Snowblind Studios and Sony Entertainment bring us the second installment of their Diablo-esque action/RPG hybrid series, Champions: Call to Arms, with all the fan-service and hack-and-slash that you would expect, with little else to be had.
Return to Arms starts with your character being sent by Fiorona Vie to collect the Shards of Hate (remnants of the god Innoruk, defeated by heroes in Champions of Norrath), before other gods of evil can collect them and resurrect Innoruk. And that’s where the storyline ends, though most people who played the original won’t be expecting an epic tale as accompaniment to their massive monster slaying. However, the storyline for Return to Arms is even more shallow and thoughtless than Champions of Norrath. By this I mean there is almost nothing resembling a coherent storyline. It works on the system that you fight monsters, you fight the boss monster, and you subsequently collect the necessary shard. You are then sent out to repeat the process multiple times with very little else going on. The game’s ending may also leave a bad taste in your mouth, due to the fact that there isn’t really an ending to speak of. The only truly positive narrative aspect of this entire process is that you can select whether to work for the good guys or the bad guys. The storyline changes slightly if you opt for an evil approach, but you are still sent to the same locations and fight all the same bosses in order to accomplish your nefarious tasks. The only real difference is that your evil contact is more ?bouncy’ and ?less clothed’ than Fiorna Vie. Considering how little is going on in Return to Arms this is as important to the game as anything else.
Graphically there has been very little upgraded when compared to the engine used in the original title. This is perhaps to be expected, but even EA’s perennial Madden games at least tweak their graphics ever so slightly – just to claim they’ve added a new feature or something. Snowblind Studios accomplishes nothing noticeable, and that’s a sin in this day and age. New weapons and armor types offer a little refreshment, but it’s hardly noteworthy, and the ?new zones’ where you slaughter baddies en masse, are typical of the first game. New zones is written with inverted – sarcastic – commas because a number of the places used in this game are simply re-hashed from the original. Visually speaking, if you have played Champions of Norrath, then you have already seen all that Return to Arms has to offer.
Gameplay remains largely unchanged between the two games, and all the old character classes return – along with the emergence of two new classes. The Iskar Shaman is a lizard-man-like creature with nature-based abilities and some minor healing powers; a sort of mix of the Shadow Knight and Cleric from Champions of Norrath. The cat man, Vashir Berserker, is a lame attempt at a class inclusion from the Massively Multiplayer Role-Playing Game that this series is based on. With all of the abilities of the archer, including a rage-based ability, it’s the red-headed stepchild of this game. The controller setup remains untouched: two buttons for special abilities, one attack button and a button for healing potions, mana potion and an all-purpose button. Nothing of note there. One minor annoyance in the gameplay department is that Snowblind have deemed it appropriate to remove the ability to include or remove players into a game you are in the process of playing. This was a personal favorite of mine during time with Champions of Norarth; being able to continue a game when my roommate had to leave for work. Then at the end of his shift, he could just jump his character right back into the action at whatever point in the game I was at. Of all the possible elements that Snowblind could have changed, this should not have been one of them.
Voice acting is king in Return to Arms. Much like Champions of Norrath before it, Return to Arms relies heavily on the voice acting of its NPCs and bosses to cover the fact that there is very little in the way of ambient noise. The most you get from the game in terms of atmosphere is a vague gesture of extraneous sound, and some of the monsters emit noise – usually right before they jump you. In some way, the voice acting makes up for the lack of ambient sound, but it’s so few and far between that you begin to ignore it. Granted, all of the quest-giving NPCs talk, but, typically, it’s just a few short sentences, and very little in the way of actual evolving storyline. The speaking NPCs really offer nothing that a scroll or a signpost couldn’t do instead. The voice acting in and of itself is actually very good, though, if perhaps a little over the top. The women are sultry, the men are virile, and the gods are whiny. It’s the way things should be.
From reading through the review, you may form an impression that I didn’t enjoy this particular game. Quite the contrary is actually true. Return to Arms is a better game than the original, but only slightly. With new abilities for old classes, attempts at new classes, and a few new features such as improved online play and ?side-quests’, this emerges as the spiritual descendent of Diablo II. A lot of reviews monitored while playing through the game complained about the ?insane difficulty’ when facing the boss monsters. Well, I didn’t see it. Personally I thought that the bosses were appropriate. Remember, everything in a videogame has a discernable pattern, if you can figure out and mentally formulate that pattern then bosses fall extremely easily. A gaming pet peeve of mine is brought to light in Return to Arms though: online-only content. What is it with game companies and the cruel necessity to make games that are not available in their entirety unless players have an Internet adapter and a broadband connection? Anyways, that aside, if you liked the Diablo series or the Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance series, then you will not be disappointed with Champions: Return to Arms.