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Kiran Earwaker goes hands-on with the first few hours of 38 Studios' intriguing RPG...
Is a game’s destiny fated? Before the midnight launch, before the preview tour, before the big E3 reveal; have some arbitrary initial conditions determined its success? Perhaps performance is predetermined by some sub-set of initial variables: the developer; the concept art; the audio guy’s bald patch; the cleaner’s obsession with lemon-scented floor bleach; the office cat’s Oedipus complex. Skyrim’s release date.
While you can’t control the psychosexual fixations of a cat, you can try to weight at least some of those variables for success, and former baseball pitcher Curt Schilling (boss of 38 Studios) is certainly giving it his best shot, hiring a dream team of creative talent and acquiring a whole studio (Big Huge Games) in the process. There’s a best-selling fantasy novelist (R. A. Salvatore), a Marvel Comics superstar (Todd Mcfarlane), and a Bethesda design legend (Ken Rolston) on Amalur’s conceptual bench; not the worst line-up for a high fantasy open-world RPG. Best of all, the team aims to unpick one of the most irksome constants of the RPG formula by adding an action-oriented fighting system (designed by a tournament-bracket Tekken player) that openly taunts Bethesda’s sedentry ‘click, wait, click,’ attempts at combat.
You start off dead. At least temporarily. Having selected your character’s race, gender, appearance and divine benefactor, you regain consciousness atop a mound of fetid corpses, another discarded subject in a long line of experimental failures. But before you can even wipe the sludge off your sleeve, the tower is invaded by the Tuatha - a warlike race bent on world domination and general misanthropy. Cue an introductory tour of the game’s combat systems and classes as you make your way through the initial dungeons of the opening area, taking in ranged, melee, magic, and stealth attacks. It’s visceral, spectacular stuff - more God of War than Elder Scrolls - with timed parries, dodges, and special attacks adding depth to the accompanying on-screen pyrotechnics. Enemy and player animation is smooth and expressive; foes retch and writhe as you lay into them, lending each genuine character. At times the action can perhaps get a little confused (especially when facing off against multiple assailants - where the lack of an obvious lock-on or camera re-centring button occasionally results in a missed attack), but the mix of spectacular visual effects, gratuitous finishing moves, and nuanced combat proves compelling enough - at least in the early stages of the campaign. While you won’t need to learn any lengthy multi-button combos in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, there still seems to be enough depth to keep things interesting, with delayed-button attacks and timed counters awaiting the dedicated. Slaughter enough enemies and you can even enter a powerful ‘Reckoning’ mode, which lets you rip through hordes of foes in slow-motion, executing the last in a gruesome QTE for an experience boost.
After battling through the tower and roaming the countryside for a while, you reach the first town, which hosts a range of NPC side-quests and offers your first exposure to the various in-game crafting systems. Sagecrafting involves the creation of equipable gems which imbue your weapons with elemental powers; Alchemy lets you combine foraged reagents into potent potions and status altering brews, while Blacksmithing allows you to disassemble your old weapons and mash them into more powerful forms (we managed to craft an extremely powerful fire-dagger at this point which let us run amok looting and pillaging, murdering any interfering guards.)
Once you’ve had your fill of faffing about in town (there’s much faffing to be had for those that want it), it’s time to set off past the Webwood to meet your Fateweaver friend Agarth (a sort of respectable fortune-teller). After some rudimentary dungeoning, you learn that your death has freed you from the threads of fate. Consequently, you’re the only creature in the entire Kingdom without a pre-determined destiny, and the only one able to save it from otherwise certain disaster.
This agency is reflected in the game’s flexible class system, which allows you to freely switch between warrior, mage, or rogue play-styles by changing your armour and equipped weapons; as you gain proficiency in each class and level-up, you unlock Destinies (perks) which confer bonuses for particular approaches. You might choose a purely warrior-centric Destiny, augmenting your attack and defense, or opt for a hybrid mage/rogue Destiny (for example) boosting your magic, speed, and stealth stats; there are even ‘jack of all trade’ Destinies which reward playing as a mage/warrior/thief/fence-sitter.
The attendant skill tree system is split into three distinct branches, representing mage, rogue and warrior abilities; while this delineation initially seems at odds with the flexibility of the Destiny system, you are able to distribute points amongst them freely, and later in the game can even reset them fully to re-specialise entirely. Early armour sets also seem strangely inflexible; most are class specific and confer bonuses when complete, effectively penalising players that want to mix and match (for instance) a thief’s hat with a warriors boots. Nonetheless, it’s probable that later armour sets and Destinies address this issue, and it does at least lend some credence to the developers’ claims that RPG-like considerations (such as armour and strategy) take precedence over simple twitch skills; we tried accessorising a mage’s robe with a warrior’s iron helmet and boots (largely so that we could run around looking like Magneto), and got suitably thrashed for our arrogance.
Amalur is likeable, it looks stunning, and the fluid character animation make the Elder Scrolls NPCs of years past seem like eerily vacant, disjointed mannequins. But it also strayed towards generic at times during our hands-on and was capable of seeming self-important on occasions. Despite the playful character-art and vibrant hues on display, Amalur’s script often strayed into the realms of farcical and unintentional self-parody, marring the otherwise decent voice acting (“Behold, The Codex of Destiny!”). Much of the in-town gameplay felt as though it’d been unimaginatively lifted from Oblivion, and the early hours somehow lacked the sense of epic grandeur you’d expect of the genre. Nevertheless, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning boasted a wealth of well-conceived systems, and it would be unfair to single it out for having a rather conventional implementation of fantasy lore. Most players will probably forgive it for playing things a little straight, and glimpses of later sections (featuring towering, putrid beasts battling entire human armies) suggest there might be plenty of ‘epic grandeur’ still to come. Perhaps Amalur’s biggest threat is simply that Skyrim might render it largely irrelevant; launching just three months after Bethesda’s current-gen opus does risk it getting swept away by Skyrim’s inevitable (lengthy) DLC tail. That would be a shame, because where Amalur does choose to innovate and simplify, it looks promising.
To use a SNES analogy: if Skyrim, with it’s dour realism and feted heritage is Final Fantasy VI; Amalur, with its bright tone, refined combat, and design ‘dream team’, might be its Chrono Trigger. Of course, that’s a hugely qualified ‘might’; Breath of Fire II is perhaps more likely. It’s all in the hands of fate now.