Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Review
Are you ready to play another nameless hero and take up a sword, staff, or dagger against an ancient enemy in a far-away fantasy world? Yes, of course you are, and I don't want to hear any complaining about how many times you've seen this story before! Your latest game has just pulled into the lot, and while it's not amazing, it's got a lot of fun stuff that action-RPG fans will enjoy. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is the start of a new franchise, and it's the result of a herculean effort by a rookie developer that's trying to break into the big time with their very first game. The effort by 38 Studios is commendable, and the help they got from veteran RTS developer Big Huge Games and publisher EA has been crucial; the end result is a game that is often amusing, entertaining, and engaging, but it never quite stands out from the crowd.
You start off as a stereotypical nameless hero with no known origin or backstory in a cartoon-styled fantasy world. The protagonist is left for dead and dropped in a pile of corpses when he or she wakes up to a crazy prophecy about having no fate in a strange fantasy land where everyone's destiny is pre-determined. But it goes beyond just having no known past or future, as Amalur's lead character can also rewrite the fates of others. This last bit plays out as a sort of fighting game-style Ultra Combo in battle, and while the game's combat is styled like what you'd see in a console action game, there are plenty of Western RPG systems all working as well. Your voiceless, generic-feeling hero levels up, builds skills and talents, uses and crafts a wide range of gear, and becomes a master rogue, mage, or warrior (or any combination of the three).
The whole game is laid out as an open world, but it's not really about wide-open exploration like Bethesda's games are; there are plenty of narrow, linear trails and other progress-stopping rock walls and such to drive you from one place to another down a given path, and the developers have made use of this to set up scripted battles with creatures that magically appear, often all around you. (That style of initiating combat wasn't terribly fun in Dragon Age II, and it's annoying here too.) Your quests vary from the generally boring tasks like item collection, bandit killing, and monster vanquishing on to some more interesting character-oriented stuff, and while the voice acting is quite solid, the visual designs of many of the game's characters falls far behind. The problem with the backstory here is that there's a lot of it, but it's not presented terribly well, so you're left staring at a world that's bright and colorful, but often devoid of charm. Compared to many other WRPG developers' story setups and their larger ability to create heroes and villains quickly and effectively in their games, I think 38 Studios has a long way to go to getting players motivated right off the bat.
It could be that Kingdoms of Amalur's biggest strengths lie in its nuts and bolts of combat, crafting, and progression. With three major crafting skills, a range of talents in a pretty large set of three trees, and the ability to easily dish out mage, rogue, and warrior weapons and skills in any combination you want (without even going to a "Favorites" menu!), the enemies are most fun to fight when you've figured out how to put all of your character's best abilities together to completely dominate the monsters and other enemies you encounter. The problem, though, is that the way the game works is great; the way it looks and feels isn't. Even with the powerful names behind this game - Oblivion lead guy Ken Rolston on design, comic-book rock star Todd McFarlane on monster creation and art direction, and D&D author R.A. Salvatore on writing duties - it simply doesn't pull it all together like a WRPG absolutely must in order to keep gamers feeling addicted to a game that can take dozens of hours at minimum to complete, with over a hundred hours more content in side quests to play with as well.
I'm reviewing both the Xbox 360 and PC versions here, and throughout my experience playing the game on 360, the only real issues I found were visual ones. The frame rate stayed pretty solid, but the world pop-in told me that the software technology that 38 Studios built for Amalur just doesn't keep up with other engines available right now. Over on PC, I had to play through EA's Origin service as this is an Origin exclusive, and as you probably expect, Origin does little to enhance the Kingdoms of Amalur PC experience. While the in-game detail and control settings have the basics you'd expect, that's just not enough for today's hardcore gamers. Custom control settings were nearly impossible for me to set because some strange bug prevented me from rebinding the movement keys properly, so I had to use an Xbox 360 controller to play. Turns out that wasn't such a bad idea since this game's combat is suited much better for the gamepad anyway, as there's no on-screen crosshair for aiming your projectiles like arrows or spells. Instead, you pick who you're shooting by pointing your whole character at an enemy, so an analog stick is much better for that kind of two-dimensional aiming.
Either way, many PC gamers will refuse to play any game if they have to use a controller, and if they buy Amalur, they'll find themselves stuck with a game that simply isn't really made for the mouse and keyboard. At least you can still tap the F5 key to quicksave, and the resolution and frame rates on a solid PC give you much better visuals than the consoles could ever deliver. For those reasons, the PC version of Amalur does prove to be the smoothest-running, sharpest-looking version of this game you can get. It's just not actually great for hardcore PC gamers, is all.
Kingdoms of Amalur is good, but it offers an uneven experience. There's a wealth of exciting combat and unique RPG options, but it takes place with characters that are largely forgettable in a world that just isn't terribly interesting. The game's biggest failure is its inability to bring the strengths it has together, as it needs an interesting premise or plot to pull together fighting and RPG systems and truly motivate players to keep going. Games like Dark Souls, The Witcher 2, and Skyrim all have their flaws, but they overcome their problems with a charm that Amalur struggles with throughout nearly the whole game. This one's worth your time if you've got sixty bucks and several dozen hours to spare, but if you've still got an itch to play another action-RPG released in the last year or so, scratch that itch before you make the jump into Amalur.
Disclosure: This review is primarily based on a PC review copy provided by EA, and we also played an Xbox 360 review copy that was also provided by EA.