Exactly one year ago from Champions: Return to Arms’ release, Everquest and hack-and-slash fans were treated to Champions of Norrath: Realms of Everquest. It was the latest in titles that sported the underlying Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance engine, allowing people to enjoy killing, killing, and more killing with ease.

Now, Snowblind Studios has tried once more to bring gamers back into the world they previously created. Did they succeed the second time around? It depends if you like game sequels that have been simply tossed into the blender and re-released with a slightly different flavor.

Champions: Return to Arms sports the exact same graphic engine that powered their previous title, with a few slight improvements. That’s not to say that’s a bad thing, as the game was impressive to look at when it was released a year ago. Levels are large and expansive, and your character and your opponents are detailed and animate well.

As in the first game, you’ll travel through a forest world, a mechanical land, numerous caves, and an underwater level. Unlike the prior title, none of these lands are randomly generated on the fly, but are instead the same every time you visit them. This is a good thing in my mind, as it allowed the developers to put lots of little touches on the levels. Birds and butterflies fly overhead, while water ripples underfoot.

The character detail continues to be impressive. Character models are large and animate realistically, and any armor you put onto your heroes is shown in both the inventory menus as well as the main game. As before, there’s a large variety of weapons and armor to acquire, so you’ll be able to play virtual dress-up to your heart’s desire.

In short, if you’ve played the previous Champions title, little has been changed with the game graphically. If you haven’t, you’ll be treated to a bunch of detailed worlds and monsters to beat the daylights out of.

The sound effects in this game are your basic fantasy fare – slash, clang, kaboom, whoosh, growl, whatever. Your sword slashes into your opponent, a fireball roars overhead, and your feet splash through the water. Odds are, if you’ve played any kind of fantasy game in the last 5 years, you’ve heard these sound effects before.

The voice acting, while decent, almost falls into the overblown category. It sounds like the actors tried too hard to give a good performance. While it sounds better than most celebrity phoned in voice lines, it’s nothing that truly deserves notice.

The music…well, let’s just say that every so often, usually for no reason at all, the orchestra hiding inside your speakers decides to wake up and belch out a musical ditty for about 20-30 seconds. After that, they fall asleep again. You’ll listen to ambient sounds and your footfalls about 95% of the time. The other 5% will be the aforementioned music or a completely forgettable boss soundtrack.

There are also some issues with the sounds in general. In the original title, each of the five heroes would have a little something to say every time they entered a new level. This time around, they’re completely quiet. Also, the exact same ‘if you are dual wielding your footfalls become utterly quiet’ bug from the original haunts this game.

Very little has changed in the controls from the original game – Left Analog moves you around, Right Analog rotates/zooms the camera, while holding the digital pad brings up a little screen that allows you to assign your spells on the fly. X Attacks, Square interacts with the environment, and Triangle and Circle casts whatever spell/power you have previously chosen. L2 uses a Mana Potion, R2 uses a Healing one, L1 cycles through your melee and ranged weapon, and R1 blocks. L3 quickly realigns the camers, and R3 cycles through the on-screen map.

It may sound confusing, but it works very well. Best of all, if you don’t like it, change it all around.

In addition, the developers have improved upon the controls of the original game with one simple change – while holding the digital pad, you can push the Square button to cast whatever spell is highlighted. This little change allows you cast your buff spells much easier, which means that you’ll be using them far more often.

The year is 2001, and Snowblind Studios has just released a game engine that will be used in more games than I have fingers on my hand. That game is Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, and that engine will not only power a sequel under the same name, but a title in the Fallout universe, as well as two titles in the lands of Norrath.

It’s now 2004, and the engine is starting to get a little stale. Little has changed in the core gameplay, but it’s still a fun (albeit mindless) game at its core, filled with nothing but juice hack-and-slash.

For those of you who haven’t played the prequel, here’s everything you need to know about the game: The big evil guy you beat up in the previous title is threatening to return, and it’s up to you (choosing either the side of good or evil), to make sure that either he doesn’t get revived, or to make sure that he does.

This paper-thin story gives you the right to travel from Plane to Plane, kill thousands of creatures, and amass more loot than an army of adventurers would ever need. Unlike the first title, the levels aren’t connected to each other, and instead you are actually traveling to the different Planes to accomplish your objectives. In-between, you’ll visit Firiona Vie, an Elven lady sporting the latest in Adventurer’s Wear (in other words, wearing nearly nothing at all) and pawn off your loot.

It’s unfortunate that the story is so poor – it would help to compensate for the ‘take the original game, toss it into a blender, and re-release it’ feeling that this game has.

What was your most hated level from the original game? Odds are you’ll answer with the slow moving, never seeming to end underwater level. That level is back with a vengeance. Either that, or you’ll answer with the fire level, filled with insta-death lava, and mobs that love to stand in it and throw giant rocks at you. That’s here as well.

What about your most hated monster? Was it the aforementioned mobs that stood in the lava? Or was it the spiders that adorned another stage, armed with the ability to web and trap your hero like a fly? Both are back.

So much of the original game is in this sequel, that at one point, I actually popped out the disc and made sure I didn’t put in the original title by accident. By my accounts, you’ll play through about 80% of the prequel as you attempt to save the Planes.

What does this game offer that’s new? Not a whole lot.

Two new characters have joined the lineup – the Vah Shir Berserker, and the Iksar Shaman. The Berserker (who’s best described as an anthropomorphic cat) is a mix between powerful melee attacks, and the ability to summon throwing axes to imbed in the faces of your opponents. The Shaman (who looks like Lizard Man from Soul Calibur) is a devastating combo of melee and magic.

In a move that makes little sense, unlike the rest of the classes, these two only offer a male version of their race. Considering that these races are now a staple of the Everquest universe, the inability to choose your sex leaves me scratching my head.

As you finish off each of the new worlds, you’ll unlock the ability to journey through an optional bonus level. The goals of these levels can vary wildly – from more of the usual hack-and-slash, to a level where you’re unarmed and unarmored and are forced to kill only with an abundance of exploding barrels, to one where you basically play Pac-Man. They are a great diversion from the main game, and one wonders why these varied goals aren’t presented to you normally.

The giant improvement is online play. Unlike before, where online play was spotty at best (and littered with showstopper bugs), it’s actually playable this time around. You’ll be able to save characters on Snowblind’s servers (thus eliminating the duping that everybody did), fight in Player vs Player matches, and journey together in your goal to save Norrath.

Other additions are the ability to import your character from the original title. Think you’ve played the original enough that this game will be a pushover with your tricked out character? Think not, as there’s a new difficulty level for champions (the hardest out of four, where the original only had three) that’s guaranteed to challenge your ability to defeat evil no matter where you travel.

Unfortunately, this game needed a bit more time in the testing department. I’ve already talked about the ‘dual wielding makes your footsteps become silent’ bug, but there are more. For example, any items you find that give you a flat boost to HP or Mana (+10 to HP, +20 to MP, etc) outright don’t work. You simply don’t get the bonus at all.

For those of you who are of a class that can temporally boost the elemental damage of one’s weapons, watch out – if you enchant with the same element that you or a party member already has, if your boost is better, it’ll actually overwrite the enchant on the weapon permanently. Which means that 15 or so seconds later, when the spell runs out, so does your elemental enchant. And considering how rare of a drop those gems are that elementally enchant your weapon, you’ll have some very ticked off teammates.

There’s also the occasional issue with items dropping off of minor boss enemies. One mission requires you kill four bosses, each of which drop a key. You then use all four keys to open four chests, which in turn you use to finish the level. One of the bosses outright didn’t drop the key, which led me to restart the mission an hour later when I realized I was short one.

Finally, this game is hard. Not hard as in ‘think your way through the game’ hard, but hard as in ‘cheap near insta-kills from bosses’ hard. Keep that block button ready, as you’ll get smashed into the ground faster than you can blink in some cases.

For your $50, you’ll get seven classes, the ability to play with a party of four on or offline, a multitude of worlds to kill and amass loot, and four difficulty levels to play on so you’ll always be challenged.

It’s unfortunate that this sequel has the blender feel to it, as the original game was a blast to play.

Overall, if you’re a hack-and-slash fan, odds are you’ll enjoy this title. It brings little new to the table to recommend it over the original, and there are a few glaring bugs, but the title as a whole is still fun if the genre doesn’t put you to sleep.

If you’re looking for nothing short of a mindless action title to keep you occupied for many an hour, this is the game for you.