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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

I have returned to Norrath

Sony Online Entertainment isn't really my favorite company in the gaming world. For one thing, Planetside still ranks as the worst gaming experience I've ever had in my long, long gaming life. Their quality assurance seems to be the only thing on par with their customer service and to be honest - they both suck.

Despite it's bugs, however - the girlfriend and I loved the original Champions of Norrath. Really it's more of a love for Snowblind Studios than hatred for SOE - so the moral compass evens out in the end. So when the sequel was announced - well you could consider it anxiously awaited.

The reviews were pretty predictable. I love how they bother to even rate it. Like an "8" actually translates into "aw shucks, you'll buy it anyway". It would have taken some serious flaws in handling the sequel to turn most people away. Some of us, you see, have had this NetHack related addiction for years and therefore it become compulsary to buy any re-invention of the dungeon hacking genre done moderately well. Add in cooperative play that you're girlfriend can get into and you might as well rate it "SOLD".

The great thing is that Snowblind didn't fall asleep at the wheel. Reviews are accurate in stating that a lot of things from the first Norrath are reused. This includes plenty of textures, models, etc. I can understand where that's percieved generally as a negative - but I would only hold it against Snowblind if everything else done in the game was superficial.

Far from it. Let's talk just raw basics. The game runs faster and smoother. Load times are shorter. We thought we had suffered a brief lockup last night, but there was only a hiccup - so far there's been no jiggling of the disk to trick it into loading. I haven't tried the online stuff yet, but the reviews report that's been much improved as well.

The interface is improved in little, but important, ways. For instance, when you gate back to town the menu says "Gate Back" to remind you afterwards how you got there. Sounds simple, but when you're bouncing around between portals and scrolls - it's actually helpful. You can equip from the sell screen now, reducing the time it takes get back into the game.

And the gameplay itself? Where to start. Random maps are enormous improvement - especially with the good path/bad path divergence. This makes for a denser, more replayable game. They've tweaked the classes in clever ways. The Ranger can now summon arrows, for instance, which helps reduce the required load of arrows and arrow management which made that class a drag. I can't be sure of this - but I think the amount of small, useless drops have been reduced - meaning you won't have to hoard 20 clubs just to try and make a profit.

All in all, this just feels like a game the developer took some time be honest and realize previous mistakes ... then went about eliminating them. I really wish more studios would do this with their franchises. Epic did it with UT2004 - realizing in earnest things they could have done better with UT2003, and it's help made UT2004 one of the best shooters in recent history. Most of the time a sequel is all about selling a new gimmick, or changing up the graphics, or altering something in the premise. There's not enough refinement since refinement is a lot harder to sell than "REVOLUTIONARY!" ... but guys, revolutionary rarely turns out as such.

It's not like I needed another game right now. We're only about half way through Mercs ... but I'm thinking it will be patient and wait for us to return.

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