If you’re like me you have
dozens hundreds thousands of games in your back catalog. So many of those games have the story of “Oh! I’ve always wanted to play this!” tucked behind them, but they still sit on the shelf. When you’ve essentially convinced yourself these games are good and worth your time, and you let decades pass until you finally play them, you’re actually playing and entirely different game when you eventually decide to boot up an old video game.
The game of chance.
Decades of innovation. Years of player-driven feedback and expectations. Those are thrown out the window when you jump in that gaming time machine and revert back to the PS2 era of 2004. Nostalgia is a powerful factor in one’s enjoyment of any media, video games being no exception. But if you are only telling yourself a game is good because people said it was when it first released, you don’t really know first hand what it was like when it may have been the cream of the crop.
Take for example Champions of Norrath on the Playstation 2. Released back in 2004 for Sony’s ultra popular console, it was often compared to another top-down action RPG at the time, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. And rightfully so: Looking at the two games side-by-side you would be completely forgiven if you said they were the same game. Many of the mechanics, multiplayer elements, and enjoyment are one and the same between both games. The only real difference you’ll see is the story. Baldur’s Gate is a Dungeons & Dragons setting, while Champions of Norrath is actually a spinoff of the popular (at the time) MMORPG Everquest.
I had played and greatly enjoyed my time with the original Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance back on my Gamecube in 2003’ish. The animation was great, the voice acting was fun and innovative, the action addictive, and leveling up and grinding out new gear was rewarding. I can remember hearing how much better the Norrath series on the PS2 was, taking what Baldur’s Gate laid out and improving upon it. The games even went on to be fairly collectible among PS2 fanatics (I’m still looking for Champions: Return to Arms). Holding Champions of Norrath in such high regard year over year compounded these facts in my brain: This game is as good as it gets.
But then I actually played it.
Don’t get me wrong, Champions of Norrath is a good game. Fundamentally the game plays great. There’s a ton of voice acting. The graphics are solid and smooth. And I have to give a special shoutout to games that physically alter your characters appearance when you equip new weapons, I’ll always love that in a game. But I’m going to pick on this game.
This is a game of it’s time, and you can tell. Aside from being dated (obviously) in the graphics department, what’s more appalling is what we considered passable in gaming standards. There are so many moments playing through Champions that are complete wastes of time. I can recall a particular scene partway through the game that tasked me with taking out some orcs before these entitled wood elves would open a door for me to progress. Once the job was done (this took over an hour, mind you), the gate was opened, I loaded into the next zone, and all of those jerk wood elves were immediately killed. Why? Why did I have to do what these non-important characters wanted in order to move on and keep playing the game?
The answer lies in the first aspect of gaming that has changed jumping from this game’s release in 2004 to the current year 2021, and that is a story driven plot. Back on the PS2 and even prior to that, you might find yourself playing a game to enjoy the gameplay. Streets of Rage on the Genesis, for example, hooked you with solid multiplayer beat ’em up action and arguably nothing else. Super Mario 64 was a crazy fun 3D platformer. I didn’t care about Bowser and that apparent cake Peach made for me: I was there to triple jump and find stars in Penguin houses. So, too, Champions of Norrath drew players in with it’s action RPG gameplay, and maybe if you’ve played the MMO it’s story. Looking at today’s best games, though, one simple hook like a core mechanic that works isn’t enough to make for a quality title.
God of War on the PS4, for example, isn’t considered one of the best games on the console because it has solid gameplay. That’s just one of the reasons it is so well regarded. The others being a genuinely enthralling narrative, insanely impressive visuals and sound design, as well as a great hint of nostalgia for players of the whole series at that point. If God of War didn’t have a story about Kratos and Atreus’ journey, and instead just some boring revenge plot, it very likely wouldn’t be considered as good as it was. Coincidentally, though, that is the plot and general makeup of the first God of War which, wow what a coincidence, released on the Playstation 2 in 2005. This is the case with Champions.
Looking even deeper and more critically at Champions of Norrath I found out something else that just won’t stand by today’s standards: wasting a players’ time. A good way through the game you can traverse down a giant ant’s anthill. The “dungeon” is very repetitive: two tiny holes that spawn ants one at a time, with another ant coming out of the hole once the first has been defeated. This will happen four times per hole, until they stop spawning. Then you’ll walk a few feet down the spiraling anthill until you run into more holes, more ants, and more holes, and more ants. The enemies do not challenge you, they do not change their patter, and they present absolutely no fun when engaged. It’s a waste of time. I literally spent 40 minutes going down this damn hill because I had too in order to progress the story. There wasn’t even a unique weapon or chest at the end, just a boss (which we’ll get too) and a colossal disappointment.
You just don’t see this type of gameplay any more. And thank god for that because it’s honestly incredible we even accepted this back in the early 2000s. It’d be like playing Borderlands for hours on end, fighting the exact same type of fodder enemy, with no variety to the weapons you can use, the loot you can grab, the challenge present, and then at the very end of it there’s literally nothing. Just a portal back to the top to go on to the next bland zone. I expect more from my games and I expect my games to respect my time as much as I respect theirs.
The final thing I want to discuss is actually something that I cannot fully blame on the developers of Champions or on the limitations of the PS2 console exclusively, because we still sometimes see this problem on current generation consoles. That would be wasted gameplay mechanics. Champions has a leveling system, multiple character classes, a magic system, status ailments, various weapons, and even co-op multiplayer. Why is it then, with all these systems in place, the seemingly best way to dispatch foes, bosses especially, is to just wail on them until they stop moving? Here I am, trying to craft my warrior to balance defensive blocks and spellcasting to go along with her expert blade skills, only to have hard foes destroy me because they hit me while I’m trying to cast. Or because they don’t take poison damage. Or in one truly offensive example, because the boss could move so fast if I took the time to line up a spell he’d be on me so fast and dealt so much damage I would die. It’s saddening to see the potential in a game’s systems only to have them flushed down the drain when the best strategy to win is to just spam your main attack button while hitting your health potion to heal up.
I’m happy to have finally played Champions of Norrath on the Playstation 2. I can see why it was well loved upon initial release. It does a lot of things correct, and I can only imagine how cool it would have been to pop that disc in my PS2 in high school and play with friends. But playing it today for the very first time leaves a lot to be desired. It’s a bit unfair to judge a PS2 game by a PS4 game’s rubric, I know, but with so many games out there to vie for my attention I think I need to be critical in how I spend my free time. Harsh, yes, but the reality to me is that all that glitters is not gold. Admittedly I wouldn’t be saying that about today’s video games if we didn’t have the Baldur’s Gates and Champions of Norrath of the past. So I thank them for that, and look forward to playing the better games in the genre.