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Champions: Return to Arms
Score: 80%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
Developer: Snowblind Studios
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1- 4
Genre: Action/ RPG/ Online

Graphics & Sound:
Over the last few years Snowblind Studios has helped to engineer something of a renaissance for the hack n’ slash genre, elevating it from mindless hack-fests to killing sprees with a little more meaning. This helped to carry the genre for awhile, but the genre has once again hit its peak and is in need of something new -- something that Champions: Returns to Arms doesn’t provide.

As is the case with nearly every part of the game, Champion’s visual package is virtually identical to the original. Areas are a little smaller and more focused, which has allowed Snowblind to get a little more detailed in some areas. Even with sharper details, it’s still hard to shake the feeling of déjà vu that comes with the game since a number of elements, and locales, are recycled into Champions. The same goes for special effects, which feel a little too old and overused. Lighting and water effects still stand out as the engine’s strong points, but like the gameplay itself -- clearly time for a change.

Sound rarely stands out as anything notable, which is due more towards under-use rather than quality. Music is enjoyable and usually only kicks in when you’re about to face something really big, or enter an area that is really challenging. One of the complaints I had with the last game was that it sometimes felt out of place in some situations. This is not the case here, I only wish there was a little more of it. Voice work is limited and does its job, which is about as much as you can ask for considering how light the game is on story.

Champions: Return to Arms is virtually identical to the last game -- which is ultimately its greatest flaw. Very little has been added, lending it a stale feeling to the game right from the start. The action is still enjoyable, but seems lacking.

Your adventure begins by selecting one of a handful of classes, each with its own unique differences. All of the classes from the previous game make a return and are joined by two new classes: the Iksar Shaman and Vah Shir Berserker. Both are welcome additions, but add very little to the game. The shaman is arguably the better of the two, especially due to its healing ability and magic. The Berserker is essentially a warrior with a ranged option and an armor deficiency. Most of the class’ bonuses only kick in when its health is low, which is not a place you ever want to be for too long. As an added bonus, players can import their characters from the first game into Return to Arms, allowing you to continue their adventures and get them to the newly raised level cap of 80. New abilities have also been added for these classes.

A large part of the game is spent roaming randomly generated dungeons while killing everything in your path. When the going gets tough, you have your trusty vials of health and mana potions to keep you going for a little longer. This appears to be the core focus of the game since story rarely pops in. The original’s story wasn’t exactly The Lord of the Rings, but it still managed to put together a decent plot. Champions: Return to Arms instead boils down to a series of random missions that somehow are supposed to end up with you saving the world. Soon after your quest begins you’re given the choice of either sticking with the good guys or joining the forces of evil. All this means is that you’ll take alternate paths in certain areas, but in the end, you’re still gunning for the same goal either way.

Though a majority of the game feels the same, additions have been added to both address problems and give the game some replay value. Medal rounds are mini-games that can be played after completing levels. Challenges are usually pretty tough, but the rewards aren’t really worth it until you’re further along in the game. Still, they offer something else to do and extend the replay.

Multiplayer is the other big focus in Champions: Return to Arms. The previous game’s online mode was a blast to play and turned out to be the game’s saving grace. However, it also fell under heavy criticism for laggy play and less-than-friendly interface. All of the game’s past mistakes have been fixed, and the experience is still the best aspect of the game.

As with most hack n’ slash games, enemy A.I. is more about sending legions of enemies at you rather than putting you in a chess match with intelligent A.I. Tactics are as basic as the gameplay -- just keep on slashing and cramming potions down your gullet. Even when living by this credo, Champions: Return to Arms can still be a challenge. How much of a challenge depends on if you’re importing a character or not.

Difficulty settings are set up a little differently than other games. Instead of the typical, Easy/Medium/Hard settings, each is set up for a different level character in mind. Fresh characters are better suited for the first tier and so on. Each additional tier is meant for characters in those levels. Playing with an imported character is really the more enjoyable of ways to play and feels more balanced. When starting a new character, even on the recommended beginner level, some enemies come off as too powerful. There’s no real curve while you build up levels. Instead, you’re facing still odds throughout the game. For example, having to face a boss with the ability to potentially kill me in one shot in the second level is not my idea of a “fun” challenge. Even when trying to learn patterns and employ some sort of strategy, the odds still seemed stacked against me.

Game Mechanics:
Controls are very easy to learn, making Champions: Return to Arms a game anyone can pick up and master in a matter of minutes. Attacks are limited to the X button, while the other face buttons handle any skills or spells you might assign to them. The only control elements that take any getting used to are blocking. When in the heat of battle, the usual instinct is to just keep hitting your opponent until its dead. This strategy works most of the time, provided you have enough potions. Learning when to block will not only save your life, but will also free up the gold you would normally spend on potions, allowing you to purchase better items.

Although it takes a few steps forward in regards to fixing major problems with the original, Champions: Return to Arms still remains stationary. Few new ideas are offered, making it feel like more like an expansion pack than a sequel. Multiplayer elements, both online and off, are the game’s best offerings, while the single-player experience is rather lackluster. Still, if you’re a fan of the genre, you probably can’t go wrong with this one.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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