I must say I'm disappointed. After blazing through Champions of Norrath last year, I eagerly awaited the second installment. There's a soft spot in my heart for dungeon crawlers, and it was with the most open of minds that I approached what was sure to be the cream of the crop in the genre this year. The original was stellar, even with its wonky online play, so why wouldn't the sequel iron out the rough spots and bring the franchise closer to its full potential? Why wouldn't it be everything I was hoping for?
When will I learn not to have so much faith in sequels?
Let me be frank. There's some worth to Champions: Return to Arms, and those looking to spend an evening hacking mindlessly at everything that moves should have no problems. May they cut a swath through evil in their blissful ignorance, I say. I wish them well. For the rest of you, especially those who love this type of game, prepare to have your bubbles slowly deflated (I would have preferred a simple pop. You know, get it over with as painlessly as possible).
To see where things went wrong, we need to see the whole picture as it stands today. When we last left the land of Norrath, the champions had destroyed Innoruuk, and his body was shattered into what were called Shards of Hate. You can never keep a bad guy down, though, and his loyal followers are out to collect the shards and restore him to life. The champions are called upon once more to finally end the threat of Innoruuk and finally restore peace to the land of Norrath.
I should have seen it coming when I first read the back of the box. Perhaps Return's most immediate flaw is its total dependence on the gameplay formula of the first game. Virtually everything is identical, from the menu screens to the annoying "I need more mana!" every time you fruitlessly press the L2 button. Yes, Snowblind seemed content with releasing a full-priced expansion pack than going for something new. Mind you, I dove right into Return right after finishing Baldur's Gate 2: Dark Alliance, and the differences were quite obvious. Unlike Black Isle Studios' effort (ironically, they took over from Snowblind), which actually attempted to liven things up with new characters and a great weapon customization system, the sequel to Champions of Norrath simply throws more of the same at you without ever really attempting to differentiate itself from the first game.
Not that there wasn't any attempt at innovation. Two new races have been added, the Iksar Shaman and the Vah Shir Berserker, which are amalgams of the standard five classes already included. Both have their uses, like the Beserker's great melee abilities, but even so, the overwhelming sense of sameness that permeates the game overall is present here. Neither of the new characters truly has anything special over the others, and simply offers you two more types of killing machines from which to choose. It appears that the developers merely tacked these two on so as to say "look! More classes to choose from!" What's the point though, if they offer nothing different?