Note: this review turned out to be more comprehensive than I originally thought it was going to be. I tried to break the review into sections and wrote up a brief overall impressions with a bottom line at the end.
Reckoning is a vast, open-world RPG put together by Big Huge Games/38 Studios and published by EA. It is the product of one of the more unlikely teams you will see in the gaming industry: ex-baseball player, Curt Schilling; author RA Salvatore; Todd McFarlane, creator of the comic Spawn; and last but not least Ken Rolston, the lead designer of the popular Elder Scrolls games, Morrowind and Oblivion.
The team set out to do several things with their new fantasy IP. In addition to things like distinctive, colorful visuals and rich lore, Rolston’s dream was to merge two different game mechanics that are often estranged from one another: the elements of a heavy-duty RPG that may be found in, say, Dragon Age: Origins, and the fast-paced, responsive combat of action games like God of War. The other important element in their game was to create a living world that the player would care about–in the words of RA Salvatore, “a world worth saving.” In addition, many people have wondered if this game will give RPGs like Skyrim a run for their money.
The question is, did they succeed?
The Opening and the Setting
The events of Reckoning take place smack-dab in the middle of the 10,000 year history which Salvatore wrote for the world of Amalur. War has been raging between mortals and an evil sect of the Fae race known as the Tuatha Deohn for ten years, and mortals are doomed to lose. Since the dawn of time, Fate has dictated how everything in the world is suppose to work; that all changes when your character dies and is brought back to life by a new Gnomish invention called the Well of Souls.
In the game there are six races: the immortal Fae, the gnomes, two types of humans, and two types of elves called “alfar” (which are mortal like D&D elves, but are considered separate from the Fae). Only the two human and elf types are playable, which I find to be a bummer. Though I lean towards elves myself, I think it would be cool if you could choose to play as a gnome (or a dwarf race, if there was one).
The world of Amalur, and people that inhabit it, are very much standard fair of the “high fantasy” genre and the story itself is just as formulaic. You get your usual RPG-story exposition dump about the rise of a dark lord and how he must be stopped. These in themselves are not bad things. As the Latin saying goes: Nihil nova sub sole (there is nothing original under the sun). What matters is that all elements are properly presented and the story is told well, and the game mostly does a decent job of pulling this off. The world is generic, but feels just different enough to be its own entity apart from D&D and/or WoW. Several names (like Fae [or fay], Seelie, Unseelie, Summer Court, Winter Court, Tuatha, Sidhe [‘shee’], etc.) are grabbed from other sources, like Irish mythology, for example. Stuff like this always opens up great opportunities for tangential learning. The problem is the developers try to come up with new or different names for everything to the point where it feels like you’re being bombarded by meaningless terminology (which is odd coming from a diehard Tolkien fan, I know). Fortunately, this initial swallow is not as difficult as it seems and you can jump right into the game.
The World, Sandbox Elements, and Combat
Because mortals are meant to die and their souls depart the world, being raised from the dead is an unnatural process, hence your character is the “Fateless One”. Your part in the “Tapestry” of Fate concluded upon your death, so now you have no fate. Not only that, your mere existence causes the whole Tapestry to unwind. This concept is translated into the Reckoning‘s leveling mechanics and choosing your class, called the Destiny system.
Skills are divided into the usual three areas of combat, magic, and stealth, but there is no definitive class. The closest you come to a class are Destinies, which provide bonuses to certain skills and can be changed at any time. You can choose between the basic fighter, mage, or rogue… or any combination of the three–I, for example, built a rogue-mage hybrid. If you want to relocate your skill points, you can visit a Fateweaver in any major city, and rebuild your class from the ground up any time you want. This idea is not new to RPGs itself, but Reckoning does a good job of explaining these actions in the world. The game’s leveling system is also one of the most flexible and forgiving system I have seen in any RPG to date. I would go so far to say it surpasses Skyrim‘s system, which is pretty forgiving in its own right.
Once you finish the tutorial, you follow a winding path to the first village before the world fully opens up. At this point the main questline is completely optional. Just like in TES games, you have the freedom to go wherever you want and do whatever you want. There are towns, cities, and dungeons. There are factions to join, pockets to pick, and jails to be thrown into for your crimes. If you feel like going on a killing spree, there is a button you can press to enter “Aggressive Mode”. This is nice because it keeps you from accidentally hitting friendlies in the heat of battle. You can even Fast Travel to places you’ve already been to. Unfortunately, movement is somewhat restricted at the same time. The world is not open to the degree Skyrim is. It’s more open in an MMORPG sense. You can’t jump or climb from small ledges or climb up a mountainside. There are specific “jump” points scattered around and certain areas where you can enter the water–you can’t just hop into a river. In certain dungeons, you may walk into a massively cavernous area and see a great underground city carved into the rock, but all you can do is look at it from your suspended bridge that may as well be a narrow corridor. While the game’s visuals and scenery are absolutely gorgeous to behold, it doesn’t mean much if you can’t go there; it is a sandbox game, after all. While this isn’t a point in the game’s favor, make no mistake: the world of Amalur is still large and you will likely spend over a hundred hours exploring and questing.
Several of the game’s habitable places, unfortunately, don’t feel like living, breathing settlements. The first village you encounter, for example, is only comprised of four buildings–two shops, an inn, and a temple–two gardens, and two graveyards. There’s about twenty or so villagers who just wander around. This is mostly a problem with said villages and not so much with the cities. Though finding a shop–more specifically, a shop that has what you’re looking for, like potions or other supplies–can be surprisingly difficult to come by. Part of the problem is the shops don’t seem to restock regularly, and only carry items for whatever the expected level range is for a particular area. But if you walk past an inn, you can hear music inside, which is a nice touch. You might see performing musicians, dancers, a women in her garden, and in large cities, the inviting calls of merchants. There are nice touches here and there, but cities feel more alive than towns, and overall the cities of, say, Skyrim or Oblivion, feel more realized.
As far as Rolston’s dream of strong, third-person action combat, I am happy to report he succeeded… mostly. It’s fast, responsive, and fluid. Switching between your primary and secondary weapons is easy, and so is using your spells and abilities. Attacks feel like they have weight to them. Kinaesthetically, it’s very pleasing. There is no complex button-mashing, it’s simply using one button and timing to pull off combos (honestly, Dragon Age 2 is weeping for a system like this). Using combos allows you to absorb Fate, which can be charged up and channeled into god-mode (it’s actually called Reckoning Mode, go figure). What sucks about this mode is to kill someone you are completely yanked out of combat and forced to perform a quick-time event, finishing move in order to gain bonus Experience Points based on how many times you mashed the button. The problem is the button is always random so you’re constantly left guessing. The finishers are pretty to look at, sure, but what good is it when you’re not paying attention because you’re trying to anticipate which button will need mashing? Immersion is completely broken and you’re not actually controlling the action on the screen. It’s more frustrating than anything. Your also forced to finish off almost every boss, regardless of whether or not you have enough Fate points, in Reckoning Mode. This doesn’t have to be a cinematic QTE, this could easily be integrated into the combat with the last button you push at the end of your “combo”. It’s been done in other games before.
Another problem in combat is the game constantly feels the need to jerk the camera away from you almost every single time a monster, like a troll, walks up, or a spider pops out of the ground:
Me: Doo dee doo…
LOOK!!! A TROLL ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROOM!!!
Me: Whoa, okay!
LOOK!!! A TROLL!!!
Me: Yes, I know.
LOOK!!! SPIDERS!!! LOOK!!! MORE SPIDERS!!!
Me: YES, I GET IT! I KNOW WHAT TO DO, JUST LET ME KILL THEM! GEEZ!
These actions are unnecessary, as is giving me the same three combat hints over and over, blocking my view on the screen.
Another big problem (though this is more the game’s UI) is that you can only slot four spells or abilities to your action buttons when there are a plethora to choose from. As a mage, having only four spells sucks too. The kicker is that there’s a great big radial menu for hot-keys which can only be used for potions! You can’t hot-key additional spells, weapons, or any other items. This is one of the most bafflingly awful design decisions in the game. ATTENTION KEN ROLSTON: you gave us Morrowind and Oblivion. You know better than this.
The life of “roguery” in Reckoning is, unfortunately, not as stellar as it should be. The level design does not always support sneaking, backstabbing, and thieving. There can be almost no where to hide from guards, people, and enemies if you wish to pickpocket or perform a sneak attack. Indoor areas are the worst offender, with 99% of dungeons being nothing but linear corridors. You have to approach your targets from the front. In addition, the game often forces you to fight typical, beefy, video game bosses and/or multiple mobs toe-to-toe. This is bad level and game design. When you have multiple styles of play, then all aspects of the game need to support those playstyles. Level design is especially important for players who want to be stealthy.
Other nitpicks with combat are that there can be so. Darn. Much of it. That you often need to wade through in order to get to where you’re going. Sometimes players just want to walk from Point A to Point B without too much hassle. Also, the targeting system is a little loose, so it can be easy to hit the wrong guy if you’re not careful.
In short, the combat mechanics are solid, fun, and intuitive, but are constantly tripping over small–but poor–design decisions. I’m also given to understand the controls are, unfortunately, more compatible on a controller than a mouse and keyboard.
Now, what’s a sandbox RPG without min-games, amirite? There’s a lockpicking game very similar to that of Fallout 3/NV and Skyrim, but there isn’t much challenge to it; as of this writing, I only have 4 skill points in Lockpicking and can pick “Very Hard” level locks with minimal effort. In contrast, the Dispelling mini-game, which is all about timing and reflex, is much more difficult; if you screw up, you get cursed and need to find a priest to cure you. I think there’s also a gambling mini-game, if that’s your thing (though I didn’t try it, so I can’t comment further).
Story, Lore, Dialogue, and Writing
In RPGs, story and dialogue are as equally important elements as exploration and combat. There are several novels worth of writing and dialogue in Reckoning. There are books and letters that can be read, unique items with their own histories behind them, and you can ask almost any number of passersby about plethora of subjects. Scattered around the world are Lore Stones created by the Fae with magically recorded verbal accounts of legends and history, but most of it is out of context and may not make much sense on its own. It’s a shame that you can’t work up a library of Lore Stone content that could be categorized by their particular stories and listened to later. But most of this is all fluff and flavor.
Dialogue in its literal sense (interactions between you and an NPC) is unfortunately extremely limited and one-sided. You usually just get to pick between two options (and if you’re lucky, an investigative option or two) to move the conversation (or plot) forward. Not only are dialogue options limited, but the writing often leaves much to be desired. It’s very much like TES games where it isn’t much more complex than “accept/reject quest”. Other options tend to be dumb or pointless observations, questions and statements. This game also loves to constantly pull the villain monologue gag while you just stand there and listen to his rant when you could just, I don’t know, kill him or something.
The story, or general idea of the story, I liked but it was plagued with a lot of hit-and-miss writing and logic. In the game’s opening, for example, the gnomes can’t seem to fathom why the evil Tuatha Fae would attack the Well of Souls. Even when they spell everything out themselves it doesn’t click in their minds. You also have the obviously evil main villain in the obviously evil-looking armor and crown, sitting on his obviously evil-looking thrown in his evil-looking fortress, and his obviously evil, mustache-twirling laughter… yeah, sorry, you get the idea. Because of stuff like this, there were times when I had difficulty taking the story seriously.
The way Reckoning‘s story teases with Fate almost makes it seem like the writers were trying to play with the concepts of Destiny and Freewill in some meaningful way, but it doesn’t go anywhere. It also seems like the writers tried to give one or two of the characters some kind of arc, but they didn’t quite succeed at that either. While some characters are one dimensional, others are actually pretty good. In a particular faction quest I played, the villain wasn’t a total mustache-twirling jerk; he had a believable motive and I could almost understand where he was coming from. Overall, the story and dialogue has a lot of hit-and-miss. Several areas are lacking, but you occasionally run into a real gem.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a solid, open world RPG. The action combat is successfully integrated with the classic RPG, the leveling system is flexible and forgiving, and you’ll spend many an hour exploring and questing. The story and writing could be better, but it has its moments. The visuals are distinctive and the environments, beautiful. The music is nothing extraordinary, but it serves its purpose in providing background flavor and atmosphere. There are several small design kinks that threaten to bring the game down, but the core concepts are strong and the game shows promise.
It’s easy to want to compare this game to Skyrim, and while there are many similarities, Reckoning isn’t trying to be like TES games, but its own entity. Whether or not it will beat Skyrim is an unknown, but it is definitely riding up from behind.
If you’re a fan of fantasy, RPGs, sandbox games, action games, or any combination of those, then don’t let this new IP pass you by; it’s fun and definitely worth a look.