Demo Preview

Considering the enduring success of its EverQuest franchise, it is no surprise that Sony Online has extended the brand into areas outside of the Massively Multiplayer market. The first such spin-off to hit a home console was the early 2004 PS2 release, Champions of Norrath: Realms of EverQuest, which integrated the EverQuest universe with the engine and gameplay from developer Snowblind’s popular Action/RPG Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. The game garnered a largely positive reaction from critics and fans, and merely one year later the sequel, Champions: Return to Arms, is almost here.

Upon starting Return to Arms, you will be greeted by the style of sweepingly majestic music familiar from Realms of EverQuest. The soundtrack was a highlight of the first game, and the early strains of music from Return to Arms indicate that its success will be repeated. Choosing a character, you’ll find two new types to play: the melee-friendly, cat-like Vah Shir, and the magic-wielding, lizard-like Iksar. There are also more difficulty levels than before, encouraging further replayability, and the experience level cap has increased from 50 to 80, breathing renewed life into previous characters, which thankfully can be imported into Return to Arms.

Upon selecting a character and commencing your game, the most striking thing of note is that nothing much has changed since the first game. The graphics still look just as they did before – inciting no complaints since the visuals of Realms of EverQuest were remarkably pleasing. The game’s interface has remained equally static. Any lingering anxiety should disappear once you play more than a few minutes, though. The hack-and-slash action still feels rapid and intense, and Snowblind even seems to have fine-tuned it for the better. Compared to the first game, it is harder to lure individual enemies towards you and it is common to find groups of enemies converging on the same area rather than spreading themselves thinly. There are also enemy groups where weaker enemies surround and defend a stronger one. These may seem like subtle details, but they do make a difference in terms of providing strategic depth to the rampant combat found in games like Return to Arms. The examples listed above are all found in the game’s first dungeon, so hopefully Snowblind has more creative AI tricks in store for the later parts. On a potentially worrying note, the framerate drops at random points in the demo, but it is hard to fathom Sony passing the game through its QA tests before fixing this particular glitch.

Champions: Return to Arms promises to let you choose the path between good or evil. The evil god, Innoruuk, shattered at the end of Realms of EverQuest will again be a focal point; playing as an evil character will see you attempting to resurrect the god, while as a good character you will work to prevent said resurrection. You start the game on the side of good, greeted by Firiona Vie, your mentor from the first game. Early in the first dungeon you will encounter her evil counterpart, who offers you the choice to join the dark side. The process of this pivotal conversational point reduces itself to answering questions like, “Do you want be a bad guy? Do you? Really?” Presto, you’re evil. It will be interesting to see if the character’s transition between good and evil becomes any deeper during the game, or if it’s simply the binary choice presented there. Snowblind also promises different mission goals and enemy encounters for each path. You will get early first-hand experience with this if you choose to join the evil side; in that case your initial mission goal is modified, although the destination point remains the same.

Return to Arms will have more of a mission-based structure than its predecessor, letting you select them from a central hub. It is an intriguing choice, considering that Realms of EverQuest did such an impressive job of integrating its missions into the game’s world. There could be more added replay value since Snowblind plans unlockable incentives depending on your degree of success in completing missions. The most impressive unlockables look to be the Medal rounds, which adapt the gameplay to create various side quests and minigames and will provide in-game rewards of their own upon completion. Finally, Return to Arms will sport an improved online interface, which should help to eliminate the problems that online users previously had with communicating and coordinating their games. On top of the cooperative play in story mode, there will be a new player vs. player mode available online.

The market for this type of Action/RPG is crowded right now, with competitors such as Demon Stone and Bard’s Tale released in the last few months alone, but Return to Arms may have enough substance and flash to separate itself from the pack. At the very least, it looks set to deliver more than enough to please existing fans, especially with the improved online experience.

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