Rolston’s fantasy – inside the Kingdoms of Amalur

By Keza Macdonald
14 April 2011 15:08 GMT

Hardcore fantasy from an ex-baseball star and a group of dev legends. Is it good? Impressions, new shots and quotes from game design legend Ken Rolston.

Reckoning: Kingdoms of Amalur

Single-player fantasy RPG.

The lovechild of major league baseball pitcher Curt Schilling and his developer, 38 Studios.

Headed by Ken Rolston, the lead designer of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

Written by fantasy author RA Salvatore.

Art by Spawn creator Todd McFarlane.

Out early 2012 through EA Partners.

Reckoning: Kingdoms of Amalur has more big creative names at work on it than any other game I can think of. It’s got comic-book-artist-turned-entrepreneur Todd McFarlane as art director, fantasy author RA Salvatore writing its mythology, and former Elder Scrolls lead designer Ken Rolston on game design, and that’s on top of a few other ex-Bethesda minds.

It also has a name that’s so generic that I can barely remember it, which is unfortunate. Thankfully, Rolston is one of the more memorable and tirelessly exuberant characters you’ll come across in the realm of game design, which definitely helps give the game more of a voice.

“You would think it’d be hard, except it’s very hard for anybody to be louder and more energetic than I am,” he jokes, when I ask what it’s like having so many creative minds converging on a single project. “You would expect all the egos to be an issue, and ownership to be an issue, but the great thing is that everybody has a very different area of mastery.

“Working with luminaries doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have a pissing contest. And in this particular case, it isn’t one. It may have to do with the personalities, but for us it’s heaven.”

Kingdoms of Amalur is an third-person open-world RPG with elements of Diablo and, er, God of War. It’s got procedurally generated loot, slow-motion finishing moves and a fantasy world with the same saturated palette and magical glow as Albion. On the surface, it looks almost as conventional as the name sounds, but it turns out to be doing interesting things with the tried-and-tested RPG class triumvirate of rogue, warrior and mage.

Stinking corpses

We’re shown the very beginning of the game: unusually, you start off dead. After a character creation sequence where you pick from a selection of unpronounceable races (Ljolsafar? Almain?) and patron gods that determine your skills in and out of combat, your newly-created hero is tipped into a pit by a pair of surly dwarves, only to awaken minutes later on a huge pile of stinking corpses.

It turns out that you’ve been resurrected. As you fight your way out of the sewers, you get your first gentle introduction to the one-button combat system, which seems to revolve mostly around timing, and to the loot. Downed enemies could drop anything – the idea is that you’ll always be looking for the next cool trinket, and it could appear at any time.

“Working with luminaries doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have a pissing contest.”

The world that you eventually emerge into is a green, softly beautiful place – a world worth saving, as Ken puts it. From then on, Kingdoms of Amalur evidently becomes truly open. Wander off in any direction, and you’ll happen upon side-quests, dungeons or, more often than not, overpowered enemies that will send you scuttling back to the nearest town.

There really is a noticeable Fable feel here. It’s partly to do with the look of the one-button combat, but mostly it’s about the colours, the warm glow that emanates from everything in the world, the stocky character design, and indeed the British accents. There’s not much here, frankly, that looks like a Todd McFarlane world – at least, not yet.

Rolston claims, however, that Kingdoms of Amalur’s familiarity is deceptive. “You’re familiar with the idea that a fantasy world should be 90 percent familiar and then there’s the 10 percent against type that is reversing your expectations?” he says.

“Salvatore has made a world that seemingly is very conventional, but the moment you scratch the surface of it, the elves aren’t elves, the dwarves aren’t dwarves. What you should instinctively think is that when he says ‘rescue the princess’, it’s not going to turn out how you’d expect. And that reversal of expectations is one of the delicious features about this.”

Reckoning’s combat is easily the glitziest thing about it. The slow-motion finishing moves look satisfyingly graphic – though blood looks rather out of place in a world so thoroughly un-menacing – and mages, warriors and rogues alike have fun toys to play with.

We’re shown long-range chakrams – “glowing magical frisbees”, says Ken – that give mage players the same action-game combat thrill as a warrior’s swords. Rogues’ daggers are cool-looking dual weapons, and used in combat with teleporting and poison spells, they’re as flashy as they are deadly. Kingdoms of Amalur doesn’t restrict you by class, letting you flesh out warrior, mage and rogue skill trees concurrently, creating cross-over classes tailored to your playing style.

Watch on YouTube

Amalur in action.

“Your skills should be customisable in the same way as your clothes,” Ken believes. “It’s not just about those three archetypes, it’s about making the hybrids inbetween playable. I think people’s role-playing impulses are to be someone somewhere inbetween those.”

“We wanted to win on the four basic things – exploration, narrative, advancement and combat – and we wanted combat to be our leader. We wanted that to be the sizzle that was better than anything else.”

The demo takes us through a dungeon, switching character types for every new scenario, and it quickly becomes clear that the combat is quite unlike anything else in the genre. Mages unleash spells in real-time, with hefty charge-ups for the most powerful ones, but they can also bash goblins about with glowing frisbees in the meantime.

A sword that’s on fire

Rogues sneak and stab from behind, but they also have very cool close-quarters combat animations. The warrior has a sword and a hammer equipped simultaneously, and switches between them for finishers. There’s a sword that’s on fire. The loot system and the combat feed off each other – each new enemy might drop a weapon that’s even more fun to use than what you’re currently sporting.

Rather than an action game with RPG trappings, though, Rolston positions Kingdoms of Amalur as a detailed RPG in an action-game wrapper. “This can’t just be an action game. It has to have all those charming RPG conventions, even the burdensome ones. But I want to be able to celebrate those, and also let you have fun with your new toys that Uncle Kenny has wrapped up in the skill tree.”

Reckoning is scheduled for an early 2012 release, so it might be a while before we hear any more about it. The main point of interest, aside from that unusual combat, is the game’s open-world nature: if it really does let you wander off the beaten path rather than funnelling you towards predictable side-quests, Amalur could offer something that Albion cannot.

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