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Kingdoms of Amalur Preview and Demo Impressions

In my days playing WoW (admittedly quite long ago) there was a commonly shared thought amongst my inner circle of gaming buddies: “This would be so great if it had a single player component.”

Obviously we weren’t referring to a straight 1-1 conversion, where large, empty plains populated by various beasts with repetitive AI would pose serious monotony without a multiplayer population. What we were yearning for was a fast paced, open world action/adventure RPG with massive emphasis on character customization and an enthralling setting. Something less ambitious and a little lighter than, say, an Elder Scrolls game, but larger and more open than your standard Fable.

Enter Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, a game that finds the proper balance between detailed character construction and whacking the living crap out of faeries with various blunt, sharp, or magical items. The game comes out tomorrow, so I thought I’d give the demo a whirl with three very important questions at the very front of my mind.

Why should I care about this game?

First and foremost, it’s rooted in the widely beloved world of Forgotten Realms author R. A. Salvatore, creator of the cult hero Drizzt Do’Urden. If that’s not enough, Todd McFarlane and Ken Rolston are major contributors in art and design respectively. These are some pretty badass dudes when it comes to sword and spell fantasy. That was enough to convince me to download the 2+ gig demo.

It’s also a noteworthy in its implementation of open-endedness. Today’s highly polished entries into the genre, particularly from Bioware, have emphasized plot influence over character development. Your decisions are more about defining your character’s morality or attitude than your character’s abilities. There are class selections, sure, and even some item discrepancies. Once you choose a path, however, it’s largely linear. Bethesda games allow for more diversity, but are less rooted in traditional RPG math, as it were.

Kingdoms seems to place ability, attribute, and equipment customization above all. During the demo, I got to try every variety of basic weapon, various spell types, and specific attribute configurations that didn’t feel permanent. It was a similar sensation to constructing a role-playing character on paper with an eraser handily available. The game’s destiny system also supplements traditional class choices, allowing characters to create their own personal jack of any or all trades.  As for plot influence, I was given a relatively standard array of dialogue choices during character interactions, but was left largely with the silent protagonist vibe. It’s a lot less about what I say and a lot more about how I choose to brutally massacre that giant spider over there.

Is it fun?

Kingdoms of Amalur Reckoning Coverart

Initially I was a bit intimidated by the breadth of the skill trees. I feel like you have to read for several minutes before you can really gain a proper understanding of how the character development works in the long term. Mousing over the various posibilities felt a bit onerous, and more casual players may be scared away by that particular aspect. What will win them back, however, is the combat system. Good lordy is it smooth.

If you’ve played WoW, you know that attacking computer controlled enemies isn’t the most visceral experience. Most MMO’s are a bit divorced from their own combat, utilizing targeted auto attacks and specific unmissable abilities. It’s refreshing, therefore, when a game that feels so much like an MMO allows me to take specific action to trigger an individual attack. Stringing together combinations only amplifies this satisfaction. I didn’t do 18hp of damage to that faerie, I hit that faerie right in its smug, faerie FACE.

Once I hurdled the initial learning curve of ability development, I found myself having a hell of a good time with the game.

Is it worth $60?

Absolutely not.

I’m sorry, I really am. I know I’ve spent the last several paragraphs describing what sounds like a pretty kickass RPG, but it just does not have the level of polish required to justify the highest cost available in today’s gaming market. That exclusive territory is reserved for your Skyrims or your Diablo III’s.

The graphics, while occasionally striking, feel a little dated and derivative. As excited as I was about the involvement of Todd McFarlane, the overall aesthetic bears a disappointing similarity to Blizzard’s previous work. That said, it’s by no means an ugly game, it just doesn’t establish anything distinct or remarkable. It’s adequate, nothing more and nothing less. The same can be said for the plotline, which is introduced in an opening cinematic complete with a cackling villain. There’s a long, elaborate backstory for the setting, but the in game dialogue embraces established archetypes instead of trying to push anything forward. Nothing to write home about.

What we do have is an absolutely phenominal $30-40 game. There’s a charm to the game’s universe, and it feels like exactly the type of thing that’s fun for thirty minutes or six hours at a time. I may not be picking it up on launch day, but I will be picking it up the second it goes on sale.

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