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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.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

[Game Play] The Problem with Catwoman

Arkham City has a lot of things going for it and for those things has earned plenty of accolades and inclusion in Game Of The Year discussions.  I'm not really going to to go on here about the improvements to the combat, or how the open world plays well with the Zelda-esque handling of the adventure genre in general.  Instead, we're going to talk about Catwoman.

The used games market is something of a villain for the games publishers in general and the reason why you now usually will need to enter in some kind of code to do things like play online.  The publishers are infuriated with the numbers stores like Gamestop make in repeat sales of their products without the publishers seeing an additional penny.

For gamers, the so-called "grey market" can be a huge boon.  By waiting for titles after the (insanely important to the publisher's PR) release day they can get increasingly better deals on titles and by trading in their recent titles they can see even better discounts on completely new titles.  This reason alone is probably why we shouldn't read too much into reports about game console X banning used games anytime soon (especially with said rumors reporting on extremely vague technology in order to accomplish said feat).

However, we should expect developers and publishers to continue to find new and inventive ways to force people who buy used games to give them money.  In fact, I just entered a code for the online pass for Kingdoms of Amalur.  This is notable because Amalur has no online mode.

For Arkham City, Rocksteady decided to include a code to unlock what could essentially be considered first day DLC - meaning that it was additional content outside of the normal gameplay which could otherwise be purchased separately - but Rocksteady decided to give people buying the game new a bonus of having the DLC right away.

At face value - I don't have any real issue with this strategy.  An argument could be made about what is truly "DLC" and what is simply normal content that is being intentionally divided out for an extra fee.  It gets particularly contentious when gamers discover this "DLC" was actually on the disc they paid for all along and the "download" is just a key to unlock it.

I'm honestly on the fence on that one - just can't bring myself to feel too strongly about it.

No, none of that is the problem I had with Catwoman - the star of the DLC for Arkham City.  The problem I had with it is all the ways Rocksteady made sure to shove the leather clad whiptress in your face.  It started with every single time I started a game, getting a reminder that Catwoman existed and I hadn't entered in any code to unlock her and am I sure I want to continue without doing that?

She also gets her own icon on the main menu, again reminding you if you haven't unlocked her that maybe, just maybe you should?

And of course, she gets a leading role in the first part of the game because if you didn't remember already, Catwoman is totally in this fucking game.

Now at this point I found the above mildly annoying.  Annoying enough that I eventually just entered the damn Catwoman code even though I had no intention of trying her out until I was completely done with the main Batman material.

Oh, how wrong I was.  Now remember that Batman is one of these non-linear designs with tons of side quests.  But it isn't open so much as branching - which means that some parts of the side quests until you get the right gear or whatnot.  Which is fine - and I didn't even think it was weird when late in the game I wasn't allowed to pursue side quests because "so-so is in trouble".

But that mission finished the main storyline.  And once you finish the main storyline, and you have unlocked Catwoman: Rocksteady forces you to play Catwoman.

Let me repeat that in bold, Rocksteady forces you to play Catwoman.  Continuing your existing mission will start as Catwoman.  Starting a New Game Plus starts as Catwoman.  Why "New Game Plus", which traditionally means starting completely over but with more difficult settings and more interesting bonuses - starts with supposedly completely optional content and no other options I am completely and utterly baffled.

Supposedly, the appeal of New Game Plus in Arkham City is starting with all your gear.  Which would be cool, except that Rocksteady forces you to play fucking Catwoman.

And Catwoman?  She kinda sucks.  Towards the end of the game, Batman is tricked out with all kinds of gear and Catwoman has squat, crap and a whip.  So being forced to play as Catwoman is exactly like having all of your toys taken away.

The result?  I did not finish any of the side quests.  I did not finish the so-called Catwoman DLC.  I didn't do anything because I found being forced to play as Catwoman to be such a dull, that I simply exchanged the game for Kingdoms of Amalur when my pre-order came up.

Rocksteady.  If you're reading.  Hear this: I will not play your boring DLC to get back to my main game.  Forcing your DLC down my throat does not make your DLC more important, it makes me annoyed and your game an early contender for the very used game market system you apparently so despise.

If you want to have used game buyers buy DLC which was free for new game buyers - fine.  But, sweet Jeebus, Rocksteady - keep Catwoman in your pants.  Featuring her in all the promo gear, flashing her in my face on every new game, putting her in the main menu and then shoving her down my throat when it comes to the game does not make her compelling.  Giving her truly new compelling gameplay would make her compelling.  All you did was make her annoying, me annoyed, and your game sold for $23 to be resold for ~$50.

I sent some tweets to Rocksteady to explain why supposedly optional DLC suddenly became my only option.

They have yet to respond.