Early in February, I was invited to visit the offices of Big Huge Games, a subsidiary of 38 Studios, to get a first look at Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. At this point, all I knew about this game was that some big names were working on it and that the trailer was full of action. I had my preconceptions about Reckoning from its title and the lack of gameplay in the trailer. Even as I sat down for the combat demo, I wasn't sure that anything could wow the cynic I have become after years of covering RPGs. I was wrong, very wrong.
#1: Like the Elder Scroll Series? Good.
Even if you've never heard the name Ken Rolston before, if you've played Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind or Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion then you are familiar with his work. Ken was the lead designer for both of these titles and is now the senior designer at Big Huge Games for Reckoning. It shows, because the game shares many RPG tenants that made games like Oblivion great. This is an open-world RPG with five large regions to explore. Players begin their quest by creating a character through a series of cinematic scenes. Options are given for gender, a selection of four races, and a handful of deities to follow. The character then awakes dead in the world of Amalur and the story begins.
Story was not the focus of the demo, instead I got a look at all of the little gameplay features that make this an impressive early look. The game takes place in a third-person perspective to take advantage of fast, furious combat and the display of all of the loot that can be found or crafted throughout the game. Instead of requiring the player to select a class to be stuck with before even beginning, the game offers up three unique talent trees with over twenty abilities in each. These include the Might path in which is the melee warrior focus, the Sorcery tree which offers magical abilities, and the yet-to-be-seen Finesse skills. This allows players to mix and match skills in order to create a character of their own choosing without being tied to one path. Don't worry about taking the wrong upgrade path, because there will be a respec option available in game.
As players roam the world, there will be plenty of quests, dungeons, and towns to explore. There will be crafting available, too, as we saw a simple enchanted fire stone get added to a sword to create a flaming sword (and yes, the fire was clearly animated on the character's sword). All of the RPG standards are here and in fine working order. Even looting enemies is an improved process, as players can equip directly from the loot screen when examining what an enemy has dropped or items can be tossed in a junk menu for a quick sell at a vendor back in town. It might seem minor, but is a nice streamlined enhancement to the typically over-cluttered inventory menus of RPGs.
#2: An Evolution in Combat
I love the skills and abilities I'm granted in open-world RPGs, but combat is usually more of a chore for me than an enjoyment. Looking at games like Fallout 3, Oblivion, and Mass Effect, I loved those games, but not because of the combat system. What Reckoning does is try to make combat fun and exciting while still giving the options for customization that RPGamers must have. Having seen the combat system in action, it might first appear as if God of War and Diablo had a baby. If that doesn't sound like a bad thing to you, just know that it's actually even deeper than that.
As said before, there are no class restrictions, so players can mix and match skills from three different talent trees, so a warrior that can cast spells is completely possible. Those who take a melee focus will have swords and hammers at least as weapon options. Players can equip two weapons at the same time, so one button will work the sword and pressing another button, even mid-combo, will bring out a hammer. This combines with combat abilities such as a harpoon attack, much like Scorpion's from Mortal Kombat, that can brings an enemy close and allow for more skill chaining of abilities like an area attack ground stomp. It's fast and robust and the attack animations are smooth and very impressive. Mages are not at a disadvantage here either. Where warriors can roll around to dodge attacks, with the press of a button, mages can teleport dash around. Warriors will also be able to equip shields to block attacks and mages will have magical talismans that work the same way. Players don't have to worry about their magic user being a paper doll, as mages can fight with the best of them. Equipped with spells like Mark of Flame, where players tag enemies with a flame and can denonate at will, and weapons such as the boomerang like chakram, mages can more than capable of dealing damage before foes can get near them.
There are also finishing moves called Fate Shift Kills that can be activated when an enemy is nearing death. Players will get a prompt and will be able to hammer one button to increase the strength of the attack before the character unleashes a powerful execution. Everything shown about the combat was fast and seemed extremely flexible, so it was right up my alley. Never did it seem button-mashy or limited in scope, but instead appeared to offer more variety than other similar RPGs. As this demo was focused mostly on combat, Big Huge Games succeeded in making me a believer in Reckoning with that alone.
#3: The Dream Team, Minus the Ego
Curt Schilling was a major league baseball player from 1988 until 2007; that's public knowledge. What many people don't know is that Curt was a major Everquest fan as well as a big World of Warcraft player. He's a gamer, so when you think about him opening up his own gaming studio with that knowledge, it's not as strange. While Curt is the founder and owner of 38 Studios, his company is partnered with Big Huge Games. Together, both studios are working on separate projects in the Kingdoms of Amalur world. It was first announced that 38 Studios would be designing the MMORPG codenamed Copernicus. Curt also brought in two non-gaming major creative talent with Todd McFarlane and RA Salvatore to help with the overall series creation.
When the announcement first went out that Curt Schilling was creating an MMORPG with Todd McFarlane and RA Salvatore, one of the first comments Curt recalls reading in reaction was a forum post equating this combination to the Hindenburg disaster. Upon first thoughts, seeing this many big names together tends to bring back memories of games in the past that have tried to do the same and failed. Thankfully, ego has no place in this formula, as each of the big names here are merely overseeing things without trying to dominate. Todd McFarlane is serving in a supervisory role as the Executive Art Director where he oversees and challenges the art team to make things look "better" than what other RPGs have done before. Taking the outsider perspective, he gave examples of trying to bring out the best in his team, not just slap his name on the art and leave. The same goes for RA Salvatore, the Executive Creator of Worlds. His role has been to work with the team developing the narrative and to guide them in that effort. In order to do that, he wrote a 10,000 year history for the world of Amalur. For Reckoning the design team got together and picked a point on his timeline to focus a story around. Salvatore stated that he wanted to take a similar approach to the way he wrote his novels and as such didn't want anything in the game that didn't have a purpose within the history. He didn't want gamers to have to stretch their suspension of disbelief any more than needed for a fantasy adventure. McFarlane and Salvatore do not appear to be merely showing up to leave their mark on the gaming industry, but are instead helping to shape and challenge the team at Big Huge Games.
#4: A Blizzard Style
The approach 38 Studios and Big Huge Games are taking with Reckoning is that the game doesn't have to be the first to market, but the best. It was even mentioned that the team would be taking a Blizzard-like approach and not releasing this game until it was ready. Curt made it to a point to say that even though EA is publishing this game, the company is not going to release Reckoning until it is ready. That said, Reckoning is scheduled for a 2012 release.
That's not the only Blizzard-style spin this game is receiving, as the artwork and animation is bright and vibrant like Diablo III and World of Warcraft as opposed to the grittier-looking Oblivion. The game's character animations and spell effects all take the bright and visually engaging approach much like those titles from Blizzard. The talent trees are a nice improvement over locking players into one role, taking a lesson from World of Warcraft character specing, but without the class confinement. When I started earlier that this game's combat looked like the child of God of War and Diablo, I should add that it's easy to see some World of Warcraft in the lineage as well, but without the MMO trappings. And yes, those images on the side of this article are just like what it looks like in action.
#5: The Impressive Talent at Big Huge Games
The dual announcement of Reckoning alongside the MMO Copernicus might have led some to misunderstand what's going on. There are two studios at work here, not just one team splitting their time between a single player RPG and an MMORPG. Big Huge Games is the team behind Reckoning and there is a wealth of talent here. Along with former Bethesda lead Ken Rolston are more veteran designers working on Reckoning. Bethesda has leaked a ton of top tier talent to the Reckoning team. Mark Nelson, Creative Director, has gaming credits on the Morrowind expansions Tribunal and Bloodmoon as well as Oblivion, and was even the lead designer of the Shivering Isles expansion. Executive Producer Mike Fridley served as lead producer on several Bethesda titles before joining Big Huge Games. The team is more than just ex-Bethesda staff though, as Lead Designer Ian Frazier worked as a level designer for Titan Quest, Lead Combat Designer Joe Quadara worked for Crystal Dynamics and SCEA, and Audio Director Grant Kirkhope handled the music for Rare games for thirteen years before joining Big Huge Games.
The team has the pedigree to make an impressive title, and Reckoning is shaping up quite nicely. The game is being designed using an engine created in-house specifically for Reckoning. All the tools are there; the leadership has a proven track record, and the combat demo was enough to shoot this game up to the top of my radar. In a day and age where graphical prowess reigns surpreme, Reckoning not only held up in that arena, but also appeared to be fun, plain and simple. There is still a lot more to go with this one, so we'll just have to wait and see how it shapes up.
EA and Big Huge Games have a challenge in front of them though. How do they get this title up there to where people are willing to give it a shot? With major RPGs such as Skyrim and Mass Effect 3 crowding the end of 2011, it's almost a blessing for the game that it will not be out until 2012. We should be learning more about the questing system and overall story over the months leading up it Reckoning's release. Those who will be at PAX East 2011, stop by the Wyvern Theatre this Friday at noon for the first public showing. After that, you can tell me I'm crazy if you're not as impressed as I am. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is at the top of my list.