Updated Tue, Oct 04, 2011 by Ethec
Dropping big names like R. A. Salvatore, Todd McFarlane, and Ken Rolston is one thing, but does the influence of these renowned masters of their respective fields translate into a compelling game experience? While we won’t have a complete answer until February, here’s an early scorecard based on our recent 5-hour playsession with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning at Big Huge Games’ studios.
Though author R.A. Salvatore frequents the New York Times Bestseller lists for his work on the written page, at heart, he is seems to me a storyteller in the oral tradition. Forsaking the epic scope of a Robert Jordan, the political mishmash of George R. R. Martin, and the moral turpitude and bohemian sophistication of Stephen Erikson, you don’t need a literary degree or an multi-year commitment to understand and enjoy a Drizzt story.
Along those lines, I best enjoy Salvatore’s work in audiobook form, so the transition to the video game format seems very natural (Salvatore’s done it before, credited with work on games such as Demon Stone and, interestingly, Quake 3 Arena). We understand that Reckoning is a giant prologue to the story 38 Studios will continue in the upcoming MMO tentatively titled Copernicus, so much of the franchise’s “hook” will hinge on how well Salvatore and his team can spin a story.
And they spin it early, hard, and often. From your character’s more-than-humble origins (you start the game atop a pile of corpses, the first trial in the resurrecting Well of Souls experiment), the story centers on how Fate begins to unravel around your character as you take the fight to the Fae overlord Gadflow and his Tuaha Deohn minions.
The Well of Souls is a major plot focus in Reckoning, and one you'll come to terms with right away.
Free will vs. destiny posers aside, every character (even side NPCs that have nothing to do with quests) seems to have 5 or 6 dialogue options designed to give you a grounding in Amalur lore. And, as for story, I barely scraped the surface. In four hours of play, I didn’t make it to the second region, the arid, red-hued desert of Detyre from the deep forests and swamps of Dalentarth, the starting region.
Yet there was no lack of trouble to get into in Dalentarth. While interactions with the Fateweavers (the priesthood of the good races of Amalur in this time period) form the backbone of the main story, Reckoning has no lack of side quests, some even offering the makings of story branching. When an innocent Fae is brutally beaten by humans, do you go before her faction, the House of Ballads, to try and make nice, or do you join the Fae-hating Warsworn, a mercenary band, and take an aggressive stance against the Summer Court? Players can only work one angle, and it’s likely that early choices like these will color your later experiences in Reckoning.
The narrative did have its flaws – if not necessarily in content, than in execution. The downside to having a game that would easily function as a series of novels is that you’ll have to read or listen to dialogue after dialogue to get the full effect, which really bogs down the otherwise intense nature of Reckoning’s gameplay. There’s ways around this – action RPGs have gotten very good at feeding players voiceover as they move and fight – but in Reckoning I fear too many players will miss out on some great storytelling in the rush to click past dialogue and get into the action.
Another disappointment with Reckoning’s storytelling, and something that simply won’t change before launch, is that the player character isn’t voiced. Studio Head Sean Dunn explained that with Reckoning’s 30,000+ lines of dialogue, it wasn’t possible to do several alternate voicings for both genders of the game’s 4 playable races and not add several Xbox discs to an already full cases. Other games have featured a mute protagonist to great effect, notably the Fallout series, but I personally prefer the more BioWare-ish, Ubisoft-ish tack of letting you experience your character’s choices from their own lips.
That, and perhaps too many of the voices were recorded with too few voice actors – the Scottish accents favored by the dwarves and gnomes were especially hammy – but its possible that some of this was simply placeholder VO at this stage of the game’s development.
All that said, Reckoning will clearly feature story, and worthwhile story, in spades. The four hour playsession alone was enough to whet my appetite to see how my early decisions and actions carried forward and what kind of character I’d become.