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.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning’s Story Â
The R. A. Salvatore Factor
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 Â 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 Â action RPGs have gotten very good at feeding players voiceover as they move and fight Â 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 Â the Scottish accents favored by the dwarves and gnomes were especially hammy Â 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.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning's Graphics and Visuals Â
The Todd McFarlane Factor
Much like many of Salvatore’s stories are, in the main, character dramas, Todd McFarlane’s touch is about making the moment-to-moment experiences of his characters memorable and almost sub-consciously awe-inspiring. He’s a detail guy, and his work was immediately apparent in the very first scene of Reckoning, as streamers of goop descended all around the corpse pile. It could have been a scene out of an over-the-top comic book movie, but it somehow sold the stench and decay surrounding the character perfectly.
McFarlane touches were apparent in almost every encounter throughout the game, from the spark of rising iron doors against their jambs to the eerily realistic bipedal motion of an attacking bear. Watching a spider web burn away with the wave of my fire staff was a treat, in particular.
But it wasn’t all just eye candy. The detail focus frequently crossed into the realm of gameplay Â boggarts, for example, are mischievious tree creatures prevalent in Dalentarth, but are uniquely susceptible to fire-imbued weapons and fire magic. And, not to mention, are fun to kill - flying apart in a shower of wood chunks and splinters.
One of the few boss encounters in my brief time with the game, a rock troll at the end of the well of souls sequence, was everything you’d want an encounter with a lumbering, hard-hitting, more than a little terrifying rock troll to be. Rather than relying on my new friend the block button, I had to avoid the trolls swings or wind up dazed and easy prey. It was the only encounter I came across where there was a clear advantage to choosing the ranged damage of sorcery or semi-ranged bow damage of finesse.
But one game system, in particular, has McFarlane’s name all over it. Save up enough Fate by killing enemies and your character can enter Reckoning mode Â a bullet-time adaption where you can smack enemies into a dazed “unraveling fate” state. When you have all enemies in the encounter in this state (or before, if you’re unwise), you can end their fates with a flurry of dazzling and deadly animations, chalking up an experience bonus by mashing the button displayed on the screen in the process.
The visuals associated with the Reckoning system never fail to please.
There’s always a tradeoff between detail-focus and variety, however, and the first evidence of compromise comes in character creation. Players will have four races to choose from, all of which are human in stature and unswervingly human in looks. The Almain and Verani are the clearest examples; Almain are the proud and religious variant with bonuses to alchemy and persuasion, while the Verani are the piratical subset, favoring skills like mercantile (buying and selling), lockpicking, and detect hidden.
A little further out on the race spectrum are the Ljasalfar, the magical race of light-skinned northern elves who excel at alchemy, dispelling, and sagecraft, and the Dokkalfar, dark-skinned elves who are all about magic and diplomacy, with bonuses to strength, sagecraft, and persuasion. I chose Dokkalfar for my character, but was never really convinced of my character’s elf-ness. He lacked height, gangliness, pronounced ears, or anything that convinced me he wasn’t a human in dark purple skin.
Limiting the race selection may simplify animation to a great degree, and I’m aware that I’m in the minority in preferring to play non-human sized races, but for those of us less concerned with Arkham Aslyum smoothness than the moment by moment ridiculousity of playing a dwarf or gnome, it left me wanting. The strictures of a detail-orientation can get in the way of the immersive qualities of an RPG, and it seems even Reckoning is not immune.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Gameplay and Immersion Â
The Ken Rolston Factor
With Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim around the corner, praise for the previous Elder Scrolls games seems to be on everyone’s lips, and there’s no name more closely associated with Elder Scrolls than Ken Rolston. Along with offering uncomfortably zooming closeups, Oblivion broke new ground in RPG immersiveness and open-endedness, so it’s natural to expect a similarly adaptive play experience in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.
In terms of gameplay immersion, one immediately apparent throwback to Elder Scrolls was Reckoning’s crime and punishment system. The infamous red hand will appear over chests and doors that you have no business opening, and being observed while helping yourself could result in pursuit by guards and subsequent jail time and loss of items, or if you manage to fight your way out, being marked kill-on-sight in that particular area for a time (which could naturally make it hard to complete quests). Attacking townspeople, even if provoked, could have the same consequences, so you’ll have to choose your fights carefully while in civilization.
If in jail, you can sneak out with the painfully concealed lockpick (stealing back your items from the chest and taking no reputation damage in the process), do your time and lose some coin, or fight your way out with fisticuffs and be branded public enemy number one in that village for a time. In short, it’s the crime and punishment system of the Elder Scrolls serieswithout the skads of red-hand items lying everywhere.
As for open-endedness of character development, Reckoning shuns the skill-based system of Elder Scrolls and incorporates a class-based system, but with a twist. Recognizing how class systems typically punish players interested in a range of abilities, Reckoning incorporates the Destiny system.
From what I could gather, the Destiny system is just a fancy way of saying that there are separate and balanced archetypes and skill trees for every way you’d want to play Reckoning. Want to play a spellsword? Choose the Might / Sorcery destiny. A pure Rogue, pure Warrior, or pure Mage? Take the Finesse, Might, or Sorcery destiny, respectively. A Ranger? Choose Finesse / Might. Happily, respecs are available anytime for an escalating gold cost, so if you get an awesome item or just want a change of playstyle, just pay up and swap out.
You can craft a fire sword early in the game, or take on the Might / Sorcery destiny to unlock powerful weapon effects.
Even though I played as a pure finesse class, I frequently found I had a superabundance of combat options. The typical fight went like this, bowshot bowshot bowshot (thankfully players don’t have to handle ammo, stats are on the bow, and you get a stack of five arrows every five seconds or so), cast a combat debuff, then spam melee combos (easy to learn, and spoon fed through the skill tree) until one of us was dead. Too frequently I neglected the bow, my spells, or the spiffy Reckoning system mentioned above, often to my chagrin. Don’t let the story lull you into a false sense of security; you’ll need skill to play Reckoning on Normal or Hard difficulty (though you can always opt to switch difficulty mid-game).
Unfortunately, dealing with more than Oblivion-sized content means dealing with Oblivion-sized complexity and content dependencies, and bugs made a handful of my quests unfinishable. To be clear, we were on a late alpha build, and Big Huge Games is studiously addressing bugs like these. But my experience stunting unfinishables raised fears that just like in Oblivion, if you play in unexpected ways, e.g. kill a boss out of sequence in your mad wanderings, there could be console commands in your future.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Overall Â
The Curt Schilling Factor
For more than three years, Curt Schilling has been assembling a team to make his dream of Amalur come true. In an era of franchise proliferation and rampant sequelization (what game of the year contender can you point to that ‘s also an original IP?), Mr. Schilling deserves props for having the chutzpah to create rather than iterate regardless of how Reckoning turns out.
Schilling’s stated gameplay preferences and love of EverQuest and WoW might be somewhat apparent in Reckoning. For starters, Schilling has always preferred raid content to PvP in endgame and, rather naturally, Reckoning has no PvP or arena system. And, in addition to map largesse and variety in the EverQuest tradition, the game features a comfortable EQ-style deity system that, in addition to factoring in passive bonuses, could potentially influence gameplay and story.
On the unfortunate side, Reckoning opts for a bright color palette just as WoW’s star is arguably beginning to set, and those vivid greens, purples, pinks, and blues with it. Reds, browns, grays and muted earth tones of photorealism are back with titles like RAGE and Skyrim.
We were promised a world worth saving, but Reckoning's color palette might be a little too vivid for the current RPG fantasy market.
Also back are mature themes in RPG games, perhaps inspired by the popularity of "Game of Thrones". While Reckoning isn’t exactly 100% kid-safe Â the blood and gore factor isn’t overbearing, but the McFarlane-influenced animations doesn’t fail to ratchet the old gut-wrench a few clicks - it has the overall feel of being a softer game than the today’s gladiatorial market might crave.
I found no evidence of certain RPG staples like mounts and companions, though a quick scan of the Sorcery tree showed that at least one class has a pet. Crafting is well-represented, however, in both Alchemy and Blacksmithing. Unfortunately, you’ll need to set yourself up for gathering plants and ore fairly early in the game Ã¡ la WoW if you want to skill up and improve your chances of gathering the correct mats.
Pushing an original IP is an uphill battle, especially when Skyrim seems likely to reset the fantasy RPG bar three months before Reckoning hits store shelves. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning looks to hook players with the promise of a 40-200 hour story and keep us interested between plot twists and turns with solid visuals and immersive gameplay. I walked away from my time with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning wanting more, and it will certainly occupy that brief gap in my must-play list between high-powered titles like Elder Scrolls V, SWTOR, and Mass Effect 3.