February 13, 2012
What do you want from a game? Do you favour innovation and ambition over quality and craftsmanship? Or would you rather invest in games that play it safe instead of reaching for the stars and falling short? Think it over. Your opinion of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning will largely depend on it.
Created by Big Huge Games, Reckoning is a fantasy RPG built on familiar foundations that attempts to do almost nothing new. From the art style and the story, to the quest system and the world, it prides itself on solidity. Yet while it’s mechanically impressive, Kingdoms of Amalur is creatively lacking.
In the absence of novelty, Big Huge Games has instead invested much of its efforts into creating a broad, satisfying combat model. It’s a wise move. With Western RPGs largely eschewing the tactical combat traditionally offered by their Eastern cousins, Reckoning has some of the most confident hacking and slashing ever seen in a game of this scale.
So while stablemate Mass Effect has improved the quality of its third-person shooting over the course of three iterations, Reckoning pretty much nails melee combat first time. Wonderfully responsive, hugely entertaining and just a touch dramatic, the swooping, swishing attacks wouldn’t feel out of place in a straight-up action title. Indeed, it’s let down only by some clunky, auto-targeted ranged combat.
An RPG’s merits are not traditionally defined by the quality of its combat, of course. That weight falls upon the world, the story and your experience within them. In the case of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, it’s a mixed bag. Offering occasionally stunning visuals and a neat and ridiculously deep narrative, it’s nevertheless let down by a feeling of familiarity.
You are the Fateless One, reborn without memory into a world in which all inhabitants have pre-destined paths. You are the only one able to control your destiny, to change the path of history with a stab of your sword or a swipe of your staff. In a kingdom beset by war, in which a twisted breed of Elves called the Tuatha look set to wipe out all other races, that’s quite a handy skill.
It’s also a nice conceit upon which to build a narrative. RPGs are no stranger to the amnesiac hero, as it’s an easy way to introduce worlds, characters and conflicts to the player. Nor are they short of world-saving lone protagonists. But by threading the concept of fate throughout the fabric of the universe, Big Huge and 38 Studios are able to offer just enough of a twist on convention to keep things fresh.
Don’t confuse the protagonist’s flexible destiny with ultimate freedom, however. Your adventure is far more channelled than something like Bethesda’s Skyrim. Reckoning provides an open-world crafted by control freaks. It’s vast, yet offers little in the way of unscripted surprises. Everything happens because it is meant to, because it has been designed to.
The advantage of this approach is that Big Huge and 38 can plot out your adventure, ensuring a steady, engaging pace with a mixture of quests encompassing the epic and the intimate. The disadvantage however, is that there is little joy in discovery, with no point in wandering off the beaten path to play out your own little mini-narrative.
The look of the world is similarly conflicted. Bright and bold, this is high fantasy via World of Warcraft and a stack of nerdy novels. It looks like an Elf suicide bomber stumbled into Games Workshop, spreading boggle-eyed trolls, dark forests and squat dwarves all over the place. You’ve seen it all before basically, yet still Amalur provides some gorgeous moments.
In the odd stunning vista and the occasional expressive environment, Big Huge manages to offer glimpses of beauty from the most well-worn of visual tropes. It’s a technical triumph, perhaps rather than an artistic one. The light-dappled glades and fantastical forests are blessed with a warmth all of their own.
It’s a world away from the frosty, Nordic beauty of Skyrim then. Yet Reckoning does owe much to the Elder Scrolls series. Led by Ken Rolston, the man behind the systems of Morrowind and Oblivion, mechanically Big Huge’s RPG is forever indebted to Bethesda’s best work. The difference being that Reckoning is far more streamlined.
Loot management is a great example of this. After collecting items from fallen foes or plentiful chests (with a lockpick system almost identical to Fallout 3/Skyrim), it’s immediately apparent what each item is, what its relative merits are and how many you can carry. You even have a trash section to fill and quickly offload on merchants. Some may find it lacking in depth, but in terms of ease of use, it’s a triumph.
Elsewhere, the apple falls a little nearer to the tree. The crafting, persuasion, stealth and alchemy skills all owe much to the game’s forebears. There are five separate quest lines discrete from the main narrative, similar in construction to the Elder Scrolls' faction storylines. Even incidental actions like stealing have familiar consequences, resulting in a choice of bribery, prison or murder. No prizes for originality then, but Rolston’s presence may just get Big Huge off the hook.
Likewise, the achievements are solid. As is the way with RPGs, most come from putting in the time and grinding away, rather than through skill alone. However, they should at least be applauded for encouraging you to try out all of the game, instead of merely trudging along with your preferred play style.
At risk of labouring the point then, while Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is an enjoyable and lengthy romp, it’s nevertheless standing on the shoulders of giants. Neither as artistically mature or as confidently expressed as the best examples of the form, it’s a solid, well-made, engaging action RPG that nails almost everything it attempts, yet attempts almost nothing new. Only the combat truly shines.
So what do you want from a game? Do you favour innovation and ambition over quality and craftsmanship? Or would you rather invest in games that play it safe instead of reaching for the stars and falling short? Think it over. Your opinion of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning will largely depend on it.
All parping fantasy brass and sweeping strings, the soundtrack is completely unmemorable. The voice work has its moments.
Marked by some nice lighting effects and a bold and colourful style, Reckoning’s visuals are nevertheless hamstrung by their generic nature.
From the combat (especially the combat), to navigation and menus, Reckoning is intuitive and fun. Will lack depth for the biggest of RPG fans, however.
A neat story garnished with more side quests than you will want to complete, make for an epic time sink. Not bad at all, but it’s just so uninspired.
Encouraging players to explore all the game has to offer, this is pretty standard stuff. There’s one brilliant, Fable-esque hidden achievement mind.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning offers fantastic combat, a decent story, intuitive menus and the occasional visual flourish. Yet it's almost entirely lacking in creativity.