Champions Of Norrath: Return to Arms is the sequel to Champions of Norrath. It's a Sony Of America title that, for reasons that are frankly too boring to go into, is distributed locally by Ubisoft. Like the original title, it uses the same Snowblind engine that's powered two separate but more or less identical Baldur's Gate titles across all platforms, although the Sony branding on Return To Arms means it's a PS2 exclusive.
Exclusive is a funny word to bandy about, though, when you realise that Return To Arms really is functionally the same game that's been released somewhere in the region of eight times already -- see if you can name them all. The presence of eight largely identical games suggests that there's a hard core of gamers out there who aren't actually all that interested in the "role" part of role-playing, preferring instead a whole shed load of hacking, slashing and rendering into tiny bloody chunks.
Actually, that's first fallacy that needs to be addressed about Return To Arms, and all the action RPGs that have preceded it. While they've had plots, voice acting and enough stats to send the average American sports fan into fits of apoplexy, nobody plays them for the role part. The plot's essentially filler, and in virtually every case you can make your way through the entire game having little to no idea what it is you're meant to be doing, as long as you slay everything that comes running at you. Thankfully, slaughtering masses and acquiring lots of gold, armor and enchanted weaponry does happen to be quite a bit of fun. You probably know already if you're the type that'll find it fun after a number of very similar games, however, and if you're tiring of the genre, Return To Arms isn't the title that's likely to refresh your enthusiasm.
It's worth noting at the outset that, rather like its predecessor, Return To Arms isn't a title for novices in this genre, as even at the easiest difficulty setting -- aptly titled "Adventurous" -- you'll be killed within seconds if you're not fluent with the combat controls, especially blocking and evading. It's a sign of how dedicated Sony thinks gamers will be that the higher and harder difficulty levels can only be unlocked once you've finished the entire game, and only then challenged by characters that have attained suitable levels and enhancements along the way.
Like every other title in this genre, you start off by selecting your character type. The four character classes from the original title -- Human Cleric, Dark Elf Shadow Knight, Erudite Wizard, Wood Elf Ranger and Barbarian Warrior -- return, and are available in both male and female models, although that's purely an aesthetic choice.
There's also two new character classes on offer -- Vah Shir Berserker, basically a tiger with an attitude problem, and Iksar Shaman, a lizard with a spell penchant. Curiously, neither of the two new character classes offer gender options. Possibly it's this lack of distinct genitalia that makes the Vah Shir Berserker so angry all the time. Anyway, once you've made further aesthetic tweaks to your character, you get to set up your initial character stats. Return to Arms uses a simple set of four basic characteristics to determine character growth, along with a whole slew of character-class specific skills, spells and abilities. Once those choices are made, you meet up with Firiona Vie, who tasks you with the minor job of saving all of Norrath. There's probably a reason for this, but as noted earlier, you don't really need to know why, as wading in and severing limbs is just as effective whether or not you know why you're doing it.
Having been suitably charged with your mighty quest, you'll find yourself dropped into one of the game's numerous "planes", all of which sport quite distinct looks, from blood drenched plains of war to mechanical wastelands to distinctly moist water levels. Return To Arms might be based off an aging game engine, but there's been a solid amount of work done in order to make it stand out in the area of level design. Sadly, some of that design is a little undercut when you realise that aside from a single alignment choice right near the start of the game -- which we suspect will see more than 90% of gamers switch to the evil side, just for the heck of it - it's all entirely linear.
To a certain extent that lets you just get on with the slaying, slaughtering and stunningly frequent dying you'll be doing, but at the same time if you're looking for an experience that's different every time, you won't really find it in Return To Arms. The game does offer some extra-tough challenge missions that see you revisiting earlier levels, but there's no real branching storylines or choosing where to go next in this game.
The original Champions Of Norrath was a stunningly attractive game that let itself down with some noticeable slowdown and odd flickery effects when entering menu screens. The sequel's gone some way to fixing the slowdown issues for the most part, but the flickering is still prevalent in menu screens, especially if you're playing in multiplayer modes. It's a pity that a title that looks so good lets itself down in such basic ways. On the subject of the menu screens, it's also worth noting that the game uses a visual style of representing your equipment, which looks pretty but is functionally crippled compared to the system used in the Baldur's Gate games, which let you quickly assess equipment functionality without necessarily having to move a cursor over each and every item one by one.
Return To Arms supports up to four players on a single PS2, or via online play if you're confident of finding anyone online willing to stick with you for the huge number of hours it'll take to play through the game. Somehow, we suspect that in the under-utilised world of PS2 online gaming, titles like these probably rank at the bottom of the scale in terms of picking up casual gamers. With players in the room barging for space on the couch and stealing all the gold from your hard-earned kills, however, it's quite an enticing title to while away a few hours and a few cold beverages with, although you do lose the nifty close-in camera control that the single-player game offers.
It's fair to say that with this many titles offering essentially the same gameplay that this is a niche that's well satisfied with what it's already got, and on that basis Return To Arms fits its profile beautifully. If you're already a fan of the Norrath, Baldur's Gate, AD&D: Heroes or myriad of other similar titles, you'll undoubtedly enjoy Return To Arms, as long as you can overcome its rather high difficulty level. Then again, if you're already a fan, you may welcome a stiff challenge. Novices, however, should start with simpler fare such as the Baldur's Gate games, which are easy budget pickups these days, or the excellent X-Men: Legends for that matter.