Return to Excellence
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This is a game that I personally kept a lot of tabs on. That is because it is one of those very rare titles that my wife enjoys playing with me on the Playstation 2. We went through the original game twice at increasingly difficult levels, and it was good to see the ability to import those characters into this new title.
The Champions series was one of the first to successfully put two characters on the screen at the same time working together. It, along with the Baldur's Gate series from Interplay, has been extremely popular with console gamers for that reason. It's a far better way to play than the traditional split screen mode some games offer, or the prospect of wiring several TVs together for a multiplayer match.
The game has three levels of difficulty based on your character level, so you can either import your old characters over from the previous game, or you can create new ones. There are still the original five classes, plus two new ones in the form of a lizard shaman and a tiger warrior. Each of the new classes brings some different spells and abilities to the table, including the summoning of pets to race along and protect you.
Graphically, although both this title and its predecessor Champions of Norrath run on the PS2 platform, the graphics have actually improved a bit, or at least been tweaked for the better. You will find some amazing waterfalls in picturesque settings, as well as some truly disgusting landscapes to explore now. The AI and behavior of the monsters is improved too. You can knock some of the smaller creatures around now, and if your blow does not kill them they will shake it off and come back for more.
Perhaps the biggest change is the level structure. You are no longer traveling across the land of Norrath in a long over-arching mission. It's now much more episodic in nature. You are given tasks by different god-like characters and must warp to different planes of existence to complete them. Mostly these tasks involve either gathering a powerful magic shard or defeating some huge boss creature, though sometimes you will be doing other interesting things like plugging holes in the plain of water so the lands below don't flood.
I like this setup because it gives you a definite stopping and starting point. You can jump onto the game and say, "I will just do one world's mission tonight" though you will likely be tempted to do more than that. If you really liked a world, you can warp back to it to fight various creatures again for experience and treasure in true hack and slash style.
If you do defeat a world by completing your main task there, it opens up a mini-game that can be played for additional challenge. These mini-games run the gamut from extremely difficult like defeating the four horsemen of the apocalypse without using any healing potions, to the humorous like running through a pac-man maze squishing frogs while being chased by even bigger creatures. Winning a mini-game gives you bonus experience and can increase your stats. Plus, you are awarded access to special maps that can be played online.
The controls of Return to Arms are pretty much identical to the original game, which is a very good thing. They are simple and easy to use. You simply push one button to swing your weapon and two other buttons can be loaded up with known spells for quick casting. The top buttons on the controller can be used to switch weapons quickly from melee to ranged or to drink healing or mana potions when needed. They are easy to learn and quickly become second nature.
Online play is a big focus with Return to Arms. If you are online you can join up and have a party of four people on the screen at the same time. You can do the same thing locally too if you have multitap controller. In addition, in the online world you can enter an arena and fight with your allies against increasingly difficult monsters. Or, you can challenge other players to a fight gladiator style.
I have always said that a console game's main strength should be its ability to gather people around the TV for a joint experience, much more so than a PC title. Return to Arms proves this, even as it adds impressive online multiplayer functions to its list of great features.
As the original game is one of my favorites for the PS2, this one had a lot to live up too. And given the fact that my wife, who does not very often play games, also liked the title then perhaps doubly so. Champions: Return to Arms lives up to our expectations, so I can thank Snowblind and Sony not just for another great game, but for a great excuse to stay home together.
John Breeden II is the Chief Editor of GiN. While a forward thinking man he admits to a fondness for older video games. You should have seen him at Videotopia. John can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org.