“Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning” (38 Studios, Big Huge Games) blends a nice mix of traditional role playing game elements and exciting fighting game mechanics to produce a good story with a fresh feel for the RPG genre.
The title boasts quite a bit of star power with author R. A. Salvatore building the story, artist Todd McFarlane directing the art and action, and RPG design legend Ken Rolston putting it all together. Brought together by former baseball star and founder of 38 Studios Curt Schilling, the expectations were high for a title that was inevitably going to be compared to “Skyrim” and “Dragon Age.”
The role playing elements are open, allowing players to be able to pick and choose from different Destinies (might, finesse, sorcery) and refine their characters with specific skills and abilities. Victory in combat and other skill challenges grant experience points resulting in leveling up those skills. Other additional talents (being able to teleport short distances, for example) become part of your character at certain levels automatically.
Players can mix and match talents, but to really obtain the mightiest powers, stick with one destiny. Sure, it might limit some things you can do right out of the gate, but increasing your skill levels in one of nine skill areas can make up for some of the early ability deficiencies.
If you want to find out what the other Destinies are like, find a Fateweaver who will allow you to redistribute all your ability points and skills. Players can play as a mage for part of the game, redistribute to play a powerful fighter, and then switch back again if they so choose. There is a cost associated with each new fateweaving, but it is a fun dynamic to offer this much flexibility in character creation.
Protip: Max out the “Detect Hidden” skill and it will reveal nearly everything on your map. Otherwise, a majority of the items (enemies, chests, lorestones, etc.) can’t be found unless you just stumble across them.
Quests drive the immense storyline with at least 170 quests (I know didn’t find them all). Some are simple (gather items and return) while others are more intricate and linked together. The main quest drives the story, but you’ll want to explore the faction quests, side quests, and tasks to gain as much experience and power as you can before the final showdown.
Salvatore envisioned and wrote 10,000 years worth of history for Amalur, the equivalent of 10 novels of information. Each book, item, and location in the game is full of history and legend, and is integrated together to make the story feel alive. There are also lorestones placed throughout the lands that offer tales about the history of the area or just simple gossip about love triangles in a nearby town.
As in nearly all RPG games, you are encouraged to interact with other people you meet. Interestingly, Salvatore did not write any of the nearly 50,000 lines of dialog present in the game.
A radial response system offers conversation choices, but some of those choices can be rather frustrating. There is no way to get a good feel for the person you are chatting with and determine if your response is going to result in something positive or offending. I backtracked a couple of times when I thought my response was going to be helpful, but did not give me the result I expected.
There is crafting of potions by gathering reagents, and forging of weapons and armor by collecting pieces of other weapons. But unless that is something you really enjoy, there are enough potions and weapons to be found from dead opponents and sealed chests that you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.
The game changer for this RPG title is the combat. In an effort to stand out and be different from similar games, developers searched for a way to create a dynamic fighting system that didn’t detract from the feel of role playing.
Players get two weapons, a primary and a secondary, and a single button on the controller activates each one. There are so many different types to choose, from the very fast daggers to the very slow hammers. Ranged weapons include staffs, staves, bows, and chakrams (whirling discs that return to the throwers’ hand after each attack).
Different combat techniques are used depending on how quickly you tap the button, whether you just hold the button down, and your position relative to your opponent. It makes combat simple, but it does have some very nice effects to accompany each movement.
Melee not your cup of tea? Magic is easily accessed by holding down a shoulder button, then pressing a button corresponding to the specific spell assigned to each trigger. As with weapons, tapping or holding the button results in different spell effects from, for example, tossing a ball of lighting with a tap to electrifying the ground with a punch by holding the button.
Having easy access to weapons and magic make battles fun, enjoyable, and fast-paced. No waiting to access different inventory screens to get the right sword or finding the right dropdown to cast the spell needed.
Players can shoot an arrow, toss a fireball, roll into melee range, and slash with a broadsword all in four button pushes. It is a combat mechanic more commonly found in fighting games, but goes very well here without detracting from the role-playing game feel.
The more variety you use to dispatch your opponents, the faster players build up Fate – a mystical energy that, when sufficiently gathered, allows time to slow down and attacks to become stronger. It is best used when facing many opponents and allows characters to move quickly from one villain to another. A final “fatality” move (i.e., creating a spike and impaling the bad guy) brings a wow factor to the conclusion of the battle.
There are a few weaknesses to “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning” (interior rooms start feeling the same, not enough conversation choices that make a difference), but nothing that detracts in the superb RPG with an exciting action game.
It is a deep and rich experience in a world that has a wonderful back story and vibrant environments. The familiar role-playing elements are all there, along with a flexible and powerful combat system that ramps up the enjoyment factor.
Whether you plunge right in to the main quest and ignore all others or decide to investigate every book and runestone throughout the land, “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning” is ready for the challenge. Are you?
“Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning” is available February 7 in North America and February 10 in Europe. It is available for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows PC, and is rated M for Mature due to blood and gore, intense violence, and suggestive themes. This review was done using an advance copy for the PlayStation 3.
“Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning” hopes to be the next big role-playing video game to occupy your time. They are putting an emphasis on “big” with a wide-ranging environment and deep storyline, but did they take on more than they were prepared to do?
Big Huge Games studio general manager Sean Dunn was working in Los Angeles and said he was quite content with his lifestyle on the west coast when he got a call about working on “Reckoning.” After a visit and seeing what the project and the people were all about, he decided to head east to Baltimore and join up.
“This is a passionate and competitive group who want to take on Beth Soft (Bethesda Softworks),” Dunn said. “This team stayed together despite being bought and sold by Microsoft and THQ before being bought by 38 Studios. These people believe in what they are doing.”
Dunn said “Reckoning” contains more than 10 novels worth of backstory from R.A. Salvatore, 45,000 to 50,000 lines of dialog, the artistic vision of Todd McFarlane, and the gaming vision of Ken Rolston. But it is the 110 people who were tasked of bringing that all to life and making it fun to play.
Lead combat designer Joe Quadara, who worked on games for Crystal Dynamics and Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA), said he was skeptical when he joined the team they could make a game as big as they envisioned.
“It started hitting its stride about the sixth month in where it was we are making a huge game and it’s going to be great,” Quadara said. “Once we all convinced ourselves that we were actually doing it, we stopped looking at if we could do things or not and just started building everything.”
The goal, Quadara said, was to make a fantastic RPG game that had a really great action game built inside. He explained there were constant battles internally on balancing those two types of gaming while still presenting it as a cohesive story.
“There’s this weird conglomerate of taking the best minds of the RPG group and taking the best minds of the action group and seeing how we could put those together. The engine itself is a full on action game, fighting game engine, but it’s also a full on RPG game engine and puts all those hooks into each other.”
If trying to design hundreds of weapons with different hit effects and backstories for combat was a challenge, visually trying to express 10,000 years of history in the game seemed nearly overwhelming for art director Tim Coman. He likened it to riding a bike down a hill.
“You stop worrying about peddling and just keep moving,” Coman said. “If you just take each individual step as its coming and focus on we’re going to get this done, going to get this done, go.”
“There’s a depth there that you know walking in, you’re going to be building lots of lots of stuff. Ken Whitman is our lead effects artist and he’s fantastic. He and I would have conversations daily. How do we push this yet try to find something that is familiar enough to people so they get it?”
Coman’s artistic team would have debates about what was going to be represented, how it would appear visually, and whether it was even needed. Eventually, the decisions came down to creating a huge, open game to appeal to gamers’ sense of exploration.
“R.A. (Salvatore) came up with a line that we’ve repeated around here. ‘If you want people to save the world, you have to give them a world worth saving.’ For us, we wanted to put all that in there so that the players that really are RPG fanatics can see this is a real, deal RPG. The people that are action game players – it is a real, deal action game.”
Both Coman and Quadara admit they don’t know how deep the rabbit hole goes when talking about the depth of “Reckoning.”
“Take the blue pill,” Coman said while laughing.
“If you want to ask me how many different things you can craft, I really have to go down to a spreadsheet and go look it up because that’s just too much knowledge for me,” Quadara said.
“Don’t even get me started on the quests because there is so much lore, over 10 novels worth of writing just in the game itself. The dialog is so huge,” he said. “Each person has so much that they’ve contributed to this game that there is no way one person could fit it all in their head.”
However, they were able to fit is all on one disk.
“Knights of Amalur: Reckoning” will be available February 7 for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. It is rated M for Mature due to blood and gore, intense violence, and suggestive themes.
Curt Schilling was a very successful Major League Baseball pitcher for 20 seasons, helping two different teams win world championships in 2001, 2004 and 2007. He was a six time All-Star and currently hold the record for postseason winning percentage.
Curt Schilling is, and has been for the past 31 years, a gamer.
Schilling is now the chairman and founder of 38 Studios, a video game company that is getting set to release their first title, “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning,” on February 12. For the man who was king of the mound, getting into the gaming industry was something he had a passion for as his baseball playing days were winding down.
“When I became a professional baseball player, if you think about it, I’ve lived the ultimate gamer life,” he said. “I had a glut of disposable income and I traveled and was alone a lot. I was perfectly suited to be a hardcore gamer and if you look at the sports world today, I think there are more gamers than not now in professional sports by a large margin.”
Schilling said his love of gaming started with his very first console – an Intellivision video game system – and his most favorite game was, ironically enough, “Major League Baseball.”
“I was at the right age for consoles, when ‘Pong’ was the ‘Need For Speed’ of the day,” Schilling said. “(‘Major League Baseball’) was like the greatest baseball game ever. If you had a consistent playing partner like they do in ‘Starcraft’ now, every game was 1-0 and you had to hit a homerun down the left field line. I’ve always been a gamer.”
His geekness grew as his professional career in baseball progressed. Schilling said he was using a computer and helped design software to help him become a better pitcher when most players and teams were using video tape. Of course, the computer also doubled as his gaming rig during his days off.
As his career progressed and technology became more prevalent with teams, more players started using computers and video games were creeping into clubhouses as younger players join the squad. Schilling made it a point to be one of the take charge guys when it came time to game.
“I was kind of an oddball at the time and I was around and on some teams that it probably wasn’t the cool thing to have a computer. But obviously it became much more popular to the point where my last couple of years, I had two traveling console set ups where we had a flat screen, an Xbox and a PlayStation and they would get out and get put up on the airplanes when we were flying around.”
Despite the dearth of baseball video games and even his inclusion as a cover athlete for “High Heat Major League Baseball,” Schilling said he never played those games because they weren’t hard enough. His gaming interest took more of a fantasy slant.
“I was always a big fantasy guy, a big ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ kind of game,” Schilling said. “That was always a very big significant piece of my gaming because I was always a very avid reader as a kid. I read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy for probably the 20th time a couple of years ago, but that’s what got me into fantasy gaming.”
He enjoyed playing massively multiplayer online games like “Ultima Online” and “Everquest.” So as his playing days were winding down and he was eyeing what to do after his last pitch, gaming seemed a natural fit for his new career.
“Gaming, outside of the Lord, baseball and my family, was always my thing,” he said. “I took this very much as I did my baseball career. I scouted the industry for about 5 or 6 years and I took notes and I went to a lot of lunches and a lot of meetings with people that were in the industry and just get a feel for what I was up against.”
He knew he wanted to focus on a new fantasy role-playing intellectual property, but also knew he wasn’t going to be the one to put it all together. So he played a little “fantasy baseball” and visualized who he would want to put together his vision of a different kind of fantasy game.
Using his connections, Schilling was able to bring in author R.A. Salvatore to write the story, designer Todd McFarlane to do the art and animation, and Ken Rolston, the lead designer of “The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind” and “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, to act as the executive designer. This all-star line-up formed the backbone for the work on “Reckoning.”
“I had no interest of getting into the industry to build games,” Schilling said. “This has never been about me. We’re not making Curt Schilling’s game. This is not a vanity project and it never has been.”
“Every bit of my focus was getting in the industry to help an intellectual property change the way people get entertained and be the best in the world at it. If you’re not going to try and win it all, I really don’t feel like playing.”
Bringing together these giants in their particular fields could have been a problem as egos and styles could potentially clash. Schilling said that never happened and all three have been hands-on while mentoring the younger members of the team.
“You got people who understand you check the egos at the door. I use a lot of sports euphemisms and examples around here. Getting these people to understand you play for the name on the front of the jersey and not the name on the back has been a key piece of this.”
The personal adjustment for Schilling to adapting a game developer lifestyle from his professional baseball lifestyle has been difficult at times. As a sufferer of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), he has had to find a new structure to replace his pitching schedule in order to manage his life.
“I’m a very routine oriented guy. Deep down inside the game dev process, there is that routine, but the wins and losses are much farther between. And they are different. When you win a game against the Yankees on Monday and it’s on ESPN and all over in the newspapers, there is immediate instant feedback. This is very different. You have to find wins and losses in different ways.”
“I don’t miss anything I did for a living. I was born to do it for a long, long time. The things I got to see and be a part of, I’ll be forever grateful but I’m looking for the new schedule, the new playing field, the new World Series. That’s been the challenge is to find where and when and how those things happen here.”
And as a gamer, Schilling knows anything is possible.