack from these goblins. Catapults from somewhere below the trees are spewing fiery death upon this pocket of civilization. While most of their shots miss the intended target, enough will reach the village to cause an additional hazard. Although watching your character catch on fire is a nice graphical effect, it’s not the sort of thing that is recommended for players intent on claiming victory over the forces of evil.
It won’t take long to clear away this threat; however, there are plenty more locations teeming with enemies that you must traverse as the plot becomes deeper and the foes become far more intimidating than simple orcs and goblins. From the Faydark Forest and Ruins to goblin caves to an enormous desert to a gigantic anthill to a dark elf city -- you will spend a good deal of time meandering through a wide variety of locales while building up levels and learning more advanced skills.
To be honest, the third act of this game is worth the price of admission by itself thanks to the creative genius on display. Without giving away too much of the plot, this act opens with you stranded on a tropical island. You quickly find out that the area you are in is a magical mishmash of vastly diverse zones that are all connected by a collection of one-way portals. In order to find the necessary item to escape this area, you must journey through underwater areas, polar regions, an arid desert, grasslands, island caves and a few more areas.
The sense of mystery and anticipation this set-up created was beyond words. Every single time I approached one of the many one-way portals, I couldn’t help wondering where the designers would be taking me next. It was almost a letdown to have this act end and to be sent to the more traditional fourth and fifth acts.
Because, if Champions of Norrath does have a flaw with its level designs, that would lie in the final two acts of the game. After the sterling example of gaming brilliance that is Act III, the final two acts just seemed short and somewhat lacking in creativity. They weren’t bad or poorly constructed -- they just couldn’t live up to the high standards set by the third act.
But level design is only one piece of the puzzle with Champions of Norrath. Let’s delve into the gameplay itself. Characters are fairly versatile, coming with the ability to attack, block, switch between a melee weapon and bow and utilize magical abilities, all with the click of the appropriate button.
Speaking of magical abilities, each class of character has roughly 12 to 14 they can learn during the course of their adventuring. Upon leveling up, you earn the right to allocate a certain number of points to these abilities -- however, to learn the advanced ones, you have to first learn the basics. These skills are situated in a “tree” format. In order to open a new skill, you have to open the ones that precede it in the tree. All skills can be taken up to Level 20. However, you will only gain enough skill points to master a certain number of them, so you will have to decide which abilities are most important to your character’s development into an unstoppable force of nature.
Another thing that helps develop a character is the proper equipment and items. Boasting roughly 10,000 different items, accessories, weapons and pieces of armor -- Champions of Norrath definitely delivers in this aspect. Not only do stores sell a wide variety of goods, but the spoils of war are spectacular. Most enemies drop some sort of booty. While gold or potions are the most common acquisitions, there also is a lot of equipment just waiting to be picked off the carcasses of foes. Sure, a good percentage of these tools will be of use only for their sale value in the local shop, but you inevitably will find a piece of equipment that makes it all worthwhile -- that is, if you can equip it.
You see, just picking up a big, intimidating sword is no assurance that you’ll be able to use it in battle in the near future. Like most games of this sort, all classes have their limits on what they can equip (clerics being restricted to blunt weapons, for example) and certain advanced pieces of equipment may be restricted to one particular class. Additionally, as weapons and armor get better and more powerful, your hero will need to get more powerful to use them. Yes, there are level restrictions on various pieces of equipment to prevent low-level characters from getting a lucky drop and being able to bully their way through a portion of the game. And, with your character able to achieve Level 50, that means it will take some time before you can be assured that they can equip each and every item eligible to their class.
In fact, it takes so long to get to that 50th level that there are three separate difficulty levels, which are designed to be played in order. After turning the game on, your first new character will be able to access “Adventurous” mode. Beat that and “Courageous” mode will be opened. Victory here will open up “Champion” mode. While the game is essentially the same, it is well worth your time to go through it repeatedly. Not only will you get to equip the powerful equipment, but also you’ll get to truly experience the stronger skills at higher levels of proficiency.
Fortunately, playing through Champions of Norrath again with the same character is not too repetitive of an experience. For the most part, all action zones have somewhat random layouts. Maybe two treks through the Greater Faydark forest won’t yield a stunning array of differences, but there will be enough to make that second adventure seem somewhat fresh and new.
Sadly, there are a few instances where this game did become repetitive -- a problem partly caused by a somewhat limited bestiary. The ruins of the first act, the anthill of the second act and the underworld of the fourth act can become somewhat tedious due to monotonous fighting against the same type of enemy.
In the ruins, with the exception of a couple of boss fights, you’ll see nothing but weak spiders that are easily killed. Moving on to the anthill, hundreds of ants come after you, only to fall under your might. When you get to the fourth act, you spend a large amount of time searching for artifacts in the regions under the dark elf city. Problem is that there are about four of these areas that all look the same and are populated with the same inhabitants. While the grotesque imagery (tentacles and eyeballs) these places have worked at first, it didn’t take that long for me to start wishing for a new location to visit.
Now consider that the ruins and anthill areas have two floors and are pretty expansive (especially the first floor of the anthill), while there are even more underworld regions and you can definitely see that certain parts of this game can really drag on -- especially when compared to several of the more fun and exciting regions.
Another questionable feature about this game is the music. Sure, it is wonderful when it is there -- but that isn’t too often. Not that I’m complaining about the sound affects (which are wonderfully presented), but it is a trifle annoying when a beautiful and elegant soundtrack snippet plays for 30 seconds to a minute, only to end and be replaced with.....nothing. Maybe that is another glitch or maybe the designers intended things to be that way in order to put the emphasis on the gameplay -- either way, the inconsistent use of music just didn’t work for me.
Fortunately, those are the only true failings this game has -- and I haven’t even touched on all the positives. For example, you can zoom in on your character (a feature not present in the Dark Alliance games). While it might not be the most feasible way to go monster hunting as your range of sight is dramatically lessened, that function does a wonderful job of enhancing this game’s graphics.
There also is a lot of high-quality voice acting in Champions of Norrath, the ability for up to four people to play at once and online capability. While (to the best of my knowledge) online play is the same thing as the multiplayer mode, it still may be a selling point for players looking to recreate the total Diablo experience on their PS2.
I’m not trying to say that Champions of Norrath is a perfect game. If you’re unlucky, it may be plagued with bugs and glitches. It also has a couple of repetitive areas that seem to drag on for far too long. But it also is a beautifully illustrated example of how to create a hack-and-slash game. With many wonderfully designed levels, tons of weapons and items and hours of exciting action -- one could do infinitely worse than spend a few weeks questing in the land of Norrath.
Community review by overdrive (March 17, 2004)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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