The straightforward simplicity of killing everything in your way is the hallmark of shooters and hack and slash games. Champions: Returns to Arms picks up where Champions of Norrath left off. As a basic hack and slash it's got everything that would make you happy with no filler. So grab an axe, a sword, some potions and a few spells and join the melee.

It's quite possible that Champions: Return to Arms is the best hack and slash game ever created. Unfortunately it has been built atop the foundation of Champions of Norrath. So much so that fans of that game may feel somewhat betrayed that Return to Arms is so similar. Consider it an improved version of Champions of Norrath - almost like an expansion pack that uses the same map.

The action is relentless if not entirely predictable. It's no secret the gameplay can become a tedious affair after a time since you will have little more to do than block and attack using axes, swords and magic. Familiar locations such as the lava stage, an underwater level, the sky dungeon and the forest have been recycled. Although there are new enemies, they still attack in the same unintelligent pattern while wielding weapons which range in destructiveness according to the level of the classes. Your best defense against the enemy is health and magic potions. Bring these along on every dungeon crawl because there are places such as the dragon's lair that you can't run out of.

The story is a bit thin. Revealed through cutscenes with the requisite bad voice acting, you are on the hunt to collect shards of the shattered god Innoruuk who was defeated in the last game. You can play as either good or bad alliances in this game. The Vah Shir Berserker and the Iksar Shaman are two new classes that you can play as. They are basically amalgams of all of the five classes. The Berserker has access to lots of axes which he can throw to make him one of the better equipped ranged fighters.

The developers have managed to instill a sense of freedom to the game, at least in terms of exploring. In the big picture the game is linear but there are different ways to go about tackling it. The dungeons are rich with goodies. Weapons, potions, health and spells are plentiful depending on your character and his or her propensity to use them effectively. New levels can be unlocked by playing mini-games in which you have a time limit to kill a specified amount of enemies. Called the medal rounds, it exists out of the main mode.

If you play through the game as all characters the replay value is tremendous - but keep in mind that's a hell of a lot of button mashing. If you left the game alone for a few weeks at a time you could squeeze so much more out of it. Then of course there are the improved online modes which supports a friends' list and a server filter system that all but eliminates cheating.

What you can expect to see is one incredibly good looking game. It's very refined and polished. The animation is very smooth. Character models are fully realized and are never obscured by the backgrounds thanks to some excellent 3D rendering which uses lighting, colors, shades and focus to fix images in a specific dimensional plane. In other words, it's easier to see things which are closer to you and the background remains in the background.

Marring an otherwise perfect presentation is the repetitive music and poor voiceacting. At least you can skip the cutscenes although you may want to see them the first time through.

Champions: Return to Arms is an excellent example of an action RPG in the tradition of Gauntlet. It's not innovative which may be of concern to fans of the genre but newbies are well advised to get this game if they want to learn how to dungeon crawl with the best of them.


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System: PS2
Dev: Snowblind
Pub: Sony
Released: Feb 2005
Players: 1 - Multi Online
Review by Dean