As a Red Sox fan, I was made aware of future Hall of Fame pitcher Curt Schilling’s video game obsession early on. Perhaps not as early on as Diamondbacks or Phillies fans, but certainly well before the formation of 38 Studios (at one point, Green Monster Games), the developer behind the latest RPG Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.
Schilling was a noted EverQuest junkie. For those unfamiliar, EverQuest was World of Warcraft before WoW. It wasn’t the first massively multi-player online RPG, but it was certainly the first one to reach a large audience. Schilling was not at all embarrassed by his nerdy obsession, and why would he be? He was a multi-millionaire athlete with a hot wife.
It’s been a good, long while since Schilling decided to stop just being a fan and decided to create games for himself. When that announcement was made I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought maybe he’d get into developing on a small scale with iPhone type games, and if he got into the big boy stuff, it would be a MMORPG for the PC, which seemed to be the only game he was into. Or, as is often the case with this kind of wishful thinking announcement, I figured I’d never hear about 38 Studios again and the company would be dissolved before Schilling lost too much money. When the first trailer for Kingdoms of Amalur surfaced over a year ago I was both surprised and officially intrigued.
In 2009, 38 Studios made a big acquisition when it acquired small developer Big Huge Games. Big Huge Games is mostly known for its work with the RTS game Rise of Nations, but it was allocated to Reckoning in an effort to create a single-player experience. Schilling also brought on board noted fantasy scribe R.A. Salvatore to help design the game world and create a robust history. Todd McFarlane was also brought in for character designs giving 38 Studios an almost all-star quality.
Suddenly, Reckoning had a lot going for it and the first reveal only made fans more interested getting their paws on a finished product. Just this past week a playable demo was released for PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 and I gave it a test run.
First of all, Reckoning is a third-person western style RPG. If you don’t know what that means (you must not read this blog regularly) it just means the game is more like Skyrim than Final Fantasy. You’re given control of one character and right away you get to customize him to your liking. You can be as detail oriented as you wish or go with a randomly generated character produced by the game. There are four base races to choose from that each are more suited towards a particular play style (one makes for an obvious mage, the other warrior, and so on). The game then lets you pick a deity for your character to follow which incurs some bonuses to certain stats, or you can go atheist if you wish. The level of customization is pretty much on par with recent entries into this genre such as Dragon Age and Skyrim.
The demo has you play through an introductory level of sorts. It gives you some context and, as expected, lets you know that your character is unique and somehow really important to this game’s world. It’s pretty standard stuff. From what I gathered from the giant opening cinematic, is that the game is focused on war between mortals and immortals. These immortals (they have a special name that I forgot) are not immortal in the literal sense, it would be seem. They die when you fight them, and during the cinematic one gets stabbed through the chest and appears as dead as anything else. I’m going to assume their immortality comes into play after “death” and that they’re resurrected or something. Regardless, the story has potential but doesn’t seem all together different from the first Dragon Age when you get right down to it. It’s good vs evil and the evil guys are way cooler and more ferocious looking.
The introductory dungeon does a good job of giving you a chance to try out seemingly everything. It encourages you to give melee a try and even throws in some stealth and magic play. When it comes to an end you select your character class and start customizing it the way you want to play. The game breaks everything down into three parts where character class is concerned: warrior, rogue, and mage. They have their own unique heading instead of that, I know the rogue abilities are called finesse and the warrior ones might be maul or something. Each one has its own tech tree and at each level up you get 3 points to spend however you wish. Even if you’re playing a mostly warrior type character you can invest points in the other two schools. Considering you get 3 points at each level, it seems like it won’t take that long to fill-out a tree but we shall see. As you spend points in each one the game keeps track which allows you to open up class advancements in each one. For example, the base finesse class can become a thief or an assassin as more points are invested in it. You can also dual and triple class if you like variety, which definitely has me intrigued. I suspect few will play one dimensional characters. Apparently, as part of the game, you’ll be able to meet characters that (for a fee, I assume) will wipe away all of your point allocations and let you reallocate them from scratch. This means if you’ve played the game for 30 hours as a warrior but decide you want to switch it up and be a mage/thief, you can! That seems pretty cool to me and is a good way to let your players experience everything the game has to offer without starting over.
Visually, the game is a pretty solid looking title. It reminds me a lot of EA’s (the publisher for Reckoning) other RPG series Dragon Age. Both go for a clean look with a rich color palette, which is in contrast to Bethesda’s Skyrim which has a gritty feel with a muted, gray palette. The character designs also follow a similar philosophy in that they’re straight-up fantasy fare. Where Skyrim tries to take these creatures and make them seem realistic, Reckoning just throws them in. This gives some characters, like the gnomes, an almost toon quality to them. Structurally, the game is also similar to Dragon Age in its approach to the environment. The map is huge, though in the demo I was obviously restricted to a small piece, but it looks like Reckoning will favor condensed but connected areas as opposed to Skyrim’s wide-open terrain. This makes sense considering the game’s focus on combat.
How is that combat? Quite good actually. At first, it feels like Reckoning may be another button masher like Dragon Age 2 or (gulp) Dynasty Warriors. Instead, there is importance placed on blocking or parrying and there are time-sensitive special moves you unlock as you advance in levels. I was concerned when I first started playing that combat would be too simple but the longer I got in the more varied the opponents became. I could probably approach it like a Diablo and just keep attacking and spamming potions but I found myself dodging and weaving amongst my enemies always trying to avoid being ganged up on. There’s also a special slow motion type attack that’s triggered by a meter. When activated, it slows everyone down but your character and you can deal out some serious damage. It’s player activated so you’ll find yourself saving a fully charged meter for a tough encounter, at least I did. Main attacks are done with one button, while special abilities and spells are mapped to a trigger. The game makes liberal use of the radial menu popularised by BioWare for easy access to potions. There’s also always a secondary weapon mapped to another face button on the controller letting you change things up on the fly. And like with Skyrim, you can also enter a stealth mode and try to sneak up on enemies to deal massive damage.
Reckoning looks pretty nice, and the combat seems fun, but I’m not sure where I stand on the product as a whole. I like its ambition, I like pretty much everything I talked about, but there’s stuff I don’t like. For one, the game’s camera is way too loose. I liken it to the inFamous series as it has a similar feel. The camera also feels like it’s too close to my character. I found myself constantly spinning it around with the right analog stick to get a look at something. The character also has a floaty feel and landing hits on enemies just lacks something that I can’t quite place my finger on. The game just doesn’t feel as fun to play as it should, given all that’s gone into it and all that it gets right.
This game is ultimately going to be compared to Skyrim because both fit into the same genre and will be released relatively close together (Reckoning hits stores February 7th). The experience of the two is vastly different though. Skyrim is more an exploration, sandbox kind of title. Reckoning has a large map, but exploration seems like it will be more tedious than wondrous. There’s some emphasis placed on free will in Reckoning as well (you can pick pocket, target civilians for attacks and so on) but some of the world’s real feel is dampened by archaic video game conventions like breakable boxes strewn about. I can run into some guy’s house and just start smashing things for loot and he doesn’t give a shit, which is disappointing. This game reminds me more of Microsoft’s Fable series than Skyrim, though I think the finished product will be superior.
In the end, I feel like I can’t offer a fair assessment of Kingdoms of Amalur because I’ve just been playing too much Skyrim. I’m nearing 150 hours with that beast and playing something different just feels too foreign right now. I have legitimate concerns about Reckoning, enough that I know I won’t be a day 1 purchaser. That was unlikely anyways as I have too many games I have yet to play as is, but I’m definitely holding out for some full reviews. And after my experience with Skyrim and its stability (terrible) I’m a little gun-shy to jump right into a new, massive game before knowing how well it runs. I do recommend that people try this demo out. It’s quite generous and after the tutorial dungeon you’re given 45 minutes to do whatever you want. They closed off some areas and I think they removed a lot of the NPC audio to make the download smaller, but you get a good test run. What will make this game a success or not is how well player’s enjoy the gameplay mechanics and quest variety. Skyrim offers the same quest over and over but gives it unique context, plus the world is just fun to explore and I’m not sure Reckoning’s will have that same feel. The story-telling and NPC audio in Skyrim is often times less then stellar but if the quest has me doing something interesting I can overlook it. If Reckoning just has the player fetching items and clearing dungeons endlessly it may get boring pretty quickly. We’ll just have to wait and see. My expectations after playing the demo though are that it probably won’t eclipse Skyrim as the definitive fantasy RPG experience, but should at least top my pick for 2011’s most disappointing release, Dragon Age 2. And if so, that’s a pretty nice spot to occupy.