We’ve had the pleasant fortune of playing 38Studios’ first release, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning over the past few days. Comparisons to Skyrim and the Elder Scrolls will abound, given that Ken Rolston (of TES fame) is heading the design team. But one area where Reckoning immediately exceeds Skyrim (in my eyes) is in its combat, which has more in common with Fable or God of War than anything else. While I’ve not had enough time to truly review it just yet (that’ll be next week), I thought we could at least give you some of our first impressions after several hours in R.A. Salvatore’s new world… in short? It’s absolutely stunning, riveting, and most of all: fun. This is a world we can all get lost in, and one I don’t want to leave for some time. But let’s get into the details, the ups and downs and what works and what doesn’t so far.
A STYLIZED WORLD
The first thing you’ll notice, and either love or hate depending on preference, is the stylized look and feel of the world known as Amalur. Playing it via Origin on the PC is simply breathtaking with the color palette and exaggerated comic-book look of the characters and monsters bringing a really fantastic visual experience to the table. Spell effects are crazy and over-the-top in a good way, the way one would expect a fantasy game’s art to be when led by Todd McFarlane. Bright greens, vivid purples, and purposeful brown (as opposed to drab earth tones everywhere) make sure that your eyes are absolutely assaulted with beauty at every turn. If it sounds like I’m gushing, it’s because I am. I love the look of Amalur. It’s gorgeous. Realistic can work, but I’ve always been the type of player who feels more immersed in a world when it’s not trying too hard to be “real” and that’s exactly where Reckoning succeeds on the visual level. Add to that fantastic voice-over work (though your character is mute) and tremendous music from Grant Kirkhope and orchestras of 90 people and you have a very appealing feel to the world that reeks of high value.
At least thus far, I don’t know too much of the story. I’m one to avoid spoilerific stuff, so what I can tell you is that your character is the first and only person to be awoken from death at the Well of Souls by an industrious gnome named Fomorous Hughes. Keep this in mind: the Well of Souls is how Salvatore came up with a method for death and reincarnation in the eventual MMO, so how’s that for brilliant lore fitting into the necessary game mechanics? Anyway, things go bad as soon as you rise from the dead as it seems the corrupt and twisted Fae (elves) known as the Tuatha are running amuck and looking to destroy the Well. You manage to make it out (via a handy tutorial that has you killing trolls and giant spiders), and discover eventually that you have no destiny, no fate… and that your life and cause are in your hands alone. Talk about making the hero heroic, right?
I know from the sounds of it, the setting seems clichéd, but it’s not. In the only way I can explain it, it’s drawing from popular motifs, yes, but the art-style, the way the races are presented, and the whole idea of fate and destiny makes this feel like a fantastic and refreshing take on the high fantasy Salvatore has come to be synonymous with. I’m anxious to see where it all goes, if I can stop running side quests and focus on the damn story. Yes, you will get distracted by plenty of side quests, just like you should in any good open world RPG.
THE GLORY OF COMBAT
The first thing you’ll fall for in Reckoning, if you have a gaming soul, is its fluid and addictive combat. The way the class system is set up (with three paths: Finesse, Might, and Sorcery) you’ll be able to mix and match which you use, though skills aren’t learned by simply using them (like in Skyrim). Instead, you level normally based on experience, and each level you are given points to spend in each “Destiny” skill tree. As you spend more points in each, you unlock other Destinies (classes) which give you varying bonuses. At level 5, my character is a “Duelist” with six points in both Finesse and Might. You can spread the wealth to all trees, or focus on one, or just two. It’s all up to you and how you like to play. And you also will find a Fate Weaver who can reset your destiny for a price (re-spec).
But anyway, what this all means is you can mix and match combat at any given time. You’ll have two weapons equipped, and they can be rogue-like weapons, warrior weapons, or mage weapons and you can freely swap between them or if you play on an Xbox gamepad you can just press Y to use the secondary, while A uses the primary. It all works wonderfully well, and the game’s third-person view makes watching your efforts a treat. There’s even a meter that fills up as you defeat enemies with threads of fate. Once filled, you can go into a state that slows them down like bullet-time, but you’re still moving at full-speed and dealing extra damage. Your downed enemies will enter a temporary subdued state when they’re defeated, and you can unleash a “Reckoning” on them which amounts to some of the most incredible looking finishing movies you’ve ever seen in an RPG.
Basically, if you don’t like to read: the combat is a blast. If it’s at all a sign of what to expect from the MMO, we will all be very happy.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK SO FAR
Now, there are some things that don’t quite work for me just yet. Namely, the camera seems to swing too quickly. Maybe it’s not the case on the Xbox, but on the PC (with the mouse and with the controller) it just feels too loose, and I would give anything for a button like Zelda’s that allows me to snap the camera right behind my character. If you let it go, it seems fine, but I like to control the camera, and I shouldn’t feel the need to if it’s working at its peak.
I have one minor bone to pick with the controls: there’s no jump button. This isn’t enough to break the game for me, but it feels like a real oversight in the freedom department. You can jump off of cliffs and the like if there’s a proper “jumping spot” highlighted by the UI, but you can’t just freely bunny hop around the world and it’s a little disappointing. Thankfully the rest of the game’s depth makes up for this.
Also at least this far in, I find the inventory cumbersome. Why every game can’t just employ the grid and box system found in Diablo and MMOs, I’ll never know. It works and it works well. Giant long text-based lists of every item in my position are far more cumbersome. Somethings aren’t broken, and shouldn’t be messed with. The paper-doll plus grid inventory system is an RPG staple.
Lastly, you’ll notice as soon as you’re in the open that there are plants to be harvested everywhere in the world. Doing so will net you reagents for crafting potions, and the whole system is a lot of fun… except you’ll quickly find yourself running all over the place and pressing “A” to loot the plants. You don’t even have to stop to do this. It just happens as you’re moving, so you can actually run around in crazy patterns looting flowers at lightning speed. If they wanted the NPCs to be really realistic, they’d make them call in a psychiatrist on you after witnessing your speed picking.
I’ve got a lot of ground left to cover with Reckoning before we review it “Outside the Box” next week. I don’t know if I’ll even be able to finish the main quest, given the size and scope of the game. It’s truly every bit as engrossing and massive as the best of the Elder Scrolls series, albeit with better combat and a more “walled in” feeling world at times. Still, thought I’ve just scratched the surface, it feels like a hit. There’s a lot to love here, despite its faults. It’s rare when we’re treated to such epic RPG goodness on a single-player scale, and we’ve usually had to just thank God for Elder Scrolls. Now? Well now, it seems we can add Amalur and 38Studios to the list of developers who know precisely how to make a grand role-playing game. I have a feeling I’ll be running around Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning for weeks to come, and loving every minute of it.