Most events at game studios for hands-on play are very structured and specific on what you can and can't do. Don't talk about this level, don't go here, that's not quite finished, we're not ready to show you this or that. Nothing was further from the truth for my playtime with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. While I was told "This is an incomplete version of the game; there will undoubtedly be bugs," I was given free reign on what I could do. Do you know that feeling you get when you toss in a game for the first time, and revel in the joy that it gives you? It's a much more interesting one when you have the developers of the game walking around behind you, commenting on all of the different things that they thought would happen one way or another. In fact, it's proof that the developers at 38 Studios and Big Huge Games are incredibly passionate about their game – that they simply handed the game to a room full of journalists a half-year before its slated release speaks volumes. They were right to have that confidence.
Rather than start right at the beginning, let me tell you about the thing that I found most impressive about my time with Reckoning: the chickens in the game. Somewhere between 30 minutes to an hour in, I found myself in the first hub city, a small village with just a few homes and some quests that sent me out into the world. It also had chickens. A lot of chickens. Remembering my time with The Legend of Zelda, I did what anyone would do: I slaughtered them mercilessly. Now, this is something that's tiny, something that doesn't matter in the scheme of things, but it proved to me almost immediately how much care and attention to detail was put into Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.
Every chicken sounded different as it was killed.
With childlike glee, I murdered every chicken in the town just to hear the sounds they made. Does that make me a psychopath? I don't think so – I was just amazed at the sound work that had been put into my experience. It's that kind of detail that forms the core of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. But the story doesn't begin with Dorf the Chicken Slaughterer (seen in the screen below). After all, who is Dorf? Where did he come from? Why does he slaughter chickens?
Well, Reckoning doesn't really answer any of those questions because Dorf is my creation in the world of Amalur. In fact, Dorf doesn't even know who he is, much less what is going on: he was dead. Fated to die, Dorf could've been a hero. He could've been a malcontent. He could've been a chicken farmer. But instead he becomes the man to be revived by the Well of Souls and loosed upon the world, broken from the chains of fate that bind every other. Dorf is whoever you want to make him out of the game's four races: two human, two elven. The character creation tools are functional for their needs – it's not nearly as in-depth as some recent Japanese titles like Dark Souls or White Knight Chronicles II, but it's certainly more than competent.
So once you've created your Dorf – or Dwayne or whatever you name your character – you find yourself alive and surrounded by Gnomes. It's scary. Really scary. But the Well of Souls is under attack and you must meet with Fomorous Hugues and get going. For you see, the Fae don't take kindly to the lower races taking their trademark immortality and intend to shut the Well of Souls down. The first environments are nothing shy of gorgeous and show off just what Reckoning is about. Everything is recognizable; Gnomes are Gnomes and Humans are Humans, but everything just feels different
. It's a good thing, assisted by the unique character models created under the tutelage of Todd McFarlane, of Spawn fame. Now, Todd's not the art lead on the game, so don't expect things directly out of his comics, but he's brought his expertise in both animation and toys to the table – both of which translate incredibly well to 3D modeling. Everything from the chickens and the cows to the monsters and the bears look absolutely fantastic, and I found myself immersed in the environments of Amalur, something I can't often say. The last game that did that to me was Fallout: New Vegas, and only then because it was set in my hometown.
So, we return to Dorf as he sets off, and he still hasn't begun to revisit his Chickenslayer past yet. Instead, he finds the man Fomorous sent him to find, the Fateweaver Agarth, who finds that you aren't bound to the threads of fate – in fact, you're very dangerous because of this. You can change what was meant to be, what has always been beholden to be true, and the Fateweavers can see no future for you. This is where the story really starts. As you go and change the fate of the world, the story molds to your character's choices and you have your choice of dialogues. Big Huge Games wisely split the UI of the games' dialogue boxes – if you're just up for information, you get a list of topics, but if you're making a choice that affects something, there's a Mass Effect-esque selector. It works well, and the topics can be skipped if Lore isn't what interests you; so if you want to return to the murder fields as the class of your choice, go for it.
And it's these same Fateweavers that bestow the ability to change classes or respec. Here's where Amalur's greatest strength lies: freedom in the RPG aspects. Despite the game's action-oriented combat (which I will delve into in a short while), there's an incredibly deep RPG system at the core of Amalur. You don't choose a class at the beginning of the game; you simply distribute your skill points amongst three different trees – one with warrior-like talents, one with magic spells and skills, and another with rogueish abilities. They're not so dissimilar from (expanded) World of Warcraft skill trees, but here's the big kicker: it doesn't hurt to put your points wherever you want. Unlike many games, which require the fleshing out of a single tree, Reckoning offers a variety of Destinies (classes) that are unlocked based on the amount of skill points dumped into a tree.
The brilliant thing is that there are classes based around just about every combination – just a few points in mage, but a lot in rogue? There's a class for that. Straight out warrior? There's a class for that. Even across the board? There's a class for that. The classes aren't just one-out for each type of skill because the more points put into the trees, the more classes that unlock. What's nice is that these classes don't restrict weapons or armor – they simply give bonuses that compliment the types of skills chosen. Warrior-type classes get defense bonuses, rogues get ranged damage, mages get magic power, and combination classes get less powerful bonuses, but more of them. It's a great compliment to the well-built skill trees, which is where most of the customization comes from.
I started playing Dorf as a warrior-type: strong, with two-handed weapon specializations and everything that came along with it. The loot that I got throughout my playtime didn't really match up with how I was playing Dorf – I got a lot of daggers and Faeblades, faster weapons built around the rogue tree. So I started distributing my points into these skills (luckily for me, Faeblades and daggers worked mostly off of the same skills) and eventually I was able to change my Destiny to one that was a duality of Warrior and Rogue, giving me bonuses to both. All of this while gaining new abilities to use in combat. It's another place where attention to detail is clear – there were no filler skills, each one had a particular use for a specific playstyle.
At this point, Dorf is fairly buff. He's been through about 1/8th of the world and is at about the six-hour mark of the game. Now, I haven't been doing much in the way of sidequesting; I've been doing story quests so that I can see as much of the game as I can. I've been getting great loot – and the game does a great job at giving both powerful unique items and randomized loot – and I've got the game's fantastic combat system down. Here's another place that the game shines, and it's very intriguing to see something that works this smoothly come from a studio that's never made a 3D game before, much less an action title.
Big Huge Games has a backlog of games that I absolutely love – but they're far from God of War in the action department – they've mostly worked on strategy titles like Rise of Nations and Rise of Legends, as well as the XBLA version of the board game Catan. That's why Reckoning's combat being so smooth and visceral is impressive – if only every game was given the care that Big Huge was allowed to give to Reckoning. Combat feels like it's taken straight out of God of War or Darksiders: it's responsive, it's entertaining, and it's strategic. It's also accessible, and it won't turn off fans of turn-based RPGs. Now, it's far from the quasi-realtime combat in games like Knights of the Old Republic, but it's clear where the RPG systems take hold in battle.
Things are fast and furious – dodges, blocks, and parries are all important (especially on hard difficulty), but the amount of power available to you is simply amazing. Every character can use magic or weaponry – so if you want to destroy someone with your greatsword, and then blast them with a fireball, that's yours to do. Some of the magical abilities aren't even in the magic tree – Dorf had the ability to call spikes from the ground to impale his enemies (and chickens). The most important thing is that the game always felt fluid and I always felt in control – while there were RPG systems going on in the background, it never felt like I was one critical strike away from instant death. The most important thing, though? Combat was fun
Near the end of Dorf's journey, he'd been through all of the lands of Dalentarth (the first quarter of the game), he'd met the leaders of the Fae, and he'd been sent on an important quest. It was around the time that I had to start leaving the studio – a very sad time indeed – when I found myself coming upon a couple of bears guarding a treasure chest. Knowing that bears always have the best treasure, I killed them and took their loot – a set of Faeblades known as the Shark's Fins that were twice as good as any weapon I had on my person... but after I took my loot and equipped it, it was time to go.
I really don't like marathoning games, and that's what events like this are all about – playing a single game for hours and hours on end to simply experience it. It speaks volumes for Amalur that I was engaged the entire time, finding new aspects of the game to enjoy and conquer. There's quite a bit of content in Reckoning for players to enjoy, and there were very few quests I found that were just plain fetch quests. There's a little something for everyone to enjoy in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, from the story to the art to the combat to the RPG systems. If you like video games, you'll be amazed with the amount of detail here.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is an amazingly fun game and probably a contender for RPG of the year in 2012. It's also the best chicken slaughtering simulator available anywhere.