An AWESOME alternative to the old, bland AD&D based games.
Champions of Norrath is a hack-and-slash role-playing game, in which you are a warrior who answered the call to defend the lands of Norrath from an ever-growing army of orcs and goblins. This is the first console game set in the world of Everquest, and it's a refreshing alternative to the Baldur's Gate series for PlayStation 2.
The game is divided into five chapters, and you slowly unravel the threat against Norrath as you travel across the land in pursuit of an infamous orc general with the mean-sounding name "Pely." You will find yourself admiring the beautiful landscapes of Norrath as you pursue Pely through forests, caves, deserts, castles, and also through arctic, volcanic, and underwater regions. In addition, Champions goes one step further, graphics-wise, by displaying shadows that shift as your character moves or changes direction. Another cool special effect is the waves on water (rivers, ponds, etc). While the voice acting (and dialogue) is merely so-so, the music is fairly interesting. Like in any other RPG, the background music changes as you move from one region to the next.
The best aspect of Champions is the gameplay. The controls are easy to master, and you're provided with enough choices through character class and weapons/spells to be able to play the game as you want to play it. For example, if you're the bloodthirsty warrior type who wants to be in the thick of battle, swinging a sword in each hand, Champions allows you to play that way. If you prefer to be an archer who kills enemies from a safe distance, Champions allows for that style of play as well.
The game utilizes EVERY button on your PS2 controller, and some of the action-buttons are very player-friendly. For example, the L1 button allows to you change from an equipped melee weapon/shield to a ranged weapon and back. If your health bar is getting close to zero during combat, you can hit the R2 button to drink a potion in your inventory, and replenish your health. Unfortunately, the game designers only managed to provide player access to two spells/special abilities during gameplay. Out of all the spells/special abilities you gain access to as your level increases and you spend skill points on, you can only designate two of them on the "circle" and "triangle" buttons on your PS2 controller. For a spellcaster class, access to only two spells during combat is a serious disadvantage. Although it's true that you can change the spells designation on your controller at any time, it's still an annoyance that could distract you during melee, and lead to more frequent character deaths.
Speaking of deaths, expect to die A LOT. Champions is a hack-and-slash game, and combat is set in real time. If your right thumb is too sore from hitting the "X" button (which controls the melee/weapon strike action) and you stop pressing the button, the monsters you're fighting WILL NOT pause and wait for your turn to end. Also, the AI controlling the monsters is fairly intelligent. If you encounter a group of monsters, they will chase after you and try to surround you on all sides. You should also note that different monsters have different tactics. Warriors with shields will occasionally use their shields to block your ranged attacks, archers will try to keep their distance from you as they whittle away at your health with arrows, and spellcasters will cast spells damaging your health or resurrect their fallen allies. Champions forces you to keep moving, and think on your feet strategically to avoid character death.
Although the game generously declined to penalize you for character deaths (by taking away items or experience points, for example), if your character dies, you will resume from the last "check point" you encountered. The check point could be either a save point or another point during the game. Unfortunately, there aren't that many check points in the game, so you will lose any progress (experience points or items obtained) made past the check point if you die. Also, you can save only at save points, which are rare and infrequent in the game. For RPG fans who are used to saving at any point in a game, this save-only-at-save-point feature is shocking, and makes Champions even more challenging.
Since we're on the topic of "challenge", the game makers seem to have an interesting view on what makes a game challenging. When you start the game for the first time, you choose the "Adventurous" setting, start from scratch, choose the character class/sex, and play from there. Once you beat the game for the first time, you can replay the game in the "Courageous" setting, and import your character data, if your character is at least level 20. If you beat the game in the Courageous setting, you can advance to the "Champion" setting if your character is at least level 35. The storylines are basically the same, but the monsters are a lot tougher and harder to kill. Your incentive for replaying the game again and again is to collect the different items in the game, and advance your character.
Since Champions allows you to play with friends over the internet, you can import your buffed-up character, and show off your cool items to your buddies. Unfortunately, your character can carry only a certain amount of weight, and when you advance to the next chapter in the story, you can only take what you're carrying on your back to the next chapter.
Speaking of characters, your choice boils down to only five archetypes (warrior, wizard, cleric, archer, and evil knight) in either a male or female version. There are a lot more races and classes available in Everquest, so it's disappointing to find that Champions doesn't offer that many choices of characters. As for the thousands of items available in the game, most are variations (condition, or type of metal) of basic item types. For example, you could have a mace, a polished mace, a steel mace, a charred steel mace, etc. The variation affects the weight, attack bonus, or damage of the weapon. The same is also true for armor.
While it's true that you can customize your weapon or armor, your ability to customize is very limited. You find a stone or material and combine it with your choice of weapon or armor to add a special ability to the item. The ability could be an attribute bonus (i.e +15 Strength) or accelerate your health/mana regeneration (i.e. +10% health regeneration). It could also be an elemental (cold, fire, shock, disease) bonus by adding additional damage to the weapon, or protection from that element to the armor.
The biggest problem encountered while playing Champions is the occasional crash at various points in the game. By crash, I mean that as your character is moving around during the game, he would be stuck at the spot no matter what you do with your controller. These crashes don't occur frequently, but when they do, you'll be forced to reboot your PS2, reload the game, and replay from your last save point. My theory on these crashes is that they are due to programming errors rather than a physical problem with the disc itself. I noticed that while carrying a certain quest item at a point in the game, my character would get stuck as he approaches the save point. And this happened every time I rebooted and approached the save point. But once I ditched the quest item, the crash would no longer occur. And before I acquired the quest item, I experienced no problem in that area.
Champions of Norrath is a blister-inducing hack-n-slash game in the tradition of Diablo. With great graphics, and interesting sceneries, Champions is a wonderful introduction of the world of Everquest.