The environments have some great detail.
If you’re even tangentially connected to video games that deviate from the big cash-cow options of linear, realistic first-person shooters and endorsed sports simulations, chances are you’ve heard of a game called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. After all, it isn’t often when a new IP makes it out of the imagination of a basement programmer and onto major platforms. Sure, indie titles can sneak into consoles and hard drives, but we’re talking a full-blown commercial release backed by the marketing juggernaut of EA. You need to have serious clout to get them involved. Being a major league baseball star helps.
Curt Schilling isn’t just a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, you see. He plays and is passionate about MMORPGs. He founded 38 Studios to develop his own, currently code-named Copernicus. In the meantime, his creative resources for the art direction and backstory for the project, Todd MacFarlane & R.A. Salvatore respectively, also developed a single-player RPG called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which boasts an open world, organic and free-flowing combat and a dynamic character-building system allowing you to change what sort of character you play on the fly. It’s an impressive endeavor on paper.
At first blush, however, it seems that a few notes have been cribbed from BioWare. You start the game having been recently resurrected (Mass Effect 2) in an underground facility reminiscent of the Deep Roads (Dragon Age: Origins) and everybody seems to be in awe of you but are no help in filling in the gaping holes in your memory due to your amnesia (Knights of the Old Republic 2). I don’t mean to say or even imply that Reckoning is ripping off BioWare or anybody else. R.A. Salvatore apparently wrote up a timeline of 10000 years’ worth of history for this new world, and I like the fact that the primary conflict is due to a struggle between the Summer and Winter Courts kind of like that one novel in the Dresden Files.
While the story beats may feel familiar, the world at least has a unique aesthetic with a breathtaking amount of detail. The world is rendered in such a way that every aspect has some thought & creative energy behind it. The walls and decoration of buildings give them a lived-in feeling and the forests have flowers, fungus and greenery aplenty. Character designs opt more for fantastical, painter-like style rather than photo-realism, and it fits in with the overall design of the world even if the NPCs seem to only have three or four gestures between them.
I can see why you’re by a fire. Doesn’t it get cold in that getup?
You’ll be seeing those gestures quite a bit, too, as you go from one glowing exclamation point to the next picking up quests. Like the MMOs that drove Schilling into the gaming business, Reckoning is structured to present a world in which you can explore every corner as you hunt down quest objectives, item drops or just some extra experience to build your character. The knowledge of these origins and the nature of the gameplay make it not quite as immersive as Skyrim but it’s still a tried-and-true design that will have players grinding for hours, battling enemies they happen upon and taking all their stuff.
Combat immediately reminded me of the likes of Fable and Dragon Age 2, with a slightly better pace. You can switch on the fly between two melee weapons and a variety of spells, stringing them together into interesting combos to vary the ways in which you dispatch hapless opponents. You also have a blocking maneuver, though you may need to wait for the animation of your last attack to finish up before your shield appears, and you can also dodge. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of delay outside of what I’ve mentioned, and I’d say the game encourages you to try different weapons and styles because sticking to one particular set of skills could get a bit repetitive. Also, on Normal difficulty, it was entirely possible for me to run roughshod over the guards in the starting village and collect whatever gold and armor they dropped. I spent the night in jail afterwards, sure, but other than that there was no consequence. It was like nothing ever happened, kind of like appearing outside the police station in a Grand Theft Auto game but retaining all of my weapons and stolen goods.
In addition to your normal means of laying waste to folks is the Fate meter that grows as you deal damage. Fate plays a big part in the world of Amalur, and as one who does not have a pre-determined Fate, you have the power over the Fates of others. After enough mundane destruction you can go into a special mode that slows down the world and allows you to unload on an enemy with abandon. At a certain point you can execute that enemy with a special quick-time event for bonus XP. It’s animated well and has a unique look to it, varying the means of execution enough to keep things interesting in that regard.
Character advancement revolves around three skill trees: Might, Finesse and Sorcery. The more points you invest in a particular tree, the more options you unlock in the form of character classes based on Fate cards. This makes it easy to create a hybrid class of character rather than being rigidly fixed within one of the three main archetypes. And if you’re ever unsatisfied with your choices, a little gold to a Fateweaver allows you to re-specialize immediately. I didn’t spend enough time to delve into the crafting professions or really check out the selection from vendors, but if my experience thus far is anything to go by, they’ll be very similar to established conventions with a bit more depth in places.
I guess what I’m getting at is that, to me, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning feels a bit derivative. Don’t, however, take that as an entirely negative thing. What the game does, it does well. The way lore is weaved into most aspects of the game is impressive and I can’t deny it has a neat look to it, even if some of the proportions and fashion decisions strike me as somewhat odd or trying too hard to be ‘fantastical.’ It sticks to tried-and-true methods of RPG design and for the most part is functional and slightly above average without pushing too many boundaries or blowing a lot of minds. For a first title in a new IP from an untested studio, I can’t help but be somewhat impressed, and I can understand cribbing notes from what’s worked before in order to forge a successful title. I just hope that Copernicus and future Amalur titles take a few more risks, as Reckoning tends to play it safe. Still, there’s some good game to be enjoyed here, and if you want to pick up Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning for some MMO-flavored action that also lets you unlock collectible armor and weapons for other titles like Mass Effect 3, I say go for it.