The lights are on
What new ideas the game brings to the table and how well old ideas are presented.
How good a game looks, taking into account any flaws such as bad collision or pop-up.
Does the game’s music and sound effects get you involved or do they make you resolve to always play with the volume down?
Basically, the controller to human interface. The less you think about the hunk of plastic in your hands, the better the playability.
Flat out, just how fun the game is to play. The most important factor in rating a game.
As the brainchild of artist Todd McFarlane, writer R.A. Salvatore, and Elder Scrolls III and IV lead designer Ken Rolston, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has an impressive pedigree that sets high expectations. Reckoning is meant to be the launching point for a vast new fantasy universe, and though it doesn’t serve that purpose as well as 38 Studios wants, it provides a lengthy and entertaining – if sometimes flawed – experience.
Reckoning takes place in a section of the world of Amalur known as The Faelands. Though it follows the Elder Scrolls formula of dumping tons of side quests and faction quests onto the player, it’s not an open world in the way of Bethesda’s RPGs. Instead, the game is structured like an MMO, funneling you from zone to zone by way of various quest lines. Environments lean heavily toward cheery, oversaturated forests at first, but eventually open up into a variety of canyons, swamps, and mountains.
Areas tend to be fairly self-contained because of this layout, which allows the story threads for each quest hub to grow and climax in an entertaining (if predictable) way. Each area is huge and full of secrets, and there’s fairly strong motivation to return after you’ve already solved the local population’s problems.
In addition to hidden treasures and bonus dungeons unconnected to sidequests, each area features a number of lore stones – objects that provide a bit of backstory on Amalur. While the history lessons aren’t necessarily enthralling, if you find every lorestone in an area you will get a powerful permanent boost to your stats. Certain quest lines provide similar permanent stat boosts, ensuring that thorough gamers will become increasingly godlike as the game progresses.
Reckoning’s plot exists to mostly explain why your character – who is dead at the outset, then resurrected – can defy fate in a world where everyone else is imprisoned by it. It’s a cool concept that provides some helpful context for why your character is powerful enough to fix things for virtually every citizen, but the developers fail to make it seem as though your actions are having much of a visible impact on the world. The Faelands are distressingly static, rarely changing to reflect the good or evil you have done. That may work in an MMO, but it feels out of place in a single-player adventure.
The hundreds of quests are full of minor twists and turns, but they never quite go anywhere interesting. Both the main storyline and most of the lengthy faction quests end without any significant surprises to the degree that even now, a mere week after finishing the game, I can only vaguely recall any of the characters or plotlines I encountered. Nothing about the world of Amalur feels original enough to get me excited for the potential future products in this universe. Big Huge Games and 38 Studios have unique takes on traditional elves, fairies, and gnomes, but they’ve failed to create a compelling hook in the lore that differentiates it from everything else in the fantasy genre.
For all my issues with the storytelling, Reckoning more than makes up for it in battle and character growth. The real-time action feels similar to God of War’s combo-chaining combat. Some action fans may bemoan the lack of depth with the one-button approach to melee, but the ability to switch to different weapons mid-combo and whip out spells and special abilities on the fly feels fantastic.
The rhythm of combat is broken up with a fun mechanic called fateshifting. Each time you kill an enemy, you fill up a portion of your fate meter, gaining more fate based on how skillfully you mix up your abilities and how long you can keep your combo count rising. When the fate meter is full, you can fateshift to enter a slow-motion massacre where your attack power is greatly increased. At the end of a fateshift, the game asks for some good old-fashioned button-mashing to determine the experience bonus you’ll receive as your character does a brutal, stylish kill. Fateshifting made me feel powerful and greatly increased the speed at which I gained levels thanks to the experience bump.
Each time you level up, you choose whether to devote skill points to mage, warrior, or rogue abilities. These choices unlock lightly defined class roles in the form of stat boosts called destinies that can be swapped at any time, freeing you to make any character you want. In a rarity for RPGs, mixing and matching abilities from multiple trees has just as much potential for creating a devastatingly powerful character as focusing on one skill type. You unlock specific destinies by mixing two of the three trees or even spreading points evenly across all three. Reckoning even provides a quick, easy, and relatively cheap way to completely refund your talent points and start building your character all over again, encouraging fun experimentation.
I was also pleasantly surprised to discover how enjoyable stealth gameplay is in Reckoning. I generally expect stealth options in RPGs to be underdeveloped and frustrating, so I cringed a little as I joined the Travelers, this game’s version of the Thieves Guild. Fortunately, Reckoning’s stealth is just forgiving enough – particularly after you’ve put a handful of skill points into it – that I had a blast. When in stealth mode, clear markers indicate how aware of you your enemies are, making it easy to learn and toy with the AI patterns. Awareness also drops quickly, taking care of some of the usual pacing problems with this kind of gameplay.
While Reckoning succeeds with its combat and stealth, it falls short in its Diablo-esque loot system. I picked up hundreds of thousands of pieces of armor throughout my time in Amalur, but actual upgrades became increasingly rare after the 30-hour mark. To add to the frustrating lack of desirable loot, the majority of upgrades I received in the final half of the game were the same armor models. When I did get a model switch, the new piece would often clash garishly with whatever else I was wearing.
Reckoning also struggles with its technical performance. Numerous out-of-sync sound cues, framerate hitches, and slow-loading textures plagued my playthrough. I even encountered a few battles where enemies were completely invisible for a few moments while their models loaded. The PS3’s mandatory install makes these issues slightly less common, but if you’re playing on Xbox 360, strongly consider installing the game to the hard drive to help alleviate the frequent, lengthy load times.
Despite its problems, Reckoning is a good game with a lot of stuff worth checking out. But even with all of the talent backing it, it’s just on the edge of being something much greater than it is. For a game that’s all about breaking out of the confines of fate, it’s a shame that so much of the content feels stuck within such narrow conventions.