"Combat!" That's the thing that differentiates 38 Studios and Big Huge Games' Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning from your typical role-playing game fare, says the game's lead designer. It's the primal stuff extracted from games like God of War, Tekken and Call of Duty and injected into this high fantasy world.
"We've failed if we haven't communicated that," says Big Huge Games senior designer Ken Rolston, who is perhaps better known for his work on The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion at Bethesda Softworks. Rolston's got pen-and-paper RPG in his blood, having worked on Dungeons & Dragons, Paranoia and Warhammer games.
Rolston told Kotaku at a recent preview that, while he still has a fondness for the "lovable, old-fashionedness" of role-playing games like Baldur's Gate, his company's 2012 game has him just as excited for fighting game-like action, loot drops and the "candy" that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning will hand out to players over dozens of hours.
The designer says he's "excited by the absence of that other stuff," the tabletop mechanics of old that may be obscured in game's like Mass Effect, now just as much a third-person shooter as an RPG, and Reckoning, a brawler with the DNA of a huge, high fantasy adventure.
"I'm lying until you play it," Rolston says of the combat-focused gameplay of Reckoning. "And you should not trust a word I say until you play it. It's the degree to which you have fun per unit time when you didn't expect to that will create the 'Fuck, that's just fun.' This is stupid fun and satisfying."
That means less stiff combat, which flows like a Ninja Gaiden or God of War game, and a continuing sense of excitement when one unlocks new skills or finds new weapons—even if they're at level 40 or finding daggers as loot drops.
"Nobody's ever gotten a dagger as loot and been happy," Rolston jokes, with the exception of a blade he names that talks and eats planets. "Now the daggers do cool stuff, like you can go through a guy and stab him from behind." (He means literally go through a guy. One of the cooler attacks we saw pre-E3 was a character teleport through his prey, then backstab him, leaving a toxic trail in his wake that could poison multiple enemies.)
Also apparently cool? Chakrams as weapons, the circular blade people may be familiar with from Xena: Warrior Princess or Tron, a rare weapon that has popped up in a handful of video games, rarely as a starring weapon.
"Magical Frisbees? How are you going to make that cool?" Rolston says, implying that nothing was off the table when talking about Reckoning's approach to new combat ideas. "I think because we had stupid ideas and prototyped them, like 'Let's make the daggers as much fun as anything else you can use in the game.'"
We recently had a chance to see and play Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, a PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 effort that strives to match action packed combat with the narrative, exploration and advancement that Big Huge believes is key to making a great role-playing game.
"Narrative and exploration, I have been partially responsible for," Rolston says of two core of the four pillars of Big Huge Games' design sense. "Advancement? Blizzard probably does the best job in MMOs, making that the core of their games. But nobody's really done a combat system which I think is really designed to work on a console."
Rolston assures us that the game plays just as well on a PC, thanks to Reckoning's interface, but concedes that this game, "inspired by playing really well on a controller," may not feel as fluid or tactile when played with keyboard and mouse.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, an action-heavy role-playing game being published by Electronic Arts, used to be something else entirely, a game once codenamed Crucible. Then the creative forces of Curt Schilling, R.A. Salvatore and Todd MacFarlane got on board with Big Huge, bringing supergroup attention to an already existing effort.
"All the tech, all the tools, a lot of the systems were shared," says Big Huge Games GM Sean Dunn of the former (leaked) game and Reckoning. "All the intellectual property that's associated with Kingdoms of Amalur, that's all 38 Studios and put on top of it afterwards. So it was kind of a reboot for it, which was great, because there was a lot of synergy between the style of this universe and the things we wanted to do with this engine."
And one of those things was, of course, combat.
"When we looked at all the parts that make up an open world role-playing game, when we got to combat, it wasn't really satisfying in this genre," says Dunn. "We thought it was something that, if we put a lot of time and emphasis on, it was something that could be better."
To do that, they tapped a man who knows about action games.
"Joe Quadara, our lead combat designer, came from Crystal Dynamics, where he worked on the Tomb Raider series," explains Dunn. "He's also a tournament level Tekken player, so he has a deep understanding of all those things that make up [the] really good in-hand feel of a combat system.
"We looked at what other genres had done for responsiveness and controller feel. If you look at what Infinity Ward does to the trigger pull—the amount of time that goes into making that feel perfect—that was the type of effort and passion we wanted to put into combat."
But Reckoning is less of a shooter than it is an action game with the evolutionary traits of a fighter. Dunn continues.
"That meant we had to build a system that supported all those things. It's akin to what you'd see in a fighting game or an action game. There are frame interrupts, there are blocks and dodges and parries, you have fast weapons and slow weapons, weapons that hit heavy and light, weapons that launch people into the air so that you can juggle them. All of those things that come from a core fighting system."
We'll have more hands-on time with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning at E3 2011, but we'll all get our hands on it next year, when the game ships for the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.