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Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Considering how popular the Elder Scrolls series has gotten, it’s a marvel that they’re virtually the only games that do what they do. There are open world games, and there are games with lots of quests, but there are very few games these days – besides the nu-Fallout series which is based on The Elder Scrolls format anyway – that promise the same marriage of exploration and role-playing. With names like Ken Rolston attached to the project, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is the closest thing to an Elder Scrolls challenger we have – and even then, the game is going in a very different direction. Reckoning promises open-world role-playing with swift action combat, and to Skyrim veterans tired of the pretty-OK-I-suppose combat found in The Elder Scrolls, that sounds like absolute wizardry. While the game does feature much more interesting combat than an Elder Scrolls game, it’s also a different sort of adventure entirely. Beware, o ye easily misguided.

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Reckoning is far closer to a lovechild descended from Diablo and Fable than anything in the Elder Scrolls canon. From the minute you create your character, you’ll be drowning in loot – colored loot, even! – and quests. The focus on combat means that most (if not all) quests involve fighting a lot of enemies at some point, who will all drop loot, and finishing the quest will likely earn you more loot. For people who love improving and tweaking their characters, Reckoning‘s basic structure is incredible.

In a very clever move, re-specializing your character is both easy and encouraged in the canon of the game. The player character is the first person in this fantasy ream who isn’t bound by fate – and as such, it’s possible to change their “destiny” by rearranging their stats and bonuses by visiting a character called a Fateweaver. This eliminates the idea of useless loot drops – any weapon or piece of armor maintains its value as the game goes on, since shifting from a swift, backstabbing rogue to a greatsword-toting Battlemage is as simple as visiting a NPC and swapping some points around. Reckoning also has a very flexible crafting system, including potions, armor, weapons, and gems, all of which can be pieced together from loot of varying rarity, and then often combined with other items. The possibilities are staggering.

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Granted, this causes a few problems of its own: most egregiously, the balance of the game itself. Crafting a few halfway-decent health regeneration gems and sticking them on your armor can result in nigh invincibility, and mana regeneration gems can turn your glass cannon mage into a magic Sherman tank. Combined with cheap potions that can heal your character in an instant, the openness of the character building ultimately becomes the game’s downfall. It’s just too easy to exploit. Cranking the game up to a higher difficulty helps, but the combat’s swiftness is part of the appeal, and turning all the enemies into damage sponges doesn’t do it many favors.

At its best, though, Reckoning‘s action is blazing fast and awesome to watch – the animations have a real flair to them, and the over-the-top weapon design really shines. It’s got a bit of depth to it, too: the heaving windup to a greatsword or hammer attack requires precise timing to pull off without leaving yourself open, and mixing up magic attacks with physical hits can lead to some tricky combos. Mixing your skill points between heavy attacks and magic or light attacks yields far more interesting combat, though – players focusing solely on one skill tree will probably get bored of fighting quite quickly, which is a problem in a game as long as this.

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Reckoning has a beefy main quest, but it’s also littered with side quests. Tons of them. Boatloads. This sounds like a good thing, and it kind of is – except that anyone who has played World of Warcraft will know what to expect. Most of these quests are incredibly simple and not a whole lot of them yield anything interesting about the world or characters. Practically every NPC has the same few things to talk about, and not many of them have anything particularly intriguing to say about them. Does this random guy who wants me to find a book like the Fae (read: elves)? No? Wow, great. Plenty of games, even Elder Scrolls games are guilty of this kind of thing, but the difference in quality between storyline quests (the main story and the guild lines) and the average side quest is all too apparent. If anything, Reckoning has the opposite problem that Skyrim has – the main story is far more interesting than any of the smaller quests supporting the fiction.

The world that these quests take place in is at least pretty to look at. It’s not a wide open world, but a massive series of connected zones, all with a fairly distinct look and feel. Some areas are more striking than others – the bright orange of the desert plateaus is far more interesting than the typical fantasy forest the game starts in – but everything is at least distinct, from soft-colored wolds to sparkling desert cities. The character models are equally colorful, although the game has a habit of zooming in far too close to them during dialogue sequences, revealing their stiff animations and muddy textures. The details of Reckoning are much prettier from far away.

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For all this variety, then, it feels odd how much of Reckoning feels repeated. The combat is fun, but unless you’re dedicated to mixing skills up and changing classes every few hours, you’ll see far too much of it by the end. There are some gorgeous and unique sights, like the city of Rathir, but those things are tucked away behind a dozen or so hours of putzing around the same high-fantasy forest you’ve seen in every game ever. Many of the zones are unique and well designed, but there are often the same types of enemies to fight in all of them. There’s seemingly endless loot to find, but nearly every tier of non-unique item uses the same model, so don’t expect to look wildly different after equipping every piece of new gear.

Reckoning really raises a question of how much is too much content – on the one hand, it’s great to know that a full-priced game will last. On the other hand, if you get bored before seeing things through, what’s the point? Reckoning is a game that doesn’t need to be pursuing the Elder Scrolls crown. Standing on its own two feet away from these valid-but-distracting comparisons, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a fantastic concept stretched over far too much filler. With some more selective content editing and a more carefully crafted balance, 38 Studios could have something unbelievable in their hands. For now, Amalur is an interesting proof of concept, and one to watch.

7 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in October 2006.

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