Written by  :  Terrence Bosky (5472)
Written on  :  Jul 03, 2004
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Dark Alliance 3?

The Good

High amongst the treetops of Faydark Forest, in the embattled Elven village of Kelethin, Liethkorias the Elf-King has assembled the would-be Champions of Norrath. Before him stand male and female Erudite Wizards, Dark Elf Shadowknights, Barbarian Warriors, High Elf Clerics, and Wood Elf Rangers. Their task is to repel the Orc/Goblin army, led by the Great Orc Pelys, which is threatening Kelethin and Norrath itself. So begins Champions of Norrath, an RPG similar in style to Interplay's Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance series—largely due to Snowblind Studios' participation. Champions of Norrath (CoN) not only invites comparisons to Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, it welcomes them and already has the tea ready.

CoN can either be played as a single or multiplayer (1-4 players) game (with online and Multitap support)—or both since the game offers the option to import or remove characters. There are three difficulty levels depending on your character’s level and whether you have beaten earlier difficulty settings. CoN has a random dungeon and item generator, so there is replay here.

Players choose the characters of their choice (my marital martial party consisted of: one Erudite Wizard, female and one Barbarian Warrior, male) and then there's a high degree of customization available. Unlike BG:DA, you can name your players and customize their appearance. My iron-thewed Barbarian made up for in tattoos what he lacked in hair and the Erudite Wizard was an ebony goddess. We then began our adventures in Norrath, ill-equipped but stout of heart.

Divided into Five Acts, the game was a little lackluster in the beginning. Players familiar with BG:DA will have a definite sense of "been there, done that". However, even the first Act had some nice touches. CoN throws a lot of missions at you which add a sense of urgency. Before you can descend to the forest floor, you have to kill a certain number of goblins which have invaded Kelethin—all the while avoiding flaming shot fired at you from catapults far below. A future mission will have you destroying those catapults, but not before slaying an Orc Shaman who's wandering around the battlefield resurrecting the fallen horde. Later Acts really shine: defending a Dwarven Village against an Ant attack, fighting a blasted, batrachian race beneath a desert isle, and taking the battle against evil to other planes.

With all the combat that ensues, it's reassuring to know that there are *thousands* of items to be found in addition to what you can buy from local merchants. Of course, not everything you find will be worthwhile. There are plenty of rusty swords better left on the dungeon floor, but some real treasures are out there too. What's interesting is that the best stuff you can find in the dungeon is usually equal to the best stuff in the shops. There are some limitations as far as which classes can use what and more restrictive limitations according to what level your character is—you may have to lug some equipment around for quite a while before you can use it.

CoN also has a armor/weapon power-up option similar to BG:DA2's Workshop. Unlike BG:DA2, you don't have to balance gems with rune stones or face the law of diminishing returns. If you find a special item and your armor/weapon has an open slot, just drag the object over said piece to attach it. Two caveats: unlike BG:DA2 you can't break the item down afterward and the world of Norrath is not abundant with these materials. Shop owners don't sell them and they aren't growing from trees. Having said this, this is a much better system and something that should be unique and special, stays unique and special.

Since, at least, the Diablo days, there's been a fast way to get out of the dungeons and back to civilization. CoN has two. You can find or purchase Gate Scrolls which act as one way trips from the dungeon to the local retailer and vice versa. There are also Portals, which are scarce, but more powerful. Each Act has several main areas and once you have discovered a Portal for an area, you can use it to travel to other Portals (within that Act) you have discovered. CoN has a nice number of Save Points too, which can serve to resurrect fallen members of a party.

When it comes to “role-playing”, CoN is closer to BG:DA than its sequel. There are few conversation options—and it doesn’t seem like there’s any sort of branching gameplay. And there is nothing character-specific, which was a nice touch in BG:DA2. CoN RPG system resembles that of D&D: you have basic stats to which you assign points affecting how much damage you do, how much damage you can take, your magical effectiveness and other similar traits. When you earn enough experience points (the party shares XP 60/40 but not gold), your character advances in level and you can assign a few more points to your core attributes and then select skills specific to your character. These skills are branching abilities your character has: the magic user selects spells, the warrior select special attacks, etc. With the exception of a few innate abilities, these special skills drain mana (mana’s the blue bar and life is the red).

To the best of my knowledge, CoN uses the same engine as the Dark Alliance games, but it definitely gets the most out of it. In the single player mode, you can zoom in to your character and see the amazing amounts of detail put into the game. For instance, a torch lit cavern may have little pools of water with crabs scurrying about. An arctic level first amazes with realistic penguins and then surpasses with lifelike Orcas swimming beneath the water. Character animations look great and the voice work is well done. CoN also has great sound effects and music.

I was constantly amazed by CoN, constantly challenged, and constantly interested. CoN is nicely balanced to present a challenging, but not impossible, series of levels to the player. At no point did I feel like I was too powerful or that I had too much money. And the story is great, expertly weaving side quests into the main story arc.

The Bad

My biggest complaint with CoN has to do with its inventory system. At this point, you should be able to directly share items with your party instead of dropping items on the ground. CoN has a shop system inferior to the Dark Alliance games. In the Dark Alliance games, weapons were presented in a list with stats included. In CoN, you have to mouse over the jumble of weapons (which aren’t shown as a clean list) to see which ones are the best.

Over the course of the game there are a wide variety of enemies, however there isn’t much variation within a level. So if you are fighting goblins in a forest, expect to fight a lot of goblins. The same goes for spiders, ants, etc. I guess Norrath doesn’t have a Monster Manual to dig into.

I spoke highly of the sound and graphics, but there are some downsides as well. Sound effects are good, but there are some drops, so you might not get that sound confirming that you picked an item up or hit a monster. The recorded dialogue doesn’t seem to start until all the subtitles are on the screen, at which point you know already know what the character will say. There are some graphical drops as well, so you might have to wait for the landscape to load before continuing your adventure—this might have to do with CoN’s random dungeon generation. Also on the graphics side, in the multiplayer mode the camera is pulled back a little too far so you miss the detail and are just a little too removed from the action.

My final complaint has to do with losing team members. If a member of the party dies, you cannot use a Gate Scroll to head back to safety. You either have to backtrack (which means walking back later) or hit a save point. Of course, this is when it seems like there aren’t any save points.

The Bottom Line

There’s not much not to like here, if you are a fan of Dark Alliance-Diablo-Gauntlet type games. Snowblind adds another strong entry into the genre. Of course, the real question is: What would they have done with Dark Alliance 2?