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Amalur Confidential

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is not exactly a confidential subject, however, it might as well be considering the dearth of blogs or discussion threads related to the topic (which is why I decided to post my demo impressions). Where is the love, GIO? With talent that boasts The Elder Scrolls (Morrowind and Oblivion) veteran lead designer Ken Rolston, famed fantasy writer R.A. Salvatore and renowned creature creator Todd McFarlane, I would have expected this action RPG to be generating quite the buzz. (A spoiler alert as always, given the images depicted herein.)

Perhaps that's why GI staff have been consistently promoting this title's fluid, intuitive gameplay, it's stellar production values and it's seemingly deep storyline and dialog options, at least to judge by my time with the demo that released this week. Demos, like betas, are always dicey sources on which to base one's opinion, but when they're as solid as 38 Studios/Big Huge Games' offering, it's an easy proposition.

The opening cinematic cuts a wide swath with its sweeping narrative. I'll be honest, I didn't pay too much attention as I was busy snapping screenshots, however, it seems appropriately deep, epic and otherwise characteristic of the fantasy genre. There are the usual issues of power, strife, hope and despair, and the eternal struggle of good vs. evil. Add top caliber production and it's an entertaining -- and promising -- opening.

I'm a fool for character creation tools and Amalur's finds a decent balance between customization and ease of use. Unlike some, where one (OK, me) can spend up to an hour tweaking every aspect of your character, this title has many preset alternatives from which to choose. So there isn't a great deal of depth, but enough options to satisfy anyone's creative impulse. Also it should be noted that use of your creation in cutscenes is well implemented.

It's obvious early on that this title is a more arcade action alternative to, say, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The visual aesthetic is more stylized then realistic and the action more fast and furious with dodges, button combo attacks and hit point counters. It's fluid, kinetic and eye-popping, and is a nice alternative to Skyrim's at least equally entertaining approach.

Some may, and will, decry the lack of realism, going so far as to suggest that the presentation is poor. I've seen it happen before, whether Timesplitters, Second Sight, Freedom Fighters, Turning Point, etc., people fail to recognize it's a design choice, and in this case a darn good one. Textures still have depth, animations are fluid, particle effects are convincing, and NPCs, animals, creatures and foliage are all distinct and detailed. What's more, the color palette is among the most vibrant of any game.

Combat, too, is more stylized, with action controls mapped to (PS3) face buttons that allow for a quick rolling dodge or button combo attacks including tossing foes into the air for multiple hits. Amalur face buttons also allow for quick swapping between a primary and secondary weapon, whether blades, hammers, staffs, bows, etc. (Skyrim's Favorites menu likewise enables this though with a menu interface, however, it's dual wielding feature makes disparate weapons available simultaneously.)

A word about shields: They can be used defensively but also can wield a shield bash attack when upgraded appropriately. A nice feature of your armor is that heavy armor will increase your defensive capabilities while light armor will increase your critical strikes. This is intuitive given the nature of either set but is even more quantifiable in the context of this game, and therefore a nice consideration when choosing your wardrobe.

Selecting the bow as your secondary weapon means being able to select it on the fly with a face button. That's intuitive and flexible in combat, however, your bow also has a lock-on targeting feature that makes combat a little too easy. Far be it from me, an easy difficulty afficionado, to complain about ease of use, but this element surprised me and amounts to a degree of handholding. That said, it IS appreciated when fighting larger, more agile foes, especially when you want to keep your distance.

A cool feature is how foliage blooms when you pass by. At least it did in this sequence, though already blooming plants outside did not appear to react to your presence. (Reminds me the sequence in Excalibur when a rejuvenated Arthur ventures forth from Camelot.) If nothing else, this demonstrates the beautiful aesthetic that is so pronounced in this colorful game.

Special powers also are accessed on the face buttons via the press of a (PS3) shoulder button. In this case, a default ability is a kind of electrical charge. I assume it's useful as a weapon though this also demonstrates its potential as a tool, perhaps for puzzles. As always, the particle effects from such a demonstration are a sight to behold.

Traditional RPG elements abound in Amalur and loot grinding is no exception. Ubiquitous crates and chests can conceal gold and, in the latter's case, a variety of weapons, attire or items so don't hesitate to destroy any such personal property you come across (and don't worry, no one -- friend or foe -- seems to notice or care).

Dialog offers a variety of responses and hopefully one's choices will impact events in the game. But at least there is some selection involved despite having a main character who does not speak. However, the spoken roles involve quality voice acting, contributing to the overall production, and the lines of dialog in general are well written and provide a good context for on-screen action.

Large creatures, and I'm assuming more powerful ones in general, require more strategy to take down. Your varied arsenal of melee weapons, ranged attacks and powers will come in handy, as will defensive measures, as you experiment to determine which work best in any given context. 

Like chests and crates, fallen foes provide another opportunity for loot grinding. And of course, the harder they fall, the bigger the payoff. On a (related) side note, inventory management is well implemented and intuitive, including benefits of each and every item in terms of the degree to which it improves your capabilities or not. While the menus can be several deep, I had no confusion selecting, equipping or junking items.

Besides selecting your race at the outset of the game, which includes benefits to such areas as lockpicking, alchemy, persuasion, blacksmithing, etc., you can opt for one of several destinies. Each boosts certain abilities and help evolve your character according to your preferred gameplay style. There is even a custom option for choosing your own abilities or fate.

The demo is deep and I haven't been able to make full use of it for two nights straight. The training segment introduces you to the story, your character and the gameplay, and lasts as long as it takes you to progress. Once outside the original setting and training format, you have 45 minutes to explore. One observation: I wish that, in this demo at least, one could swim or jump off any edge. The game keeps you from falling off ledges as well as from entering water. Considering the amount of streams or other bodies of water, that was disappointing.

The presentation, once again, is stellar. From birds that hover over carrion to grazing wildlife, from flowers to trees, from cottages to ruins, the variety of Amalur's world that is on display is densely realized and beautifully rendered. It is teeming with visual and audio elements that combine into a treat for the senses. Whether wandering through the countryside or knee deep in combat, this title is impressive to the point of distraction. (And this is just the demo!)

Amalur features major cities as well as small villages, populated with the usual NPCs you expect to find when exploring any RPG. I didn't spend much time speaking with anyone but it's an option, as well as picking fights! So your choices in this regard are varied and make for a more believable and complex world.

My time, as stated, was limited so careless play led to an ignominious end. But I plan to return yet again to this demo to try and get every last drop of gameplay and exploration from its considerable breadth. If you haven't tried it yet, do yourself a favor and check it out. The game releases on February 7 and promises to be a very capable if not excellent RPG bookend to Skyrim's virtually unqualified success.

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