Mon, Feb 20, 2012 | 13:52 GMT
Getting off on the wrong foot: Reckoning’s dire opening
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is actually pretty good – provided you have time to soldier through it’s snooze-worthy beginning and get to the meat of the game.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
Available now on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
The debut title from 38 Studios, assisted by Big Huge Games.
The precursor to an MMORPG which shares the same world, but possibly during a different historical period, currently codenamed Copernicus.
Features a richly-detailed storyline from fantasy author RA Salvatore which features hundreds of invented worlds and can be safely ignored once you’ve established who is “us” and who is “them”.
According to my save file, I have apparently spent just over 17 hours playing Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, but I estimate it’s actually closer to 20 as I’m yet to check where the quick save key is and have lost several long sessions as a result of my own stupidity.
Of these 20 hours, I estimate I have enjoyed 18 of them; the remaining two hours are those which took place right after installation. Reckoning really does itself a disservice by beginning in the worst possible way: for the first few hours, all you can think about are the games you’re not playing.
The opening is a clever way to explain the unique core mechanic – freeform levelling – but it’s also strongly reminiscent of Planescape: Torment, widely considered one of the best RPGs of an era stuffed to the bulging, straining gills with excellent RPGs. At lower levels the excellent combat, with its reliance on timing and positioning, is pretty standard third-person action fare – perhaps a little more fluid than God of War, less combo-centric than Bayonetta. The lockpicking is like that in Skyrim. The menus could come straight out of any classic RPG, which is a polite way of saying they’re quite unoriginal, fiddly, and boring. The cartoony look of the graphics is very like Fable.
It’s this last comparison which really eats away at Reckoning’s chances of turning heads. The visuals really do smack of Lionhead’s series, and not just in a general sense. The gamepad UI for switching into aggressive mode – which is almost never used otherwise – looks so much like Fable III’s that Peter Molyneux should call a lawyer. The first time my character went swimming I actually whistled in horror, the animation is so similar. Seconds later, I was prompted to dive for a hidden treasure – another Fable nod.
All this would probably go over many people’s heads if the plot didn’t kick off in a colourful forest region and generic fantasy town which looks so strikingly like one of Fable II’s environments that it makes me wince.
Reckoning actually has a wide variety of locations, many of which are both beautiful and unusual. The starting forest is not one of these. It only takes a little bit of playing to clear this section, especially if you ignore the questlines and take advantage of the open world, and some of the surrounding, beginner-friendly locations are great, like a dark, spider-infested wood bordering on a nasty, maze-like marsh populated by enormous ettins.
Both of these examples are a joy to explore, and they can’t hold a candle to the areas you unlock outside the Faelands, which give twisty corridors the boot in favour of wide-open plains dotted with interesting features. Either would have made an excellent place to kick off the game. Instead, Reckoning drops you in the most boring, claustrophobic and homogenous environment in the game, an experience likely to make you want to cut out the middleman and put Fable in the disc tray – at least you get a dog.
Happily, pressing on is its own reward, because you not only move on to more interesting locales, but the combat really begins to shine.
Most RPGs can be reduced down to a series of walks between fights – something Final Fantasy XIII made no bones about, but which is at the heart of almost every example of the genre. If you don’t enjoy the fights, then the experience becomes just a matter of feeding your levelling and gear acquisition addictions. While Reckoning certainly piles on the loot, all of it is secondary to getting into battle and the joyful experience of kicking butt.
At the very beginning of the game, you’re given a very small number of abilities, which gives you a chance to learn the basics of blocking and dodging, melee and ranged, and decide which options work best for you. This is important, as the number of choices form here on in are staggering, but again, it’s not representative of the mid or end-game – or even a few hours down the track – to the game’s detriment. 38 Studios wants you to learn through playing what weapons and skills suit you, rather than pick from pre-determined classes, but the end result is that every weapon and skill initially feels largely the same. At this point it’s ridiculously easy to waste your skill points on completely unsuitable lines of progression, and the existence of Fateweavers, which allow complete respecs (for a fee which rapidly becomes unaffordable once your past a point at which you really should know better) suggests the developer was aware of this problem.
Later on, weapon types differentiate rapidly once you invest in their skill trees; and a new kind of attack can completely change the way you play. Once you’ve settled on which basic mix of melee, ranged, stealth and magic you want to pursue, it should inform your progression from thereon in. Correctly puzzling out which new abilities you should choose to match your playstyle feels great when you get it right (do read the descriptions, plan ahead, and watch the previews in the Moves menu). Selecting skills and combining them to make the most of your mana pool has a bit of a number-crunching MMORPG feel to it, with all the attendant tactical satisfaction.
My preferred style is all rogue – I like to dodge rather than block, avoid damage rather than soak it up, inflict status effects and pile on critical hits – so my first Reckoning build doesn’t take advantage of the free-form progression, sticking purely to the Finesse tree. Nevertheless, I’ve had plenty to choose from. Towards the end of Dragon Age II – another obvious name in 38 Studio’s roll call of inspirations – I was just picking skills at random and ignoring almost all of them, but 20 hours into Reckoning I’m still agonising over every decision. Should I get some new, more powerful skills, or stick to my smaller set of moves and concentrate on powering them up? Should I choose passive skills to increase my stealth attack, or focus on crowd control skills?
There’s certainly an MMORPG feel to it, and the terminology comes naturally to those even passingly familiar with World of Warcraft and the like, but the actual action of Reckoning is much more satisfying.
As already acknowledged, there’s certainly an MMORPG feel to it, and the terminology comes naturally to those even passingly familiar with World of Warcraft and the like, but the actual action of Reckoning is much more satisfying, which will serve multiplayer follow-up Copernicus well. Juggling real-time attacks from up to a dozen opponents of varying abilities and nailing a tough enemy with a carefully planned attack is sheer delight. Finding a new bit of loot which enhances your strategies or realising your next level up could unlock a new ability to take advantage of an epic drop is like Christmas morning, but it takes a back seat to the main business of working out how to have fun and kick the shit out of things.
38 Studios has been clear about its motivations in producing Kingdoms of Amalur: Founder and boss Curt Schilling is a massive RPG fan. He wanted to take all the best elements of his favourite titles and make a perfect game he himself would like to play. This is an admirable goal, and although some of the most derivative elements are a little troubling, every game borrows from its fellows and it’s hard to argue with the enactment of a development fantasy most of us have had at one time or another. The result is a compelling experience with masses of content, and it’s a crying shame that so many players will be put off by its lacklustre opening, which badly lets down its setting and combat system.