The Last Bastion

For the old guard, the happy fools, the dreamers.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Review

Posted By on April 1, 2012

Well, I’ve been playing the game for about fifty hours now, so I suppose it’s about time I wrote up what I think. For 38 Studios, Reckoning is their debut title, and is supposed to make the all-important first impression of the quality, creativity, depth, and fun we can expect from their games. They also want to introduce everyone to the world, history, and characters that might show up again in future games.

It’s been a long time since I enjoyed a single-player role-playing game (SPRPG from now on). After playing a few MMORPGs, I find it really difficult to feel the same kind of immersion and sense of a living virtual world when I’m all by myself in a single-player game. I also tend to find the modern SPRPGs to be overly complex, and the learning curve too steep to be fun. With the amount of depth and scope that people expect from games these days, it can be very challenging to still make them accessible and intuitive.

To start this review with the above in mind, I’ll say this: I’m really enjoying the game. I’m feeling immersed, I’m losing myself for hours at a time, and after 50 hours of meandering around the world of Amalur, I still feel like logging in and playing. That’s probably the highest praise I could give to any game…It’s fun and I want to play more.

Of course, no game is perfect…read on to see my take on the positive and negative elements that make up this intriguing first title from 38 Studios.

 

Let’s be brutally honest up front, there are a couple of glaring flaws in some of the most fundamental and vital elements of the game, and if it weren’t for a great many other positive aspects, this would probably have given me a very bad first impression about 38 Studios as a company. I literally can’t understand how a company who claims to be so focused on producing the highest-quality games could let things so significant get out the door in such a poor state.

First of all, the camera is terrible. I have to wonder what their QA testers were looking at or thinking, or what the game designers at Big Huge Games could have been doing (they are supposed to have done this before, right?)…did they not notice the many bugs and just the flat-out bad design of the camera system? The camera follows at a fixed and seemingly always slightly incorrect distance, and only pans in and out during certain fights. It’s stuck chest-high on the character, and can’t rotate fully around (you can’t look up). The camera often gets stuck under terrain or lags behind during fast action. The camera often gets stuck behind obstacles or foliage during cut scenes in a way that would be comical if it wasn’t so annoying. Add to this the fact that the field of view is very tight (obviously set for consoles) and can’t be adjusted for the PC…no first person view or camera adjustments at all…it’s just bad.

The second fundamental element that’s heavily flawed is the dialogue / cut scenes functionality and UI. First, and maybe this is just personal preference…but considering the competitive landscape in the genre, I think it’s really too bad that our character doesn’t speak, ever. It really reduces immersion in a game that provides quite a lot of depth and life in many other areas. The conversation interface just seems kind of confusing, inconsistent, and flawed. Sometimes choices show up in a wheel, sometimes in a list box. Sometimes you get choices once, but never see them again when you return to the same point. Sometimes choices get grayed out but are still intended to be clicked. Worst of all, choices don’t really seem to have any effect at all on the story. Add this to the ever-present camera issues and fairly lame animations in cut scenes…and I’m left to wonder if they kind of just phoned in the whole conversation element as a way to spice up the multitude of side quests and check the box next to “RPG story”.

Now a game with such substantial and annoying flaws might seem to be doomed, but there’s a lot to like about the game as well. First and foremost in my mind…I love the graphics, the music, and the obvious depth of history and lore. The graphical style is fantastic, and well-realized by the technology used. The world of Amalur is full of a sense of life and strong ambiance, especially the dungeons. Everything feels hand-crafted and it’s really a pleasure to explore.  There’s a substantial sense of near-reality…From the plethora of gratuitously (yet awe-inspiringly) complex doors in dungeons, to the way NPCs speak to you as you walk by, to the satisfying “kerplunk-sploosh!” sound when you jump into water. The creatures throughout the world are detailed and diverse, and their animations and sounds really provide a sense of personality and weight. It’s almost a shame to kill the boggarts, without a doubt my favorite unique creature that I’ve run into so far in the game…they are very cute and comical, and I find myself wishing they were on my side.

The music is exceptional, and hasn’t gotten old, even when themes are repeated fairly often. I find all the halmarks of an excellent score…the songs become synonymous with certain areas of the game and certain emotions and memories, and I find myself anticipating the songs when I return to places where I haven’t been in a while. The lore and history that is quite evident from the very start of the game really adds a sense of realism and lends legitimacy to the world. I like the lore stones scattered around the landscape for the dedicated explorer to discover, and the wide variety of stories being told through the side-quests in each area flesh out the world nicely.

Combat is where the game truly shines. It’s the most basic element of game play in so many games…yet is often overlooked or handled badly. Reckoning gets it right in my book…they nailed the action combat they were attempting to provide. It’s great fun, and makes pretty much everything else in the game much better just because you know that no matter what else happens, you’re going to get to fight something pretty soon. The combat system is very accessible, yet quite complex and fun to try and master…from simple combos, to careful timing, weapon switches, and skill selection…it’s just great fun to play. Early on, I found myself often in situations where creatures were defeating me, but I wasn’t frustrated because I had a good idea of what I needed to do to improve. There was definitely a strong feeling of, “Let’s try this again! I’ll do it better this time.”…and it hasn’t gotten old even as my skill with the system has increased.

The skill and spell animations and sound effects (and their resulting effects on the world and your foes) made me feel powerful right from the start and throughout. All the combat has a real sense of weight and substance, and this makes just about any fight feel satisfying. Creatures have simple but varied AI, and often attack in combinations that knock you down or stun you…so using dodge and block effectively are paramount. The mechanics of some encounters are quite interesting, with multiple creatures’ AI working in concert to provide a bit of challenge. All of the weapons in the game are great fun, and each provide a fairly distinct feel to combat. My personal favorite is the chakrams…I wish these were in every game, and I’d advise anyone who’s trying out the game to grab a pair of those and give them a whirl (no pun intended).

The fate system with it’s fate shifts is great fun as well, and very satisfying. The finishing moves are over-the-top for sure, but that’s really what makes it fun…there’s nothing better than getting to the end of that big bad boss battle, and being able to suddenly send the world into bullet-time and throw a giant energy spear through the creature’s head. Boo-Ya! I’ve nearly broken my mouse several times as I’ve gotten a little too engrossed in the combat.

The questing system in the game is yanked straight from World of Warcraft, with its ubiquitous floating punctuation and mundane tasks fully intact. All of the side-quests in the game take this form, and there are a metric ton of them. The cut scenes they put in place of the quest text do help a little, but that just brings it on-par with what SW:TOR did, and would still likely get stale very fast if it weren’t for Reckoning’s combat. When the most basic element of game play is just straight-up fun, it makes things like the “million task slog” dramatically more bearable, and even something that I look forward to. The central quest line seems to have a good story and some interesting characters…but I’m still probably only about a third of the way through it since I tend to want to complete everything possible in an area before moving on. For someone like me, there is definitely no shortage of content to provide the excuse to go wack some more mobs with my chakrams. Probably my only big annoyance with the questing system (other than it’s basic WoW-esque design) is that there are quite a few tasks that seem to be impossible to complete. They are either ongoing, or just seem bugged, but either way I can’t get them out of my normally purposefully tidy quest journal…and it bothers me.

I felt like the character creation was fairly weak, but I suppose it’s reasonably passable for the SPRPG genre. I really like the character customization system as you play through the game, however…there’s a lot of choices and depth that players can experiment with. It’s presented in a very accessible, intuitive way that doesn’t bog you down for an hour at a time. It’s quite quick and easy to pick up what’s going on, and to start experimenting with different skills, weapons, and fate cards. I like the crafting system as well, it’s simple, but provides a ton of opportunities for fiddling and fine-tuning your character.

The UI was clearly designed for a console controller, and can be fairly annoying at times when trying to navigate with a keyboard and mouse. It isn’t horrible, though…and most things are very quickly accessible once you get the hang of the places to click and the places to hit the enter key . The biggest frustration with the UI is the bugs there seem to be with many items. I’ve got items which are stuck in my inventory and I can’t remove. I’ve got items that you right click on, get no tooltip, and you’re locked up until you right click them again (took me a bit to figure this one out). I’ve got items that I can’t put in my storage chest (for no known reason). I’ve got items I can’t put in my junk bag, can’t destroy, or can’t sell.

Actually, that brings me to another gripe…there are WAY too many items in the game. Loot is just completely out of control. The amount of reagents I’ve collected alone would stun a team of oxen in their tracks. There are treasure chests everywhere, there is loot dropping from mobs like crazy…and 99% of it is completely useless, oh, and I have about 400,000 gold only a third of the way through the game. I really find myself wishing they were a little more stingy with the loot, and perhaps tailored the drops just a teensy bit towards my character customization choice so that I wasn’t ALWAYS getting armor and weapons I can’t use. I don’t like the boost potions, either…there’s way too many, and they only last for a few seconds, so the only way the are useful is if you happen to remember just before a fight to go into your inventory and click a bunch of potions. I mostly just junk them all except for the healing and mana ones.

Okay, I’ve blathered on long enough. Let’s conclude. I think Reckoning is a fun game, as evidenced by the fact that I’m still enjoying it and will continue playing for the foreseeable future despite the few glaring flaws. I find it quite immersive, and lose myself in the game regularly for an hour or two. For 38 Studios’ debut effort, I think it’s quite good and leaves me with the impression that their MMORPG will definitely be worth trying. I give the game a 7 out of 10. It’s solid, but there’s definite room for substantial improvement. If you haven’t tried it, pick it up.

 

 

 


Comments

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.