"Compelling", "engrossing", and "heaps of fun" are a few words that spring to mind when talking about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, but none of them do it justice. This has to be one of the hits of 2012 and it's only (barely!) February.
So what's so special about another game in the singleplayer role-playing game genre? Surely it's been done to death, and really - isn't MMORPG where it's at now? Originally, this game actually started off as an MMO concept that was being developed by 38 Studios. R.A Salvatore had been creating a huge world full of intrigue, plot twists, and adventure in the style of his classic fantasy novels. With the acquisition of Big Huge Games in 2009, 38 Studios inherited a single player RPG that team had been working on. Thankfully, they recognised that they had a tremendous opportunity to merge the two and develop something special.
So where to start? Well, if you have not jumped at the chance and had a go at the demo, the game starts with you being dead. The cunning gnomes, however, leverage one of their infernal machines to raise you from your grave - cheating fate by doing so. This is the heart of the story; now fate-less, you have the ability to change the world and the course of events that are otherwise preordained. Savior to many, you'll be hunted mercilessly by others...
There is a cool little sequence at the beginning of the game where, as the gnomes prepare to dump you in the pit of corpses, you can choose your character. You have 4 humanoid races to chose from, the ability to choose how your character will look, and to name them. All of this is woven into a conversation between the gnomes pushing the barrow. This is just a sample of one of the great aspects of the game, which combine to feel like you are part of a fantasy novel.
There are three basic directions you can take your character in. You can focus on might, finesse, or sorcery. Note I did not say classes; this is because the skill trees for each of these types can be mixed and matched to suit your style of play.
There are a couple of ways this works. One character I played was a basic warrior type, however I did explore some of the finesse tree to gain skills in the bow. Alternatively, I did the same but instead of finesse I went into sorcery so I could use scepters. Effectively, there are thousands of combinations.
This customization is further enhanced by fate cards, which are kind of like a typical character kit that you can set your character to be in order to gain the benefits of the card. You could be a warrior but choose the scout card, for example, in order to gain skills in critical strikes and ranged combat. The higher you level, the more skills there are to assign, and the more fate cards become available.
Any MMO players out there will be familiar with how combat can be a bland affair where macros, rinse and repeat, and one button combat feature heavily. Some of you may have played console button mashers where combat is a dizzying array of different moves that tie your fingers in knots as you try to unlock that special move. Throw both styles in a bucket, bring it to the boil, remove the scum from the top, and you have Amalur's combat mechanics - one of the best RPG combat experiences you will see in a game.
You have one basic combat button, that - depending on your weapon - smacks, slices, or zaps your enemy. Push it repeatedly and you'll deliver a combination of moves. Mix that with your shield parry button, and you open up more combinations. Spells are activated by pulling the right trigger, and choosing one of the four spells you have learned.
The combat is fast a furious, with no two fights alike. Charge in with a forward roll and cleave 2 or three opponents, sneak in and gut a troll from behind, or cast a spell that stuns the whole room. The more you kill, the more fate points you gain. Get enough and you can go into reckoning mode, which allows you to do a graphically impressive and extremely gruesome special kill. Mash a button to max it out and you get a huge dump of experience points.
The graphics are fantastic. From a world perspective, each area is different. Some subtle, some stark in their transition. You will travel through rural farm land, deserts, and jungles. From dark foreboding areas where the denizens have webbed the trees and landscape, to flooded plains where you splash across streams and explore deep pools of water.
No two dungeons are the same. Sure, you can see where they may have used some of the same textures, but each has been crafted as its own event. Some twist and turn on themselves, while others are massive castles where you must move through its many rooms.
Ever completed a dungeon and sighed, knowing that on clearing the last room you have to trudge all the way back? Secret short cuts and exit corridors are the norm. In fact, after killing the boss and exiting, you often open up other areas to explore. Fast travel becomes available early in the game, allowing you to travel from site to site without having to combat through the respawns (although they're there as an option, if you like that kind of thing).
No RPG world is complete without its inhabitants. There are a wide variety of monsters, from cheeky little boggarts, brownies, and sprites, to enormous trolls and ettins that wield equally huge clubs. This only scratches the surface, but be prepared for surprises as they burst up from the ground, or appear as you activate an event. Dumb they are not, as they try to surround you or kill you from range. Some have specific weaknesses you can exploit. Boggarts, for instance, are made of wood and flaming arrows are their worst nightmare.
Weapons are are what you crave, and what you search for as an adventurer. There are the standard hammers, swords, bows, staves, knives, and scepters. And the non-standard, like Chakrams - a mid-range ring-like weapon that you can spin out like a Frisbee and hit on the way out and on the way back. The weapon and spell effects are stunning, too, adding to their impact. Flames look like flames and spell effects are huge and eye boggling.
Love it or hate it, crafting is the staple for a lot of RPGs (particularly of the MMO variety). Despite all the research and effort to get your skill up, by the time you make that high level sword it's generally inferior to what can be picked up by any noob in a dungeon. A good time waster, then, but largely pointless. Well, not in this game. You can generally make better weapons that you will find in dungeons.
What you do is take a weapon you found and salvage parts of it to make better ones. Weapons and armor break down to parts like hilts, lining, trim, blades, and the like. Some retain their magic ability and it is here, by combining these, that you can make a super weapon. Socket it with gems you have created and even name it!
“Trolls fear my sword of pooh flinging!”
The audio is great, with a lot of work going into the characterisation and and quest giver speeches. There is literally hours of speech audio. Other sound effects such as spell and combats sounds are also very well done.
So all of this sounds great. A well thought out and exciting combat mechanic, a beautiful game world and a crafting systems that makes sense. That stuff is all good, but what truly makes this game is the story and the quests. None of the "go there kill 5 of these and come back" filler crap you get in other games. Quests here are plot devices in the story. Side quests have their own little story to tell, while the faction and main plot lines are sweeping and engaging.
An example of this and only a little spoiler there is one simple quest where you have to find the local alchemist who was hauling plague cures across country. Discovering his body you need to collect the missing bottles of cure. One of them has however been picked up by a bandit and you have to chase him across country to get it. If you play the game without doing any of the side quests, you can complete it in about 40 – 50 hours. Do everything, however, and you are in for around 200 hours of game play. Yes 200!
So is there anything wrong with the game? Well, a couple of minor niggles. There were a couple of graphic glitches but nothing terminal. There were a couple of times (in 80 hours of gameplay) an enemy glitched and refused to die, however a quick restart solved that. The only frustration I had was in the inventory system. Trying to find a salvaged item in a bag with 40 items in it results in a lot of scrolling; more sub-menus would have been helpful.
This is a must buy for anyone interested in fantasy RPGs. I love it, and will be playing it for many months to come.