Now that we've put the ever-questing of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning through its paces, it's time to see how it fared in the face of the assembled game critics. As far as I can deduce, it's either horrible or the best thing ever.
Try not to strain your neck while navigating Reckoning's Frankenreview chart. I've seen some rather large differences between the highest and lowest review scores, but this one caught me by surprise. Then again, I reviewed the game particularly favorably; it's just my kind of title. Others, as we demonstrate here, didn't feel the same way.
How can one game be a 50 and a 100 at the same time? Let's find out.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is nothing if not ambitious. The game is the initial point of entry into a new fantasy world that promises to span various media and game genres. Made with the involvement of fantasy writer R.A. Salvatore, comic-book artist Todd McFarlane, and Elder Scrolls designer Ken Rolston, and overseen by Curt Schilling's nascent, but well-funded, 38 Studios, it's a game whose vast content and open-world design inevitably draws comparison to Skyrim and the Mass Effect series.
My earlier looks and the pedigree of talents involved signaled something fresh, and I started the game excited and eager to delve into the world of Amalur. Unfortunately, the game fails to live up to the promised greatness. The sheer ambition and intent is on display but, outside of an ingenious combat system, the game is incapable of the delicate merging of narrative, gameplay and art direction that is the hallmark of contemporary Role Playing Games. It is mired in design issues that place it more in a league of games from 2004 than as a real contender in this vibrant era of RPG's.
That your barbarian/rogue/wizard wouldn't feel out of place in a straight thirdperson action game is a real achievement, especially following Skyrim's weightless avatars. The game it most closely resembles is Fable II – Lionhead's own attempt to tame the excesses of the RPG. But in the light of this, Fable II lacked combat conviction; Reckoning is tougher and it hits harder. Amalur's varied bestiary provides a blend of short- and long-range combat rhythms, and some suitably visceral feedback – the slow-motion clang of sword on shield, the gruesome hiss of arterial spray – that lends the game a full-blooded energy.
Of course, lowering the barriers to entry can also negate the gratification felt from the obstacles you overcome. Ranged combat, for example, employs an auto-aim that removes all the skill from the player. So while bows and projectile-spewing staves work well enough as secondary support to a stabbing implement, they are deeply unsatisfying in themselves. It doesn't help that target switching is mapped to the right analogue stick, which is nigh-on impossible to reach in tandem with the face buttons. In a way, Reckoning reverses Skyrim's dilemma: where the firstperson perspective struggles to mesh well with hand-to-hand duels, it is the true home of projectiles.
Boy is it fun to fight these creatures! Kingdoms of Amalur's combat is fantastic, no doubt about it. Depending on how you equip yourself and how you spend skill points (more on this to come), you might find yourself heaving a long sword in addition to a pair of daggers, or sporting a bow and arrow along with some chakhrams. What are chakhrams, you may ask? Well, they are razor-edged hoops you fling at your enemies, which, like all of the game's weapons, may possess elemental properties to make them even more effective. Flinging a pair of fiery rings about is a blast. And as you level up, you earn moves that make you even more powerful, letting you string moves into combos that have you leaping out of harm's way as you fling the chakhrams forward, or releasing them in a single thrust that sends them circling around you like murderous whirling dervishes.
Chakhrams are by no means the only way to have fun in Kingdoms of Amalur. If you choose a great sword, you juggle enemies and perform combos that have you hurtling about like a champion pole-vaulter. With a late-game magic spell, you combine lightning, fire, and ice attacks in a slow-motion fit of elemental rage. With daggers equipped, you can sneak up on enemies and slit their throats from behind. Of course, there's more to good combat than all these fancy animations and combos. Without basics like proper collision detection or tight controls, the visual flourishes would be meaningless.
The game's visual style is very much on the colorful, fanciful side, and it fits the world of Amalur perfectly. While not attempting a more realistic look, Reckoning flourishes in the bright and wonderfully animated fantasy setting. Characters, towns, dungeons, and enemies are all a highlight of the game, and there are many unique areas to explore and foes to battle. It is often enjoyable to simply stop and look around at the level of detail the world offers. Having enough options to create a unique and appealing character is a plus. Despite the look and animation being fantastic, there is noticeable pop-in at times, especially in the overworld. It's not distracting, but happens enough to note.
The best way to gain levels and get new weapons and armor is to go on quests, of course. There are story, faction, side, and task quests, and pretty much all the quest styles are just as rich and well fleshed out, save for the task type which is really just an unending item fetch quest for different people in Amalur. Really and truly the two most irksome things about this game show up right here. Everyone has a quest. Most everyone has an interesting quest that takes a decent amount of time to complete. While that really isn't a bad thing, if you are anything of a completion-ist, you end up with so many quest markers all over the map, and they don't overlap well. So you've been given a quest to go to a cave and fight something that is guarding someone or some such, but also someone forgot the family pet in the same cave, oh and the travelers want you to steal something off the person that is being guarded in the cave. That gives you three quests to do in one cave. Nice. You happen to be on the other side of the planet so you are going to fast travel. You find the marker on the world map, and it says "Rescue Fluffy." Wait, you can't fast travel to a quest marker, only a location. Let the location whack-a-mole begin. You've got a sticky quest marker that is right on top of the location marker, so you've got to slide and tap until either the map freaks out, or you succeed in fast traveling there.
None of this is to say there aren't a handful of minor concerns with Reckoning, but they are just that — minor. Quests can become repetitive, though nearly all of them are optional. Some skills seem unnecessary, especially lock picking. Any lock can be picked, even at the lowest skill level, as long as you have enough picks. I should also mention that a friendly character managed to trap me in the corner of a dungeon, forcing me to reload a previous save. You'd think any non-player character would get out of the way when pushed, but no. Perhaps it will be fixed in a later patch but, for now, keep your distance from friendlies in close quarters.
Again, though, these are tiny quibbles in an otherwise sterling production. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning presents a world that is immaculately crafted and beautiful, yet still simple and accessible. Every corner reveals a person in need, a treasure to collect, a secret to uncover, a battle to wage. I don't know how much more time I'll spend in Amalur (dozens of hours? hundreds?), but I plan on savoring every minute.
As the screenshots and videos of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning slowly began to trickle out, a fear grew in the pit of my stomach. A fear that these great talents were assembled to create to most generic action role-playing game of all time. As it stands they came dangerously close. Had the setting been slightly less fleshed-out, the characters slightly more wooden, you might be reading a very different review.
But the dream team came through in the end. The world is vast and varied, conveying a true sense of history through its design and the countless little tales lurking in every shadowed corner. The mechanics are sound and satisfying, marrying the tried and true with the risky and new to create something familiar yet different enough that it doesn't feel stale.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning doesn't come across as the beginning of a new franchise. Thanks to the combined talents of its development team - superstars and regular joes alike - it feels like the latest and greatest entry in a storied series. I can't wait to see what happens next.
I do reckon I prefer my own opinion, but I'm biased.