Updated Mon, Feb 27, 2012 by Ethec
38 Studios and Big Huge Games are hoping for a big win with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Fans of Copernicus – the upcoming MMO set several hundred years in Reckoning’s future – are too, since solid sales will lead to a much smoother launch of 38 Studios premier MMO.
Is Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning a true twist of fate - a great action RPG experience and a story-rich introduction to the biggest new IPs of 2012? Find out in Ten Ton Hammer’s latest review!
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, like any RPG, is defined by quests. What makes Reckoning a star of its genre is that the sheer number of quests - and, as importantly, the pacing of quests - is just about perfect. Side quests and faction quests are interesting enough – the House of Ballads faction quest was particularly affecting – and the main quest never felt urgent enough to make me rush through the side attractions.
The boss fights – usually the underwhelming pitfall of a game this size - have been surprisingly varied, incorporating both standard scripted encounters, staged God of War-style gargantuan boss fights, and even a few novel affairs such as a running gunfight of sorts.
Reckoning aptly sets the stage for its surprisingly varied boss fights.
Combat, coupled with fluid and imaginative animations, is half of Reckoning’s formula to keep a very lengthy game from ever becoming a grind. The moves (combos) are simple enough for just about anyone to master, and are just enough to keep the game out of pure button-mashing tedium. Weapons such as the chakrams, the daggers (coupled with stealthy CoD-style execution moves), and hammers add style points and variety
As for the other half of Reckoning’s patented anti-grind formula, Big Huge has put together a surprisingly varied slate of quests. While many quests were accessible and familiar to RPG or MMO players, few ventured into the droll territory of traditional fetch or kill-x-troll-shamans quests, and the ones that do keep you moving forward through Amalur’s gorgeous and varied landscape enough that you probably won’t notice.
Having too many quests isn’t a problem, but not being able to see multiple open quest markers on the world map quickly becomes irritating. Unlike a newer MMO, where you can see a number of quests in a given area and plan your evening accordingly, Reckoning forces you to dance between the quest log, the local map, and the world map to determine which quests can be done on the way to what you really want to do. It’s a stumpy process that can lead to a fair amount of backtracking.
UI problems carry over into crafting. On the whole, crafting in Reckoning is a modest improvement over other RPG games: skill determines the likelihood and opportunities you have to gather ingredients, the combining process is simple, and the outcome is never in question. I like that components weigh nothing, so you only need make what you need for your next dungeon run. Several UI inefficiencies start to get peevish – not being able to see what open sockets are available for gem shards as you’re Sagecrafting, for example – but the overall process is far more comfortable and straightforward than in other games of Reckoning’s ilk.
Character development has its own twists as well. It’s largely a matter of distributing points – one into non-combat skills, five into combat skill trees (finesse, might, or sorcery) per level – then choosing a destiny. A destiny is sort of a class you choose after you’ve allotted your combat skill points., which seems backwards from most RPGs but works nicely; heightening the powers you’ve already elected to take.
We first heard the term “stylized realism” from 38 Studios’ own Thom Ang at Comic Con 2008. Since then the term has come to be closely associated with World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic, but the term could easily apply to a number of games pre-dating WoW: Fable, Black and White, and Zelda: The Ocarina of Time just to name a few.
So while comparing Amalur to Azeroth is tempting, both games offer a visual style that belongs to gaming, not just Blizzard. Reckoning comes into it’s own when you look at its innovative character models (boggarts, leanshes, and trolls) and devastatingly kickass combat animations in particular.
True, Reckoning uses a bright palette like all of the above-mentioned games (and in stark contrast to the greys and browns of Skyrim), but Amalur comes off as a much more warm and inviting setting than most games in its genre. From story to environment design, R.A. Salvatore promised a world we’d want to save, and Reckoning delivers.
It takes artistic skill to make a corpse pile look pretty.
While Reckoning nails the setting, character models, and combat animations, the game’s facial animations during NPC dialogue (not cutscenes) are awful. Reminiscent of Geoff, the robot skeleton sidekick on Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show, the jaw moves as the character speaks (albeit barely), but the rest of the face remains lifelessly fixed.
Considering how natural and fluid animations are throughout the rest of the game, lackluster facial animations are especially jarring. Since KoA: Reckoning uses the same facial animation software (FaceFX) as titles like Batman: Arkham City, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, this might be an error in implementation that can be ironed out in future patches.
Composer Grant Kirkhope has been away from the games industry since 2008, and we’re lucky to have him back. More classically trained and focused than many composers in his field, Kirkhope happily reintroduces mood-inducing elements of his craft. For example, lower woodwinds such as the bassoon were musical agents of the fantastical ever since Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (or Looney Tunes, if you prefer). Somehow game composers have largely forgotten that in an avalanche of Wagnerian brass, but thankfully Kirkhope (along with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra) weaves these and other underused elements into his musical tapestry without the sound seeming cheesy or dated.
While Reckoning’s two and a half hours of orchestral music is perfectly paired with scenery changes and boss fights and other elements of the game’s audio design shine (the steady wet thump of mill grindstones and the lute music peeling out into village squares from taverns, for example), but Reckoning’s voiceover dialogue borders on immersion-breaking.
Voiceover should have been the value added portion of the story experience. Throughout development, Big Huge touted the game’s 30,000 lines of dialogue (despite a mute protagonist) and VO direction as a strength of the game. Instead, too few actors covering too many parts, but overdone accents, neighborly-sounding Tuatha foes (did the ghost of Mr. Rogers voice these guys?), and a general lack of grit and gravel in voices (coupled with the facial animation problems mentioned above) – all of these frequently take away from an otherwise compelling story experience.