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Critical Preview: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

In case you aren’t familiar with the upcoming title from 38 Studios and Electronic Arts, here’s what you need to know about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. The game is the collaborative work of the dream team of Ken Rolston (lead designer of Morrowind and Oblivion), R.A. Salvatore (fantasy author responsible for titles such as the Forgotten Realms series), Todd McFarlane (creator of Spawn, best Spider-Man artist of all time), and Curt Schilling (hero of the 2004 Boston Red Sox storybook postseason…um…he used his baseball riches to start 38 Studios, and is a huge nerd/gamer).

For those who may be unaware, the game was initially scheduled to be an MMO along the lines of World of Warcraft or EverQuest. Later in the development cycle, it was decided to turn the game into a single player RPG. The new direction was finally unveiled at PAX East 2011, and the playable demo was released on Xbox Live last week. According to Schilling, the game is supposed to be a combination of Oblivion and God of War. I finally had the opportunity to play through the demo, a few weeks before the game’s scheduled release on February 7, 2012. Does the game live up to Schilling’s lofty proclaimations?

Don't let the thinly-veiled hate on the faces of McFarlane and Salvatore spoil it for you.

No, not really.

I genuinely wanted to enjoy this. I don’t think it’s possible to not have high hopes when you look at the names involved with the development. The main thing I felt when I was done with the demo was disappointment.

The first thing you’ll notice is Amalur’s visual style. The character models are all cartoony, but not in a Todd McFarlane way. In fact, it’s hard to really see his influence in the design. The game looks more like World of Warcraft than Spawn. The juxtaposition of cartoonish models with graphic violence is more reminiscent of Fable than anything else. It made me wonder just how hands on McFarlane really was in working on the art in comparison to a game like Darksiders, which oozes Joe Mad from its every pore.  Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of clipping, rough textures, and an overall lack of polish to the graphics.

Seriously, if I were to say "here's a screen from Fable IV" you'd probably believe me

As we’ve all learned, graphics don’t make the game. Most gamers are willing to overlook mediocre visuals if there’s a compelling story to drive the gameplay. I wish I could say that’s the case with Reckoning. That’s not to say that the story is bad. I’d imagine with R.A. Salvatore working on the narrative, the plot is actually pretty good. However, the demo was so buggy that most of my conversations were automatically skipped, and those that weren’t had glitched VO work that left the NPC’s mute.

The gameplay itself is a bit loose, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. More than anything, it reminds me of a hybrid of Fable and Dragon Age – specifically Dragon Age II and its more action-oriented focus. I guess the God of War comparison comes into play with the QTE’s that sporadically appear. I don’t mean any of these things to be a slight. In fact, the combat is actually pretty solid, and it was my favorite part of the demo. The only issues came from the camera, which has to be manually repositioned from time to time to make sure you can see the action. Otherwise, the controls are sharp and responsive.

The RPG progression elements, however, leave much to be desired. I don’t know if it’s because Ken Rolston came out of retirement to work on this game, if Curt Schilling compared it to Oblivion, or because I’ve spent so much time playing Skyrim, but the character creation and progression seems a bit bare bones. You choose a character’s race at the beginning of the game: human noble, human nomad, light elf, or dark elf. Each one comes with racial bonuses towards skills such as smithing, alchemy, or bartering. That’s it. Your actual character class is determined by which skill tree you put points into when you level up: Might (warrior), Finesse (rogue) or Sorcery (mage). You definitely have the freedom to create whatever type of protagonist you want (as long as you don’t want to be anything other than a human or an elf), but the customization levels aren’t nearly as robust as Elder Scrolls veterans will be used to.

Overall, my experience with the demo was unsatisfying. It’s a bummer, because I feel like a game with this sort of pedigree might have unrealistic expectations to live up to. Hell, I couldn’t even finish the demo because the game glitched up so bad that it froze my Xbox. Hopefully, 38 Studios and EA can iron out some of these bugs before the game’s final release. Something tells me that it’s not going to happen though. Not with the release scheduled for two weeks from now, at least.

For right now, this one seems like it’s going to be a pass. It’s basically a glitchier version of Fable. Hardcore RPG fans are going to want to stick with Skyrim until Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings drops in a few months. Casual fans may find something worthwhile here, but would also be better served to wait another month for Mass Effect 3 to come out and blow all our minds.