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Developer:
Snowblind Studios
Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 2
Release Date: February 10, 2004

by Ronald Wartow




Champions of Norrath (CoN) places a player smack dab into the middle of familiar hack and slash RPG territory. CoN looks and feels like the Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance series, but CoN elevates the gameplay to a compelling level in graphically stunning outdoor settings and randomly-generated dungeons. Expect to spend more time to finish this game than normally required for an action RPG, for there are 50 quest oriented levels that need exploring and conquering. The linear plot is typically routine and hackneyed and serves as a pretext for the monster-slaughtering activities that comprise the core of CoN. The fact that this game takes place in the Everquest universe made no difference to me, having not played that wildly popular MMORPG. The game can be played either in single-player or four-player cooperative mode online or offline.


Gameplay

It should come as no surprise that CoN is similar to Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, for the developer created that game as well. In fact, despite CoN’s improved graphic quality and a few new wrinkles along the way, the feeling of déjà vu was strong. Not that this is a bad thing, particularly since I enjoyed Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and the sequel, which, incidentally, was not developed by Snowblind. My experience with CoN can be summed up best by saying, even given the enhancements, “Been there, done that”. Two things definitely different are the game completion time and degree of difficulty. The Baldur’s Gate games clocked in at about 10 hours, while CoN will take easily double that for a single playthrough, and provide an inordinately greater challenge along the way.


Character creation is typical. Five disparate classes, each with a male-female option, afford the usual wide range of strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. You must choose between a tank, cleric, wizard, ranger, and so-called shadow knight. The typical ability to tailor the hero to your exact physical tastes is on hand in the form of facial, hair, and body feature options.


The player has the ability to mold the character in any fashion desired. Customization of weapons, armor, and accessories is the norm. This calls for the player to determine strategically throughout CoN whether to upgrade a possessed weapon, armor, or accessory or just wait to purchase a better item.


The skill set, particularly, is wonderfully varied and a no-nonsense dream for combat. Each skill can be raised all the way to level 20. Near the end of the game, the hero can be dealing hundreds of points in melee damage with a single thrust. To demonstrate the skill variety, let’s examine the Shadow Knight. This character learns fairly early the Disease Bolt skill. (Two of your favorite skills are conveniently assignable to the Triangle and Square buttons for instant access during combat. Pressing the L2 and R2 shoulder buttons makes the hero drink a health or mana potion, respectively.) When you score a successful hit with this skill, every few seconds even a charging monster, retches and stops dead in its tracks. Talk about an effective combat move. The Shadow Knight can also learn Engulfing Darkness, covering the monster is a cloud of confusion for a short period. Not only does this let you pound away at a defenseless monster, but the sight of a fearsome monster flailing about in disorder is actually quite engaging. Later on, the Shadow Knight earns the ability to summon a skeletal sidekick for every combat, which gives the feeling of adventuring with a party rather than a single hero. Along with the many active skills are passive ones, usually for protection, which do not require any action by the player during combat.


The game world is vivid, full of atmosphere, and provides an interesting place in which to perform all those quests required of the character. The sounds and music are outstanding. I particularly liked the rippling water effect and the sound of the hero splashing through a pond, and the chanting church-like chorus that always reminded me of “The Omen” movie. At the simple push of a controller stick, the available camera can zoom in on the action or pull back way up high to scope out the surroundings.


Thankfully, transport around the world is made effortless by two features, the portals and gate scrolls. Portals connect various areas of the game by providing instant teleportation over great distances. Many portals are located just before boss battles to give the hero an opportunity to return to town and prepare for the boss battle by buying more healing and mana potions and new equipment. The gate scroll can be used anywhere in the world, and whisks the player back to the beginning town, actually an elevated fort. Using another scroll returns the player to the spot from which the initial gate scroll was used.


Most interestingly, like the Dark Cloud and .hack series, the dungeons are randomly generated. Many might find this instability quite disagreeable, but I found that approaching each dungeon brought a sense of novelty to the gaming table. After each successful dungeon foray, the hero can return to the beginning fort’s safe confines to do the inevitable buying and selling.


The world houses literally thousands of interesting, customizable usable items, including many that affix status enhancements on your weapons and armor. The usual transparent map has been replaced by one that distinctively highlights the areas being visited for easy player orientation. The map can be toggled on or off. When on, two views are available, the large one superimposed directly over your character, which frustratingly hides your character from view, and a smaller, but easily readable, map off in the upper right hand corner of the screen. The map is particularly useful in pinpointing CoN’s many secret areas where the swipe of a sword will collapse a wall and allow access to fresh territory.


Combat is fast and furious, real time all the way. Frantic presses of the attack X button can result in some devastating combos. Unfortunately, without the ability to auto-target, the player must take great care to line up an intended victim precisely or be swiping at nothing while the monster has its way. Often, the hero will be confronted by significant numbers of monsters, and must employ strategies to win the day, like using the natural environment for protection and as a shield against numerous monsters being able to pummel you at any one time.


The monsters are varied, and every area to be conquered has a boss at the end. Early on, these bosses are pieces of cake, patsies in the worst way. As you progress, the bosses are not only powerful, but exhibit uncanny abilities to avoid your blows and attempt to “spell” them into submission. Do not be expecting monsters that simply charge the hero flailing away, and easy targets for spells on bashing. The tactical and avoidance AI on many of the monsters seems effectual, Monsters do not regenerate. This can cause a problem if the next dungeon is a bit too tough, for there’s no way to improve the character through the gaining of experience. In that situation, the best a player can do is try to obtain better weapons, armor, and accessories to the point where that next dungeon can be tackled.


Criticisms

Load times are frequent and can take up to 20 seconds. Every time the player switches locations, which obviously is quite often, the dreaded “Loading” screen appears bringing the action to a standstill. 20 seconds can be an eternity sometimes in these circumstances. Another annoyance was when many monsters were involved in a battle. This slowed the game down appreciably. I enjoy side quests in my RPG’s and there’s none to be found in CoN. Finally, while I was unable to test out online play, reliable web sources report a few problems that anyone interested in this mode should check out.


Bottom Line

The replay value of CoN seems high since you may play as any of 5 classes, and there are 3 difficulty settings. (Whether you play as a male or female makes no difference to the gameplay of any particular class, so there’s no replay added value in that regard.)


If you are a fan of action RPG’s, this game will definitely be your cup of tea.


Final Grade: 88%




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