Players: 1 to 2 Player Game | Release Date: 02/10/04 | Genre: Action/RPG
Set in Norrath in a time well before the current events in EverQuest, Champions of Norrath begins with a summons for would-be heroes to help defeat the threat of the goblins and orcs of the land, and it takes these adventuresome souls threw danger-infested woodlands, dark dungeons, burning sands, frigid ice fields, underwater, and into the very realm of the gods. While there are those that you meet along the way (especially the bad guys) who would see you fail, it is up to you to find your way through the challenges and prove your worth. It does always help when you can pick right back up at your last saved spot when things go less than ideally, and they probably will along the way.
I'll let you know up front that most of my experience with the game comes from having two people in the game. It's one of those games that seems about impossible to play alone; everyone wants to hop in and play. This is also the source of my chief gripe in that the difficulty does not seem to change, or at least noticeably change, with more players in the game. It actually seems easier to progress through the game with more players, but it makes the process of leveling up your character slower too.
Three difficulty settings guarantee that the game will be replayable. After you finish the beginning setting, the next setting opens up. I did notice that once I had made it through the game on the first setting that it was possible to take a level 1 character into the next difficulty setting that is recommended for characters that are 20 and higher. While with some run-and-gun tactics, I could take out a few of the first goblins that you run into; if more than one came at me, I was toast. With a character of the proper level, it is still harder. Critters hit harder and faster, and the loot is more powerful.
CoN offers five character classes: barbarian (pure fighter), ranger (see enemy, draw arrow, see enemy die, but also a decent fighter), cleric (decent fighter that can heal), mage (weak fighter, but vicious spells), and shadowknight (strong fighter with spells that weaken enemies). Each class can be male or female, though gender only changes the character's appearance. I'll try really hard not to make any comments about the female erudite wizard's appearance. The amount of customization to each character's appearance leaves a bit to be desired. There are three to five choices each for skin color, hair, and facial hair. Sorry, no beards for the ladies.
As you vanquish foes, you gain experience and levels which provide you with a supply of skill points to spend on whatever spells or skills that happen to be available based on your class and level. Starting out you gain 1 point per level, around level 7 you start gaining 2 points per level, and at 17 you get 3 points per level. The branching skill tree makes it important to focus on a few skills, like you probably wouldn't want to spend points on both slashing weapons and blunt weapons. You do need to spend one point into prerequisite skills to get later ones. Some skills offer benefits to other players once enough points have been spent into them. Take critical hit for instance; once you have about 6 points into it, it generates an area of effect around the player and gives its benefits to anyone standing within it.
As you get further into the game, you're going to need to learn to use the block button (R1 by default). At first I didn't particularly like needing to block, but monsters can beat you down quickly without it. It's extremely effective in multiplayer games to let the fighters block against bosses while ranged attacks to blast it to pieces from a distance. Learning when to block and when to press the attack is a key part of combat.
One of the features that drew me to the game was the random content. The dungeons and items are randomly generated. You won't memorize the layout the first time through nor will you keep finding the same items over and over. The shopkeepers also sell random items, but it seems like what you find out in the field is often better than what you can buy. The items are equipped with 4 slots that can be socketed with gems and runes to enhance their abilities, similar to what you find in Diablo 2.
The game does have a few drawbacks. In multiplayer games, you are tied to what the other players do. If someone enters a dungeon, you get loaded into it also. When someone decides to sell some loot at a shop, you go with them. While it can be a little annoying, it does foster a sense of teamwork. Trading objects with other players online is spotty at best. Unlike games like Diablo 2 that require both sides to agree to the trade, players in CoN have to resort to dropping items and hoping that the other player is honest enough to hold up their end of the bargain.
Overall, Champions of Norrath is a good game. It looks good, has enough plot to keep the game going, and offers plenty of action. It took me somewhere in the neighborhood of 24 hours of gameplay to finish the normal difficulty, so there should be close to 3 days worth of playtime to defeat all the difficulty settings. While the game is set in the world of EverQuest, there's nothing there that should scare away people who haven't played EQ. CoN is its own game and can easily stand on its own merits. Give this one a try.