Wednesday 14 March 2012

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

The Title Screen

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is an RPG by Big Huge Games and 38 Studios. Released in 2012 on Xbox, PlayStation and PC (Origin & Steam) it features a single player campaign only, with upcoming DLC 'The Legend of Dead Kel' adding more content. A free EA online account is required to play.

The First Thing
When I first started the game up the menu music really grabbed my attention. It was high quality and very appropriate; action, adventure, inspirational, etc. Given the number of 'Lord of the Rings' style fantasy games, extra effort has to be made to stand out. Conveying the tone of a serious and expansive production is an encouraging start.

Plot & Devices
The world of Amalur is ruled by fate where things happen according to plan. Unfortunately the world is being plunged into war by a sub-section of the immortal Fae race, called the Tuatha. You are a deceased soldier and thanks to a gnomish experiment have been brought back to life, defeating fates plan. No longer governed by the grand design you are free to change events as you see fit. You are not immortal however and the ability to change destiny is one that will not go unnoticed.

Ysa, city of the Fae

The player is thrown into a fully established world, with only the briefest of introductions. The resurrection process has removed your character's memory, so the player is never expected to know anything that has not been explored in-game. Author R.A. Salvatore has created the story so fantastical names and depth can be expected. The story is accessed primarily through conversation with NPCs and in-game events. In depth exploration will naturally add detail to the world and help frame it better, but is not required and the player will still enjoy the story if they stick to main quests only.

Plot is also scattered around in books, letters and talking lore-stones; the player is left to decide how involved to be with the story. Like with many fantasy settings, naming conventions can be a little daunting but I feel it is easy enough to 'get by' without remembering precisely who everyone is.

Quest Log

The Game
Kingdoms of Amalur is an RPG set in the third person perspective. It features many common gameplay elements found in western RPGs like World of Warcraft and Skyrim. The game does not have a morality system, but actions have relative consequences. Electing to murder all the civilians for their gold, or being caught stealing will result in them not offering you quests but there is no 'evil-o-meter'.

The game is driven by its questing and there are different types. Main quests progress the story, Faction quests will endear the player to a specific in-game group (there is no 'reputation'), Side quests normally involve helping a non-plot related NPC for a reward and Tasks are simple quests that are often repeatable ("Bring me flowers for my potion business" etc). Quests flow nicely between locations and the player can fast travel to a named location once it has been manually visited.

Many actions reward in XP (kills, quests, difficult tasks, etc.) and accumulating a required amount will allow the player to 'level up'. Levelling will award the player with 1 point for a skill (stealth, lock-picking, persuasion, etc.) and 3 points for the talent trees. There are 40 attainable levels, but extra skill and talent points can be obtained through gems and equipment, or taught permanently from some trainers.

Talent Trees & Skill Tree

The talent system is designed to encourage flexibility and can be fully reset for gold at any time. There are three trees: Finesse (Rogue), Might (Warrior) and Sorcery (Wizard). Trees feature progressive tiers so more points spent unlocks more powerful abilities but it is perfectly viable to invest talents in multiple trees for a hybrid style. This presents an impressive amount of choice that will encourage players to tailor their character to suit them. The game never makes you feel there is a "right way to play".

The assignments of talent points will allow a particular 'destiny' card to be activated, resulting in extra tailored bonuses. Low level destinies reward simple stats (e.g. +5% ranged damage) and later cards will grant new abilities. There are seven categories (Might, Might/Finesse, etc.) and each category has 6 destiny cards. With multiple cards available later in the game, the player is again free to choose the most fitting.

Inventory organisation

Kingdoms of Amalur features an expansive inventory system. Equipment can bought with gold, found in chests or secrets, looted from corpses, rewarded from quests and stolen. The player chooses what clothing to wear on their head, chest, legs, hands, feet and shield (as well as neck and ring accessories). Equipment will reward in extra stats and often have requirements. Gear can be further enhanced through the sagecraft (gemming) system. Items may have sockets and gems can be bought, crafted or found. Item quality is shown in standard name progression: white → green → blue → purple. There are also Item Sets with yellow names that will grant additional bonuses if collected. The inventory is limited but can be upgraded by the acquisition of backpacks and player housing offers a large stash to store items.

Your character can carry a primary and secondary weapon load out. There are different categories of weapon and each one is associated with a talent tree, which will have talents enhancing their use. For example a player focused on sorcery is going to be less effective with a two-handed sword than a player focusing on might. However no talents are required to wield weapons.

Unwanted items that have been achieved through legal means (i.e. not stolen) can be sold to vendors. Unlike Skyrim, vendors will have unlimited gold to buy from you. From the inventory menu the player can assign an item to "junk" status and will no longer display in the inventory (it is not deleted). When visiting a vendor a button called 'sell all junk items' provides a quick way for players to decide what to keep and what to sell. Items can be easily deleted or unassigned from the junk in the appropriate menu.

Fateshift execution during reckoning mode

A large portion of gameplay is devoted to combat. The player is expected to be actively involved in engagements with positional play and dynamic choices. Enemies will telegraph attacks and dodging/blocking to reduce incoming damage is a core feature. A player can attack in one of three ways: spell, a ranged attack or a mêlée attack. All weapons work differently and talent trees will improve weapon effectiveness and unlock combo moves, or charge attacks. Controls are not especially complicated, but fluidly utilising the entire array of attacks will require practice. Fleeing from enemies generally does not work as they often endlessly pursue. Like an MMORPG, Enemies will respawn after a zone has been left for a while.

Because you are removed from Fate's design your character posses supernatural powers. Successful kills (and some abilities) will generate 'fate' energy that will allow the use of the reckoning mode. Reckoning slows down time for everyone but the player, and increases damage dealt. Enemies will enter a weakened state when their health depletes instead of dying and before the fate energy expires the player can choose to 'Fateshift' a weakened target. After a simple quick-time event all weakened enemies will die and reward XP with a % multiplier. However if the player fails to Fateshift an enemy, all those weakened will become active and combat will continue, effectively wasting reckoning.

Mana is used by spells, but in two different ways. Active spells (such as a lightning ball) will consume a set amount of mana, whilst passive spells (such as a permanent magical shield) will deduct a % of total mana, reducing the resource available for active spells. All three talent trees feature spells that will consume mana, but the Sorcerer tree is naturally more spell orientated and has talents/gear to accommodate that. An example of a Finesse 'spell' would be Magical Throwing Knives (active) or coating weapons in poison (passive).

Stealth sneaking some spiders

The game has limited stealth gameplay. All characters can enter stealth mode, but effectiveness is linked to points assigned to the stealth skill. More points will result in less detection from enemies. The black 'eye' symbol above each target indicates the level of detection. Line of sight does matter and some enemies have patrol paths to navigate. If daggers or faeblades are equipped a stealth attack can be performed and talents in the Finesse tree amplify the damage of this attack. Stealth is never required but will make some sections easier - like any skill. Level of detection also determines the % chance of illegal actions being noticed (not % chance of success).

Lock-picking and dispelling are performed through mini-games. The difficulty of which depends on the item and the point assignment for skills. Players may not feel points need to be assigned if they are skilful enough. Chests and occasionally doors will require unlocking with a lock pick, and cursed items require dispelling to prevent harmful results on use. There are some puzzles that do not require combat or mini-games, but they feature very infrequently. 

Kingdoms of Amalur features three crafting systems; potions, gear and gems. Points can be assigned to the alchemy, blacksmithing or sagecrafting skills to allow crafting of higher quality items and increased chance of finding reagents in the world (as well as other benefits). However, as items can also be bought with gold it is another way of offering choice to the player.

Outstanding locations

Visually the game is impressive, but held back by a mild console focus. Texture draw distance is limited and the distance is blurred, but despite this locations are vibrant and colourful. Art style is quite varied and tied to the story of the area, but there is nothing really innovative about any of the visuals. Locations are inspired or just borrowed from generic fantasy settings. Due to the size of the game, art is sometimes reused (especially in the dungeons) but effort has been made to hide it. In contrast to the environment, NPC models are not visually impressive and their low fidelity and animation quality is often quite noticeable.

The soundtrack is high quality and appropriate. All dialogue is professionally voice acted, albeit a little unemotional at times. Sometimes the demographic of voice actors used for each race seems a little inconsistent but a wide range is presented. The amount of available spoken dialogue in the game is extensive.

All keys can be rebound but the default layout is fairly intuitive. You can move, sprint, dodge, stealth and swim (no crouch or jump). Quicksave/load keybinds prove useful as the autosave function seems a little unpredictable. At first the the mouse was very jerky until sensitivity was set to lowest and then it was excellent. Initially combat was a little annoying since it feels designed for a control stick but that went away with practice. The menu mouse support is good and I played with mouse and keyboard.

Characters are visually underwhelming compared to locations

Wrap Up & Negatives
The single biggest negative is the interface. For whatever reason, it is not as functional as it could be. One major mistake is not tying the quest log with the map screen in any way, making the process of checking objective locations horribly unintuitive. A few other examples such as escape not functioning as a back command but a "return to higher menu tier" caused me annoyance as well. The HUD could be better too. Not distinguishing clearly between helpful and harmful effects, and not illustrate what they even do is bad design. The inventory menu is a little confusing at times as well - it is not immediately clear what does and what does not take up inventory space. Respawning enemies may also prove to be a negative for some.

PC users will find a notable lack of graphical customisability - draw distance and FOV is hard coded into the game; resulting in a noticeable amount of texture pop-in which is currently not possible to fix.

Kingdoms of Amalur also does not bring anything new to the table. It plays safe with established fantasy gameplay and theme which may put some players off. They're all good features, but they're just not innovative. The combat can feel repetitive, but playstyle variety offsets this. 30 hours in I was still discovering new ways to approach combat to suit me better. Those looking for the complexity of Skyrim will be disappointed but this is personal preference. This game also has bugs but surprisingly not that many and I never encountered a 'game breaking' bug (although I have heard there are a couple).

After 21 hours I had only completed the red section of the world map

This game is huge. Unbelievably so. This is quite possibly the largest single player game I have ever played. I have not finished it and after 32 hours of game time it feels I am not even half way through. It is all real content too, not just lots of travelling to pad out the game. The PC version is good and there are no specific errors to our platform; just design focus that raises the eyebrow. I did not have to tweak much at all to comfortably play this game.

I really enjoyed Kingdoms of Amalur and still am. The versatility provided is very enjoyable. Some of the locations are fantastically good looking. The plot is a little clichéd sure but interesting enough and the main notion of having no fate fits like a well-made glove. A glove made of silk. And magic.

If you want a simpler version of Skyrim, you should check this out. If you want one of the best western RPG's of the year, you will be hard pressed to find better. I expect Kingdoms of Amalur to be at least nominated for some awards this year because it thoroughly deserves them.

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Gameview : There is too much gameplay diversity to make a succint GameView. That alone should indicate something...

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