38 Studios and its subsidiary, Big Huge games, recently paved the way for the early February launch of their premier title, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, with the release of a PC and console demo. We sat down with Mike Fridley, Executive Producer, Ken Rolston, Game Designer (of Elder Scrolls fame) and some other members of the BHG team to learn more about what players can expect from this single-player action RPG.
2011 produced powerhouse titles like The Witcher 2 and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. Given the competition, one might wonder how a new fantasy IP will wedge itself into the hearts and consciences of gamers who have come to expect great things from the open world RPG genre. According to the team from Big Huge Games, the thing that sets Reckoning apart is combat.
Ken Rolston explained that the four pillars of role playing games are exploration, narrative, achievement and combat. The Elder Scrolls did a pretty good job with exploration, he said with a chuckle, paying humble homage to a franchise whose cornerstone has been the ability to explore massive, open worlds. Some esteemed colleagues also did great things with narrative, he added. And we cant fault Blizzard on the quality of their advancement and achievement stuff. [But] combat had never been done well.
And what makes Reckonings combat a cut above the rest? Rolston says that one important factor is discoverabilitythe players ability to constantly find new, interesting, and inherently badass ways to fight bad guys through the simple act of messing around with different abilities and combos. I love the idea of discovering some of the great things in combat just by playing around with it, he said.
Rolston said that discovering combat in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has not unlike making discoveries via exploring in an open world setting. You feel so smart for figuring out how things work, he said. You just play and play and play and learn. Youre in the shallow end of the pool with combat [in the demo]. When you get into the deeper end of the pool theres a quantitative and qualitative shift in your sense of Oh, my god, I have so many things to do! Its an open world of combat.
Not only is combat full of new and interesting discoveries for the player to make, the team from BHG also described combat as requiring the player to be an active participant in tactical strategizing. Reckoning aims to strip away the notion that combat is primarily a numbers game, focused on gear and statistics.
No matter how great our combat is, my real motivation was to [give the player the ability to] move tactically, Rolston says. One of the things that has always blown in role playing games is that you could kind of move tactically, but you were moving like [you were playing] a board game. Moving was so slow and awkward that it was frustrating. Rolston went on to explain that the teams goal with combat was to create tactical scenarios where the player could use things such as flanking and rear positioning to their advantage and exploit enemy weaknesses.
And then, the Fate Shift is just a wonderful mechanic which I use to solve bosses, Rolston added enthusiastically. I make sure I gain a lot of fate, which you can harvest by killing things that need to be killedwicked thingsand then you harvest fate and it loads up in your meter and suddenly youre a living god and time is dilated and you can beat the crap out of things.
Tactical positioning? Running combos? Fate shifts? We wondered if that meant the action-oriented combat would be twitchy.
I dont think it is, said Mike Fridley. Im crap at action gamesI love God of War, I love those types of games, but Im terrible at them. Yet I ran the E3 demo [of Reckoning]. I was able to be the guy who was showing off the combat, because it really is fairly intuitive. When people pick up [this game], they have to be able to have a good experience, not just get by.
The team explained that the early game play experience gives players plenty of structure to help them learn the ins and outs of combat as well as acquire some gear. Once youre out in the wild, however, youll need to develop your RPG gaming skills and employ solid strategies in order to succeed. Just because the game gives you an early leg up doesnt mean youll have your hand held all the way through.
With all this discovering going on, both in the game world and realm of combat, you might wonder whether youll have time for questing, or whether youll pay attention to the main quest line at all. Rolston admits (and his fellow devs tease him about it), that his game play style is a little unorthodox.
The way I play, he says, I leave the tutorial and start running for the edge of the map, and as I do that I immediately run into more and more things that beat the crap out of me, and it is SO much fun.
He just runs off and starts punching something, Fridley jokes.
And yet, Rolston admits that the main quest line in Reckoning is going to be very apparent to even the most hardcore run-off-and-punch-things types of players. Although not completing the main quest line shouldnt interfere with your enjoyment of the game, Rolston believes youll be pulled toward the main quest because its well sign-posted, something he referred to as the Yellow Brick Road approach.
One of the problems with Morrowind was that we didnt give the user enough guidelines to get to the main content, Rolson says. What we wanted to do [with Reckoning] was to have a user experience where players always know where the main quest is. For some people, that will make it feel like its compulsory. Its not. You can immerse yourself in the main quest, or go at right angles to the main quest.
Does that mean therell be side quests and factions, much like the beloved factions, such as The Dark Brotherhood, found in The Elder Scrolls?
Yes, it does, Rolston said. I admit that Im very fond of [faction-related side quests]. Theyre like alternate main quests many main quests so that you can be experiencing progression in another direction. Also, faction quests can be tailored more particularly to a specific type of game play style. So, theyre [in the game], and theyre too much fun.
Youre not necessarily locked out by any of the faction choices that you make, though, adds Fridley. If youre a straight fighter and you want to play the rogue quest line you wont have any problems doing that. We dont want to lock out any content from any player based on what choices theyve made.
Head on to the next page for details on character development, replayability and more...
Character Development - Destinies
The mortal creatures of Amalur believe that their destinies are predeterminedbut not your hero, not the Fateless One. Your hero will be the first person to have ever returned from the dead (very literally as the opening story unfolds), and in doing so arrive as a blank slate, and the master of his own fate. Enter Destinies, Reckonings ability tree system, which branches off from three main abilitiesMight (fighter), Finesse (rogue) and Sorcery (mage)into countless combinations from archetypal specialists to dual-class hybrids to jack-of-all-trades types.
The way we broke up the Destinies, Rolston says, is that theyre sort of like modular classes that can be assembled as you go and as you refine your characters game play concept.
Fridley described Destinies as a robust, but not unfamiliar, system where new Destinies and bonuses are unlocked depending on how you spend your points. Theres a key thing that we always say that player choice is really important he said. Destinies are that expression of player choice.
I used to be an adventurer like you, but then I took an arrow in the knee.
The phrase, spoken by many a city guard in The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, quickly became a popular Internet meme and the subject of jokes and many a YouTube video (such as this one), demonstrating how repetitive dialog can curse RPGs if the developer isnt careful. Not only that, but players have complained about inconsistencies in voiceoversmeeting an NPC, for example, who starts off mean and aggressive and, without any plying from the player, ends a quest dialog with a cheerful, Have a nice day! We wanted to know whether Big Huge Games had addressed issues like repetitive dialog and bipolar NPCs as well as what other things theyd done to assure quality in the voiceover work for Reckoning
Grant Kirkhope, Reckonings Audio Director, said, We spent a lot of time casting people and getting the right actors to play the right part. He explained that inconsistency in accents had plagued other games, and that BHG had taken pains to avoid this problem in Reckoning. We made sure we cast English voices for the entire game, he said. We looked for interesting dialects. Were proud of the quality of actors that we used.
As to avoiding hiccups such as repetition and inconsistency in emotional responses, Rolston told us that he felt the key was suck button off.
One of the most important things not to have a game that sucks, he said, is to be very conscious of the things that suck and just dont put them in.
Its mostly an attention to detail issue, Fridley added, more of a production issue actually, where we have a certain amount of voices, a certain amount of emotions, a certain amount of named NPCs. In games that have failed at it in a couple places, either they didnt account for needing a different mood for a goodbye that matches a hello or it just wasnt scripted properly.
Rolston and Fridley both agreed that mistakes and problems in scripted dialog generally enter into games when the developers try to do too much. Over-complicating things, they said, could lead to problems. Its a QA [quality assurance] issue, said Fridley. We took some of the complication out of it.
We also decided to be done soon and test a lot, said Rolston. There are other companies that do a wonderful job of [creating] an awful lot of material but may not be as dedicated to user experience. We do a lot of QA. We just listen to it over and over again, and if we dont like it, we make a bad thing stop.
A game can be ruined by poor audio, Kirkhope interjected. Were very conscious to make sure the product is up to scratch. We still have a good 50,000 lines of dialog, so its by no means lightweight; its a big hefty thing, which has taken an awful lot of managing. Were very proud of the dialog in the game.
Before buying a new game, every gamer wants to be sure hell be getting his moneys worth, and a big factor in making the most of ones investment is how replayable the game is. We asked the BHG team to tell us what makes Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning a game that players will want to keep returning to.
It depends on the gamer, of course, but BHG estimates that Reckoning comes in at about 300 hours worth of game play. In fact, Mike Fridley explained that QA testing took over 200 hours, and that was done by people who already possessed expert knowledge of the game.
If you just blast through the main quest line, theres still a ton of content you can play, or you can respec your character, or do the side quests, Fridley said.
Both Fridley and Rolston expressed that exploring archetypes should certainly cause players to return to the game. For just a few pieces of in-game gold, players can respec their existing characters, and that, the team feels, is worthy of more hours of experimentation.
The crazy thing is that you can play hybrid characters, says Rolston. Theyre deliberately impossible in almost any other game--youre always gimping yourself if you take some pieces out of one craft and try to build them into another--but our hybrids work. Fridley concurred saying that even though hed tried some purposefully odd combinations, mixing archetypes he typically didnt like, he managed to uncover some badass combos that made playing his character enjoyable.
The bottom line, said the team, was that Reckoning was worthy of replay in the strength of its plethora of content, fun combat system, and the endless ways to explore archetypes. In other words, youd be hard pressed not to get your moneys worth out of this game.
So far, 38 Studios and Big Huge games have shown us a dream team of development talent, a demo that has already scored some favorable first impressions, and a dedication to bringing players a polished, fun, challenging and endlessly entertaining experience. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, is set for launch on February 7, 2012 in North America, and February 10 in Europe, and its then that well finally see how theyve delivered on their promise.
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