Champions: Return to Arms
“Make a cup of tea so I can recover some Mana and convert it to arrows”, says player number two. Or at least they could if you were playing this rather tasty level-’em-up with more than one player. What we have here is a problem. We’ve got to convince you that Return To Arms is great when played with more than one player while our screenshots clearly show a single female character tearing up a fantasy world. This is because you have to invest a lot of time in the game if you want to not only get fun out of it, but if you want to survive. We’ve already racked up over sixteen hours of multiplayer action when we previewed the game last issue. Yes, the game is improved greatly with the addition of two to three other players, either through split-screen, or if you play online. Ideally we’d have two to four reviewers all playing the game for another sixteen hours, but then there would be no one left to write the rest of the magazine. This game is large and requires time, but thankfully it plays elegantly even if you’re playing alone and just fancy smashing a goblin in the face. Admittedly there are moments when a single hero may find that they could do with some help when battling a level guardian but they can persevere, try some new strategies and win in the end. It just takes slightly more brains than brawn. So we’d better recap: Return to Arms is the follow-up to Champions Of Norrath: Realms Of EverQuest. It was a game that took the universe of the Massively Multiplayer Online role-playing game, EverQuest, and transformed it into an action RPG that’s viewed from above and plays like the old arcade classic Gauntlet, but WIth Numbers. This means that we can call it a GWIN and drop in a quick gag about it not being a beat-’em-up but rather a… yes, we used that weak joke in the above paragraph. Of course thete is a story, but it’s really just a skeleton on which to hang the flesh of the game that involves performing a series of mini-quests. As you continue on your adventure you’ll earn experience points that can then be spent on your character’s attributes. Hundreds of varied bits of equipment are available for purchase or collecting and all affect how good you become at combat since they have their own attributes, and can affect yours directly. Some swords will increase your strength, for example, which will modify your attacks to become more potent while a heavy weapon is slower to swing unless, of course, you’ve increased your strength due to something subtle like a Ring Of Strength. The game is about combat, exploration, some mild puzzle solving, but above all it’s about loving the statistics of your character. Return To Arms’ greatest trick is that it takes a lot of hardcore RPG data and translates it to a remarkably simple interface. You can attack with a melee weapon, you can block. You can cast magic and you can use ranged attacks with bow or dagger. On the surface this makes it look as if you’re just walking up to an evil dude and smacking a number of their head and so it’s not going to look like the most enticing of pastimes to the casual player, but once you played for an hour and have levelled up a few times, then the real satisfaction will start to weep out of the wound. Weapons, for example, can be boosted with magical items, which means that a mace that was only knocking off thirty points of damage now does a massive seventy. Yes, it is exciting, even if you play alone. The whole experience is beautifully rendered in high resolution, which makes for some sumptuous details in the graphics. The orchestral score just adds to the overall sense of quality and the animation is spot-on. All this action RPG loveliness doesn’t come alone, however. While the game sure does look pretty, it does often rely on maps that only make sense if you accept it’s a game. What are those beasts doing living in a symmetrical maze anyway? No reason. Even the cute additions of wild animals that roam the landscapes do little to convince you that you’re in anything but a highly convoluted world built of narrow paths and rooms that don’t seem to have any real purpose. The older, more experienced reader will recognise this overall feel as being remarkably reminiscent of the first dungeon exploration games of the early Eighties. The good news is that those game’s were very involving, and so is this. It’s easily the finest example of the genre, but then you have to take into account that the genre has been in development in for twenty years, and if they hadn’t had made it work perfectly by now you’d have to ask questions.