I've been very vocal about my excitement for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, but as any gamer knows, being excited about what you've only been shown can often lead to disappointment once you get your hands on it. On Sept. 15, Big Huge Games put its money where its mouth is and gave the press time to sit down with Reckoning. I was not just walked through a predetermined section of game or shown a specially crafted demo. No, I was able to go hands-on with a complete post-alpha version of the game for Xbox 360, right from the title screen.
Reckoning starts off with a brief introductory cutscene before taking you to a character creation menu. At this point, I had four races to choose from: the Almain, Varani, Ljosalfar, and Dokkalfar. I created an Almain female and was able to go through the game's plentiful customization options to craft a rather appealing looking character before being tossed into the game's starting area.
This first section allowed me to get a handle on the combat system and interface without too much interference. I started with a sword, but eventually hit a room with variety of weapons. This is where Reckoning's flexibility began to show. I equipped two different weapon types, each mapped to a different face button, and was soon slashing away with a set of daggers, performing simple combos before finishing an enemy off with my flame staff. When you find a new piece of equipment, it is simple to compare it to what you are currently wearing directly from the loot menu. So I continued along and, after a brief story sequence and a boss fight, was greeting by the game's massive overworld.
"Schilling's goal in creating the world of Amalur was to make a game that he wanted to play, but in the process he's helped make one that I can't wait to play."
Once out in the Faelands, I could roam anywhere I wanted, but had an open quest guiding me to a nearby town. Through this introductory quest chain, the game's class system was explained. There are three skill trees to work with: melee, finesse, and sorcery. Players are free to pick and choose from any combination of these skills. This allows for a great variety of builds, though I feared that like many games, taking the jack-of-all-trades route would weaken my character in the long run. Thankfully, I was shown how the Destiny system would help to mitigate this concern by lead designer Ian Frazier (who worked on Titan Quest).
Players choose a Destiny based on how many skills have been selected from each tree. So for my character, I had a mix of finesse and sorcery skills, so I could cast magic from a distance as well as perform stealth attacks. In doing this, I eventually would unlock Destinies in three groups: finesse, sorcery, and the combination group finesse/sorcery. The pure builds of finesse and sorcery would boost the expected skills, but the combination would offer different bonuses depending on point distribution. For example, at level nine I had fourteen skills in both trees which unlocked a Destiny that enhanced my stealth and magic as well as giving me a skill called Blink. This replaced the standard rolling dodge with a teleport dodge that would allow me to pass through enemies with ease.
Pure builds will gain class-specific enhancements upon reaching max level, but I was also shown that a character split down all three trees perfectly would gain access to its own unique jack-of-all-trades bonuses. It's a great change from being locked into a class from the onset without even knowing how you enjoy playing. Even if you do decide you are unhappy with the direction your build is taking, there is always the option to respec.
I spent a lot of quality time in the starting area of Dalentarth working on some of the early quests. I was in the middle of one when I decided to loot the shop I was visiting. This brought the city guards down upon me and I was forced to slaughter them all and take their gear. I found a new helmet and a nice set of feyblades. Being a mage/rogue hybrid, I sold that and stuck with my dagger/staff combo.
After leaving the city, I wondered south to a new area called Webwood. There I was met by horrible spider abominations that had taken over the land. I also happened upon an enchanted treasure chest that needed to be dispelled in order to be opened safely. As with many RPGs, characters can specialize in areas such as crafting, blacksmithing, lockpicking, persuasion, and dispelling. I had not placed any points into dispelling, so sadly I failed. However, the chest still opened and my reward was a new ice staff, but also a curse that drained by MP. Thankfully, a quick fast travel back to a healer in Webwood's Canneroc was all it took to fix that.
Happy with my new setup, I jumped back into the main quest line and headed south to an area called Ettinmere. Attempting to complete a few more quests in Ettinmere, I fought and defeated a few Ettins, the two-headed giants the area is named after. On their own these were not too bad, but when flanked by three wolves as well things got tougher. I was eventually swarmed by three Ettins and an Ettin War Priest. Needless to say, I didn't survive that battle, so I decided it was time to check my gear.
There have been some comparisons to God of War when describing Reckoning's combat, and while I can see the similarities, with its Destiny system, gear, and exploration this game goes much deeper than a standard action game. What it does share is its simplicity to play. The game uses combos and attack juggling, but there are not button presses to memorize. It's a very fluid system that is further improved by its brutal attacks.
Despite wiki entries stating otherwise, there are no complex quick time events here. There is a Fate Shift bar that will slowly fill as players do battle. When this is filled, you can go into Fate Shift mode where time slows down and enemies are easier to wear down. Once an enemy is weak enough, players can perform a Fate Shift Kill. Here a single button prompt appears, and a rapid pressing of that button will fill up a bar that grants bonus experience. Don't worry, that's where it ends. You'll not be worrying about timing presses in cutscenes to avoid dying or any such here.
Battles can be challenging in Reckoning as different enemies behave in their own ways. Most put up more of a fight than simply rushing headfirst to their deaths, often attacking in groups and trying to flank you. It never seemed unfair, but it was clearly more than a mindless button masher, as I had to combo and juggle enemies as well as dodge out of the way fairly often. Thankfully, skill, abilities, and gear all help to make the game manageable.
Jumping back into my adventures, after upgrading my gear and buying a nice chakram, I was ready to head back out into the world looking like a redheaded Xena the Warrior Princess (or more precisely Xena the Rogue Mage). I opted not to go back to Ettinmere, but instead explored the world.
I passed through the forested areas of Dalentarth into the vast Plains of Erathell. I found the desert plains filled with bands of raiders and abandoned caravans, a huge island city with lots of merchants and quests, and beautiful areas with waterfalls that were just enjoyable to view. I was avoiding combat as often as possible, though in one of my encounters I did happen upon a piece of an armor set. It was a helmet that boosted my elemental abilities and finding the rest of the set would have added even more. A carrot that kept me looking for more pieces to complete the set.
My exploration came to an end in the Southeast corner of the map in an area called Detrye. It is a dusty, rocky region where I encountered many more beasts that I had not seen before. Without going into too much detail, it seems as if this area is meant for much later in the game than where I was in the story. During a talk with Ian Frazier, he stated that the game's main story will have players zigzagging across the map, though touching every area for at least a brief stop. Despite trying to see as much as I could, it turns out that I'd only seen less than a quarter of the world, and only small portions of those areas. There was even a whole other continent to the east that I'd not found access to yet. For anyone that likes exploring, this game will keep you busy for a long time.
The best part about my time exploring the Faelands was that every location was unique. In talking with studio art director Tim Coman, he stated that the team wanted to take a stylized approach to crafting the world instead of going for gritty realism, and that there were lots of challenges to this. One of the biggest was in creating a unified world, not just something that felt pieced together. Tim mentioned that Jay Gillen, the principal outdoor environment artist, had lead the charge to blend the lush, beautiful world map together into something consistent, and from what I saw, he succeeded.
One other artistic challenge was the design of the 280+ armor sets. The team wanted a unified design, but didn't want to hinder players from mixing-and-matching armor. There needed to be a solid look for characters wearing a complete matching set of armor as well as those taking the "rainbow pimp gear" path. In my short playtime, I was able to see a good bit of armor variety, but not even a small fraction of all the loot the game is stated to offer.
As the event ended, after playing for nearly six hours straight, I was still glued to Reckoning with a great desire to keep going. There is just something about Reckoning that hit home with me. I fell in love with the world and the combat right off. Often in WRPGs, I feel like I'm fighting the combat system rather than the enemies, but this was different. It was simple, yet deep, and it hooked me. Having a huge world to explore just topped it off, as that is one of my favorite things to do in an RPG. There were times when I was exploring that I just had to stop and admire the distant view; other times I was drawn to small details that stood out. The stylish look goes a long way to making the world more alluring.
Reckoning is likely to draw a lot of comparisons to other games, especially those in the Elder Scrolls series. It takes many of the appealing aspects of those games and adds in a third-person combat system that truly feels like the piece that's been missing in many open-world RPGs. For a game that focuses on character building and loot, being able to see your character's equipment is also a great addition. Reckoning features a beautiful world, an engaging combat system, and tons of content, so if you're a fan of open-world RPGs, this will be right up your alley.
Reckoning is a challenging game to describe, but I tried to hit the highlights. There are many other aspects I did not even get a chance to touch on such as factions, the storyline, and NPC companions, so there is even more to the game than I had words to mention. As far as the game's development goes, the big names tied to the franchise (R.A. Salvatore, Todd McFarlane, Ken Rolston, and Curt Schilling) have often drawn the limelight. While they have their part, I wouldn't let their influence weigh too heavily into your decision to check out Reckoning. The team at Big Huge Games has done a fantastic job with this new IP right out of the gate. I will say this: Schilling's goal in creating the world of Amalur was to make a game that he wanted to play, but in the process he's helped make one that I can't wait to play.