Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

"Reckoning provides many hours of good solid fun based around character development and skill progression."

One of the most enjoyable shows on television these days is Top Gear (the British version, mind you). Watching three English gits tool around with cars of varying quality is enough to bring a smile to even the curmudgeonliest viewer. Seeing them roll out in everything from a super powered Ferrari to a motorized scooter shows the wide range of quality we have in motor vehicles, as well as the massive disparity between everything available to the consumer. One time, the guys took out a Honda Civic. They remarked on the quality of the ride and the reliability associated with the brand. And yet, they found the car to be dull and subdued when compared to even the most meager of sports cars. This is much the same with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning; a quality title that is both mechanically sound and slightly dull. I know that sounds like a massive backhand slap to the developers, but they have little to be ashamed of with this new IP. There's certainly room for improvement, but there's a solid experience in store for those who pick up this new title.

Reckoning starts with your character lying on a large pile of corpses. Years of research in necromantic magic has given the denizens of Amalur a chance against the Tuatha, an ancient race closely connected with nature and driven to open hostility with the other peoples of the land. Seems the local bad guys have developed a love for an ancient deity of fate and evil, and it's up to you to save the world. Being newly resurrected has its perks, naturally. You are no longer bound by the nature of fate, which acts as the main driving force of the narrative. You see, the history of Amalur was easily predicted by the various Fateweavers of the land (think of them as your typical protectors of all things ancient and mystic), and they didn't see any way to overcome their decidedly gloomy fate. Your little trip back to the land of the living throws a monkey wrench into those plans.

Full disclosure here: I really had no clue what I was doing during the main storyline quests. There could be a really good story here, but I wasn't interested in the slightest. I was completely side tracked by all of the secondary quests and actions in the world, and, by the time I realized I should focus on saving Amalur, I hadn't the foggiest idea what I was supposed to do or who I was supposed to talk to. Worse yet, the revelations and story moments at the end of the game were completely drowned out – quite literally – by the sounds of combat around me.

"Hey, did you want to know why you came back from the dead?"

"Well, yeah, of course."

"Well, it's like this..."

*Loud sounds of battle completely drowning out the story and narrative*

"Oh! That makes sense!!"

While the main story and characters are all inherently dull and clichéd, the world crafted by R.A. Salvatore is anything but. There are some really interesting ideas and concepts at work in Amalur, though you have to seek them out through conversation to uncover them. The Fae, for example, share a bond with nature. As such, they live their lives in cycles of death and rebirth. Their entire culture is based around the nature of fate and playing out their desired roll in a well choreographed dance. Imagine their surprise when a lone warrior arrives who disregards these laws and standards. This is where Reckoning is at its best in terms of world creation. I'm certainly excited to see further tales in these lands with, hopefully, a greater emphasis on characters and actual conflict.

Reckoning also lacks a clear sense of immersion, which is something most RPG makers have been struggling desperately to achieve. The map and fields may be massive, but they also feel slightly empty and stale. Sure, you'll find rock piles filled with loot and hidden doors packed with treasure chests, but on a whole you're just running through the fields whacking things with a mighty stick. There are lock picking mini-games, a deep crafting system, and even stealth kills, but all of them feel removed and fairly routine. Though Amalur never feels dead or completely sterile, it lacks that spark of life that elevates the greatest RPG environments to the forefront of our mind. I enjoyed my romp through the fields, but I couldn't describe anything in my travels as astonishing or truly noteworthy.

Remember that mighty stick I was talking about a second ago? Yeah, that's the part of Reckoning that everyone needs to pay attention to. The lack of immersion or meaning in Amalur is easily made up for in the way the game plays. Big Huge Games basically took just about every RPG developer out to the woodshed for a little "Come to Jesus" meeting. RPGs have no reason to feel clunky or underwhelming anymore. Amalur looks, plays, and feels like a great action game loaded with combos, super powers, and general badass attitude. Usability and player satisfaction were clearly at the heart of the vision for this game, and it shows. Even without a proper targeting system, your avatar quickly shifts between multiple enemies, flinging all sorts of death dealing nastiness around the battlefield. You never feel weak or hindered in combat. Enemies explode like popped pimples as you stand at the center of a hurricane of destruction.

The flexibility of the battle system is truly remarkable. You have access to three skills trees based on your standard warrior, rogue, and mage archetypes, and you assign skill points provided you meet the requirement for each allocation. This allows you to make a straight mage (as I did), a rough and tumble brawler, or any combination in between. The developers even encourage these types of cross-class creations, as statistical bonuses for your potential roguish gladiator have already been planned out. Trust me, you can play Amalur any way you want. Better still, re-specing your hero requires a rather meager amount of gold. Don't worry, adventurer, this is a WRPG that you really can't break.

Then there's the loot. Sweet Lord, is there a lot of loot! Reckoning plays quite similar to Diablo in many ways. You scour the countryside and find a staff that easily outclasses your current weapon of choice. Maybe you find a turban that gives a massive boost to your mana pool, or perhaps a shield able to absorb your enemies' most devastating attacks while also providing a substantial bonus to your health regeneration. The character progression and loot acquisition is enough to keep you playing, and that's something I can't really say about a lot of games out there today. In essence, Amalur serves the purpose of providing you with ways to make your virtual death machine as powerful as humanly possible. There's something reassuring about being the actual center of the universe.

Amalur's combat is quite awesome and satisfying, but it's not without some problems. The game's difficulty is simply too easy, with very few mobs in the game able to put up much of a fight. That said, you also run into situations in which a rather large beast suddenly drops your whole health bar in one massive swing. The numbers certainly play a factor in Reckoning, so don't be afraid to grind for experience through the many, many quests available. Enemies also have a nasty tendency to quickly interrupt your wind up on some of the more spectacular skills. This issue is compounded by an overly sticky camera that often gives you just the right angle of a tree rather than the hulking ogre looking for a place to plant his massive boot. Occasionally the camera overcompensates for this and pans so far out that the enemies and particle effects on screen begin to resemble ants.

The real problem with Reckoning's combat comes to light toward the final few hours of the main quest. What follows is an immensely boring and tedious fight through the enemy's evil backyard. Endless waves of Tuatha and giant cave trolls block your advance, and you spend the better part of two hours in constant and uninteresting combat with the same three enemy types over and over again. It's here that I quickly realized that Amalur's combat works best in short, controlled bursts. The quick flash of violence following a trip to town after a long quest proves to be the best possible sorbet. That's why I was having so much fun with Reckoning until I began to chew through the main game. The quick waltz of quest, fight, quest some more is far more alluring than a God of War style slog through enemy ranks. This could have been helped by some kind of set piece moments that changed up the action, but Reckoning never expands beyond simply throwing wave after wave of enemy forces straight at you.

Mechanically, Reckoning stands above most current RPG releases in interface and reliability. The menus may appear dull, but they are easily read and quickly accessed. A junk button for loot allows you to quickly sift through armaments without any hassle, and this needs to be standard in every game, period! I never ran into a major glitch during my thirty hours, though the sound did occasionally cut out and one or two quest markers flipped out until I reloaded a previous save. The PC version isn't exactly optimized for the mouse and keyboard format either. Stephen mentioned in his PS3 review that you're limited to only four special abilities due to the controller constraints on the console versions. PC gamers won't have this problem while using a keyboard, but switching between weapons and having to press two buttons to activate a special attack is just silly. I suggest using a controller if you have one because Reckoning was clearly designed for the consoles. Still, the game looks remarkably better even on a modest machine. Seeing the world run at 60 FPS certainly helps with the slightly cartoony graphics.

Remember that car analogy I was talking about earlier? Is it starting to make sense now? Amalur, like a Honda Civic, lacks the heated seats, Bluetooth headset, massive speakers, and spinning rims of the more expensive and daring models on the market. And yet, any Ferrari owner will tell you that it's often a pain to fix the problems associated with the more ambitious machines out there. Reckoning provides many hours of good, solid fun based around character development and skill progression. Those looking for a deeply immersive experience should probably look elsewhere, but don't be surprised if your Civic runs nice and smooth while the other guy is busy patching the crap out of his Ferrari.

© 2012 38 Studios, Big Huge Games, EA. All rights reserved.

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