Usually we identify good videogames by the time that we spend with them. After all, if we spend loads of time playing a game, then it follows that the game is quality, right? Right? I'm not so sure. Even if a game compels us to play it, that doesn't necessarily means that the game is compelling. Spending hours reading Harlequin romances or watching old Transformers episodes is hardly an indication that the media involved is noteworthy. The human mind is easily entrapped.
I found myself playing Champions of Norrath over and over again, hour after hour, even though I knew exactly what the game was going to give me. There were absolutely no elements of surprise or intellectual questioning involved in playing. I played the game like I would consume a fast food meal, ingesting without really thinking about what was happening. Actually, it was more like I consciously avoided thinking about because I knew that my analysis would impair the experience, holding my nose while I wolfed down my sustenance, afraid of what I would notice if I tried to prod it.
How did I know what was going to happen? Simple: I'd played Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. Heck, I'd played Diablos I, II and the expansion pack. Sure, I probably had some questions about how the game would work before I picked it up, but after a few hours of playing, it's clear what the game is going to do. It's a pretty simple formula. Lots of monsters, characters that level up as you kill monsters and lots of treasure that your character can wear/use/drink/exchange. I've also read more than a few fantasy novels, which pretty much covers the basic narrative elements of the game.
So I knew what was going to happen. Yes, the game failed to surprise me a single time, at least in a good way. So why did I keep playing it? Why did I keep on pouring time into it even after beating it and starting over on the next difficulty level?
Well, the foundation of the gameplay is a pretty successful one, mainly because the concept is one anybody can grasp relatively quickly. There can be a real satisfaction to doing the same thing over and over again, as long as the enemies keep changing, the equipment keeps getting better and there are more glowing spell effects to go around. It's pretty easy for anyone to sit down and start smashing their way through things, and the accessibility and sweet simplicity of the design make it easy for the player to sit down and take as much time as they want fighting against the hordes and building up their characters at the same time.
But Champions of Norrath is annoying because it takes this simple, popular game type and then tries its best to make it unpalatable. First of all, it's hard to get fantasy that's more generic, or even a videogame more generic, than Champions. Norrath is technically a different setting, being part of EverQuest rather than the usual Dungeons & Dragons license. But in practice, it might as well be the same. Oh, so there're gnomes instead of dwarves. Boy, that really shakes the foundations of my world. The derivative settings (Ice word! Fire world! Where do they come up with this stuff?) and characters aren't helped by the writing, which is laughably bad. It's like they took an EverQuest fanfic collection and shoehorned it into something that's supposed to be a plot. Actually, EverQuest fanfics generally have better dialogue.
But that shouldn't be a major concern. After all, in such a gameplay-heavy system, if the trimmings aren't up to snuff, it's no real skin off the player's back. And here, Champions does a good job of offering up a variety of challenges as well as some fairly well-done skill trees, where the characters can gain greater powers every level by selecting powers set on an ever-expanding tree-structure of choices. There is overlap between character classes, with nearly every class that has magic having some redundancy in terms of spell use, but this can hardly be avoided given the combat-heavy nature of the genre. There is one incredibly frustrating aspect to the gameplay, however. Champions has the unfortunate tendency to generate powerful items. But how could that be bad?
Getting new loot is always a big part of games like this, serving as a positive reinforcement for increased gameplay along with the increasing levels of the characters. Now, the problem isn't that the items are overpowering, because your characters can't use them. By using level requirements on certain items, Snowblind keeps characters from getting items that might be too powerful for their levels. But the items are frequently generated for levels far above the character's, to the point where an especially powerful artifact might not be usable for five to ten more hours of gameplay, which is an eternity to most players. Especially so because there's no alternative method of item storage aside from the character's inventory, which is limited by how much weight a character can carry. Perhaps the developers felt that a method was needed to cause players to pick the "Carry More Crap" skill, but this doesn't feel like a satisfying rationale for making players lug incredible amounts of stuff around just so that they can actually use it in, say, 20 more character levels (or 30, and I'm not exaggerating at all).
I'm also pretty tired of games getting released before they're ready, but releasing something half-baked is a trend that happens to be on the increase. Rather than take the time to properly test the game, adherence to deadlines will cause a developer to release a game bugs and all, as long as it gets to the stores. Champions is especially buggy in terms of graphics, with constant draw-in on the edges of the screen, not to mention several startling moments when the entire dungeon (or field, or what have you) disappeared for a few seconds. There were also a few instances where the game came close to lock-up before the system continued. It's a real shame that the game was shipped weeks or possibly months before it was really ready to be playable and a bigger shame that the console scene continues to be relatively forgiving of such behavior, especially considering the difficulties of patching console games.
Champions of Norrath is generic, buggy and has at least one outstanding design flaw in generating items that can't be used, at least any time soon, by the characters that find them. This doesn't change that at the center of the mistakes lies a chewy, nougat-esque core of gameplay that while old and hoary, remains eminently satisfying for the player. Like a fast food menu item, Champions of Norrath isn't going to be an experience for the player to relish and pontificate upon later, but it will serve excellently as a quick nosh for those hungry for mindless action.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.