Cathode Tan - Games, Media and Geek Stuff
logo design by man bytes blog

Friday, February 10, 2012

[Game Play] Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (vs. Skyrim)

Reckoning is, if not anything else, an excellent freshmen attempt from a freshmen studio.  Sure, it famously hails Ken Rolston of Elder Scrolls fame - and that is probably cheating on the "freshmen" front, but this doesn't change the fact that it is a brand new franchise with a brand new engine.

Partially thanks to the Rolston connection, many comparisons were lined up between Reckoning and Skyrim.  I first heard about Kingdoms of Amalur in the midst of forum chatter about Skyrim, the theory being that Reckoning might be a Skyrim experience without the numerous bugs of Skyrim (did I mention this was a PS3 forum?  Yeah....).

I've clocked about 10 hours into Reckoning, so this is probably not an overly comprehensive review - but I'm now walking down the path of thinking that the games are far more different than similar.  Skyrim strives for a dense, realistic world and favors a first person narrative.  Reckoning is a fast paced third person affair with cartoon-like graphics.  Despite their similarities, Skyrim reminds me of old school games like Eye of the Beholder and Dungeon Master, where Reckoning reminds me strongly of Diablo and World of Warcraft.

Reckoning also sports a storyline by R.A. Salvatore - a rather famous author in the Dungeons and Dragons line of fantasy.  Salvatore's backstory seems to give Reckoning a certain edge, but the familiarity of the world with immortal fae, kobolds, trolls, and the like ... does it no favors in making Amalur stand out or seem particularly gripping.  Some of the dialogue and characters are interesting, but largely lacks any emotional impact.

If anything, I think this highlights a very strong suit of Skyrim.  The player manages to feel connected to the NPC's and hence, to the story itself.  In that game, I joined the assassin's guild out of an attempt to betray them (which failed, because you apparently only get one chance to do that...) - which is a pretty complex plot for a computer game that had nothing to do with any of the code.  I don't see anything like that happening in Reckoning.

The world and the story is a solid backdop for the game, and the designs by comic artist Todd McFarlane likewise gives everything you look at an extremely competent feel to it ... but there are rare instances when the design will really give you that "wow" feeling.

At this point, Reckoning would be set for a solid B if it weren't for two factors.

The first is the combat.  It's been noted in every review for the game, but it can't be mentioned enough.  These combat mechanics are through the roof good.  It's not just the way the auto-lock system flows easily without any real user interaction or input.   It's not just the highly stylized combat moves and the pure joy of unlocking new moves and figuring out how to best incorporate them into your fighting strategies.  It's not just the well factored physics and NPC reactions to your moves - enemies "feel" like they go down when they should, and keep charging when they should.  It is how all of that works together.  Rolston, Salvatore and McFarlane made sure that this game had a solid base when it comes to design, but I think the most noteworthy aspect is that the real star of the game had nothing to do with those big names ... it's the technical brilliance behind the most core aspect - beating up monsters and taking their loot.

Back when I modded Unreal, I realized the most important thing to keep right was the quality of deathmatch itself.  Because deathmatch is still the core of any other FPS game.  The Reckoning team clearly understood this rule and have delivered possibly the most awesome action of any action RPG in the history of the genre.

The second factor is simply a credit to the Big Huge Engine.  After a demo which left some players wondering if the game would crash or be full of graphical glitches - the final product is remarkably solid.  I've had occasional frame rate glitches, but nothing which has impacted gameplay.

It's only been 10 hours, so I'll wait to see if things degenerate - but so far I feel no need to have multiple save games.  No need to save intermittently.  No worries about things locking up after clearing a dungeon.  No soldiers drinking beer in mid air or creatures suddenly returning to a default 3D model pose after being beheaded.  Everything just works.  And it works well.

This actually impacts my gameplay.  Since I don't have five old savegames around, I don't reverse time when something goes wrong.  Probably the best "RPG" moment I had in the game was when an NPC in a quest got killed - which doesn't normally happen, and I was supposed to defend him.  It kinda sucked, because I got that "Quest Failed" message - but it had some emotional weight.  Especially when I then got a follow up quest for his dead wife.

I wish Reckoning had more of that kind of complexity, but I'm more happy to play an expansive RPG without all the technical issues that Bethesda ships with their games.  I hope Reckoning can now be a counter-argument to the nonsensical "all big games ship with big bugs" theory defending titles like Skyrim and New Vegas.  It's really just big games shipped and developed by Bethesda.

So short version: a very solid A-.  It's not a dense world, and you aren't going to find a gripping storyline here.  There is much about Amalur which is pretty but kind of vapid, but if you're a Diablo type of RPG person where the storyline essentially just connects you between points of having a lot of fun hacking things apart, Amalur promises hours and hours and hours of doing just that.

1 comment:

lol said...