Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Preview

18 Jan 2012

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Electronic Arts
Developer:Big Huge Games
Release Date:2012-02-07
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
Though the open-world RPG might have seen its most prolific release late last year in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, there's still plenty more fun to be had for players looking to explore, loot and conquer. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has been turning some heads in the last few weeks leading up to its early February release, especially due to the pedigree of the individuals working on it. While we can't say definitively just yet whether this massive R.A. Salvatore-, Ken Rolston- and Todd McFarlane-fuelled action-RPG lives up to its equally massive potential, based on our extended hands-on time with the game, it's looking to be one of the best games of its type in the last couple of years.

Welcome To Amalur

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is based on an original fantasy world created by veteran author R.A. Salvatore, whose work in the Dungeons & Dragons franchise has been reflected in a number of other games, such as Icewind Dale and Baldur's Gate. Being a brand-new game world, however, Amalur instead opts for a tinge of Irish mythology rather than the traditional fantasy tropes. References to Fae (non-mortal "fairy" races), the Tuatha (in Amalur's case, a race of demonic Fae waging war on the mortal realm), and other concepts out of folklore help to give Reckoning an original background. While it never feels particularly alien, it's always nice to play an RPG with a slightly different source of inspiration, even if it comes from the father of so much D&D canon.

At the center of Reckoning is the notion of Fate - that all beings have predetermined lives and outcomes. A warrior-monk order, the Fateweavers, exist to read the threads of Fate and advise the inhabitants of the world in how to deal with their lives best. As the player character, you change all that. Resurrected from total death by a Gnomish experiment, the Well of Souls, you awaken in the midst of a Tuatha attack, escape from their grasp, and shortly learn from a Fateweaver that unlike every other mortal, you have no Fate whatsoever - and more, that you are able to bend the threads of fate to your will.

While it's impossible to go into more details based on the sampling of gameplay we tried out, Reckoning holds a lot of promise both in its interesting folklore-tinged game world, and in its story setup, which to a degree recalls Planescape: Torment. Though the game doesn't take itself entirely seriously, there's still more here to latch onto than most other action-RPGs, and we're eager to see where things go in the full game. There is a lot that can be done with this kind of setup, and it'd be nice to see Reckoning play it boldly rather than safely.

One thing that we did get a sense for based on our time with the game is the style of the writing and the quests. Reckoning, while never really straying from traditional RPG quest design (go here, collect an object, kill a few monsters), also manages to wrap them up in entertaining ways. Almost all quests have some sort of interesting twist or tie-in to the game world (such as one where a disciple from a monetary is convinced he'll be granted great powers, and constantly debates his future "wizard name" even as he depends on your help), and very few play out exactly as expected. At the very least, it seems most quests involve some dialogue options, or a dungeon crawl, and several have a couple of different outcomes based on choices made. After playing hours of Skyrim, it's nice to see the designers and writers having some fun with the usual RPG tropes, rather than following them to the letter without even a hint of self-awareness.

A Fable To End Fable

Reckoning takes many of the design tenets of open-world games like The Elder Scrolls and Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga, but more than any, it draws inspiration from the Fable series. In fact, the resemblance to Fable, at least on the surface, is almost uncanny - the artwork is cartoonish and feels like a mix between Lionhead's game and Blizzard's signature Warcraft style, there's a tinge of humor and levity that runs throughout the quest design and writing, and the action-style combat has more in common with traditional action games or even brawlers than other action-RPGs.

To label the game as a straight-up open-world affair is a little bit inaccurate. Rather than featuring a near-limitless stretch of terrain to explore, Reckoning follows the more traditional hub-area approach that RPG fans will be more than familiar with. The world is divided into a number of distinct zones, with multiple building interiors to explore and dungeons to delve into. Despite the traditional structure, however, the sheer size of the world is impressive - the full game looks like it will have over 30 distinct hub locations to explore, each stocked with dozens of quest opportunities. It's hard to tell just how progression will be handled in the full game, but with such a large world at our fingertips, it's hard to not get excited at the prospect of traversing it.
The key difference between Reckoning and Fable is that where Fable has continually downplayed statistics and other RPG standards to focus more on its "life simulation" gameplay, Reckoning has a very robust RPG framework underneath. Stats, skills and abilities are plentiful, and both non-combat and combat options are covered. Though we'll save going into the full details for our full review in a few weeks, the character system allows for more options than many others, with robust character creation featuring four races, gender options and even patron deities (which was lacking in Skyrim).

The character system primarily revolves around assigning points to skills (which are non-combat, i.e. Persuasion, Blacksmithing, Lockpicking, etc.) and abilities (which are combat-oriented). The non-combat abilities are raised in a manner very similar to Alpha Protocol, with a straight linear progression of each ability, but the skills follow a more traditional tree that resembles Diablo II's. There are nine non-combat skills, and three combat skill trees (Sorcery, Might and Finesse), but the lack of distinct classes leaves some options open, so you aren't forced to be an incoherent buffoon if you choose to wield a sword, just as a mage can also be a competent blacksmith.

While leveling up, collecting loot, and building your character isn't the deepest affair ever (most notably, there are no attribute points to assign, i.e. strength or dexterity), it's a good deal more than what many other RPGs on the market offer right now, and there's enough depth to make the system interesting without being confusing or alienating for more casual fans. For an action-RPG, Reckoning hits a good balance in appealing to two different crowds. Truth be told (and I mean Lionhead no discredit), Reckoning, to me, feels like what the Fable series should have been from the start.

Putting The Action In Action-RPG

Though it does have many non-combat skills, and exploring, talking to NPCs and so on makes up a good portion of gameplay, Reckoning's combat is ultimately unavoidable. While most action-RPGs awkwardly tread the line between action games and more traditional RPGs, Reckoning is perhaps the first game of its type to bring the same level of fluidity and finesse found in action games like God of War to the RPG genre. Combat is fast, fun, responsive, and driven by a fairly extensive combo system... and frankly, it makes games like The Witcher 2 feel downright clunky in comparison.

No matter how you play your character, you'll be able to equip primary and secondary weapons of any types, and switch between them freely (using the mouse wheel on PC, or the face buttons on your gamepad of choice). Weapons range from warhammers, to longswords, to daggers, to staves, to bows, to scepters, and while there are no class restrictions, there are ability restrictions on some of the higher-level items, meaning that you'll end up using gear that suits your character build. Though combat is handled on two buttons, combining different strikes and alternating the timing results in a variety of different moves unique to each type of weapon - longswords can smack enemies up into the air, staves do area-of-effect damage, and so on. Magic can be unleashed from time to time, limited by a mana meter, and while all characters will start with a basic attack spell, you'll have to improve your Sorcery line of abilities to unlock more.

Stealth is another way to play the game, and while it's not as fleshed out as straight-up combat, I can also see it becoming a viable alternative for people who don't want to deal with fighting outright. Crouching down at any time will enter stealth mode, and similar to the Elder Scrolls games, the appearance of eye icons cues you in on how close you are to being detected. Instead of one icon, you get icons per each creature in the area, so it's much easier to figure out who can see you and who can't. Sneaking up to targets allows you to perform insta-killing melee takedowns, which are short non-interactive sequences similar to those found in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I'd be lying if I said I didn't hope for something a little more robust (I think a critical attack multiplier would be more interesting than a kill-button), but at least it works, which can't be said of the stealth in many other RPGs.
Finally, as a "Fateless One", your character will be able to periodically enter "Fateshift Mode", which offers up extra damage, armor, and bonus experience points. Truth be told, it's nothing to write home about, but ties in well with the game's action-oriented nature and can be saved up to tackle some of the game's more difficult boss enemies. On top of that, you can also select from a host of Destinies as you level up, which are represented as cards and confer passive bonuses (more or less taking the place of character classes). While the idea is nice as window dressing, I just don't think it's quite as big a hook as the game makes it out to be, and the idea of being unbound by Fate sounds like it could have much more interesting implications than a simple combat power-up or a few stat boosts.

If there's a gripe to be had about the combat, it's that the enemies aren't too interesting to fight and go down way too quickly. Bosses have large and inflated hit point counts, but standard enemies, if they aren't too high a level, go down with only a few attacks. Things do improve as you encounter more exotic enemies (fairies that fire magic projectiles, and giant trolls), but I can't help but feel that the focus on faster combat has taken the edge off of some of the game's challenge. Still, that's a bit hard to judge from the early stages of the game alone. Another smaller issue is that the almighty roll seems to make blocking attacks unimportant - 38 Studios and Big Huge Games clearly did not learn by The Witcher 2's example.

Technical Difficulties

Despite the fact that Amalur runs smoothly, looks pretty good (if you don't mind its visual style) and has a decent soundtrack and voice-acting, it also seems to have its share of glitches and other problems. During play I came across issues with texture pop-in (on my high-end PC, it's worth noting), characters flickering and disappearing during cutscenes, cameras clipping through walls during dialogue sequences, stretching and warped polygons, and a couple of full-on crashes. Simply put, the version of the game we played wasn't entirely stable, and while the bugs aren't game-breaking, they strike me as the sort of beta, pre-release issues that need to be addressed before final release.

Likewise, the user interface is a bit awkward, with multiple nested menus requiring several button inputs to perform fairly basic tasks (like equipping items), and text crammed into tiny boxes, which necessitates more scrolling than is probably needed. It's clearly a console-driven UI, but even by those standards it's not too great, and on the PC, with a mouse and keyboard, it's fairly clunky, only mitigated a bit by a convenient quickbar for items and spells, and hotkeys for opening various sub-screens. Again, I hope this will be improved a bit by release or in future patches, but somehow I doubt it.

Last, there are a few problems I had with the game's controls and camera. While the PC controls are mostly fine, there is a good deal of mouse smoothing that makes camera movement feel a bit unnatural, and it's impossible to turn it off - rather than 1:1 control, it's much closer to a "virtual joystick" implementation, and I'm not a fan of it. On an Xbox 360 controller, the default button layout is also awkward - the same button is used for both sprinting and interacting (A), which means I was constantly talking to NPCs and using objects I didn't intend to; this also makes it impossible to turn the camera while sprinting, unless you twist your index finger around to the right stick. Last, the camera perspective itself is very close to your character and low to the ground, only zooming out contextually in combat. I felt a little motion sick due to the low field of view and found I had to rotate the camera far more than I should have. Placing the camera a little higher up and zooming it back a touch would do wonders, and why it's locked in place so rigidly is a question I have no answer for.

Conclusion

Still, the control and interface issues, while an annoyance, don't really take away from Kingdoms of Amalur's core strengths of responsive combat, interesting quests, and compelling world. It's hard to be too harsh on things like bugs when we're talking about pre-release code, but given the game's release is only two weeks away, it's worth bringing them up. In any case, Reckoning is not the deepest RPG ever created, or the most open-ended, but it doesn't pretend to be either. Players looking for a sizeable action-adventure with plenty of looting, crafting, fighting and talking to do will definitely walk away from Reckoning pleased, and it's our hope that the full game will be able to make good on its potential.