Former MLB star pitcher Curt Schilling surrounded himself with a talented staff who have been working arduously for the last several years to bring us a new single player open world fantasy RPG, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Simply put, they hit one out of the park, and 2012 has a contender for game of the year already.
KoA:R (KOAR) is a captivating experience that is filled to the brim with interesting activity and lore. Famous author R. A. Salvatore wrote some 10,000 years of history for the KOAR universe, and it's damn near staggering to take it in as you play through the lengthy main quest and (optionally) engage in many hundreds of side quests. The immense effort put into the creation of this world goes well beyond just a deep history, a bunch of unique names and terms, and a plethora of characters to talk to and battle, though. Artist Todd McFarlane brought his talents to the project to help create a visually intriguing world that brings Salvatore's visions to life. Game Designer Ken Rolston, the Creative Lead, tied the whole kit together. Anytime you combine a compelling narrative with an immersive world and loads of enjoyable gameplay, you're well on your way to a AAA title, and that's exactly what KOAR is.
The epic begins in a makeshift mortuary, a room teeming with dead bodies. Yours is amongst them, until you wake up just before being tossed into the fires. The workers who were about to destroy your body are startled at your awakening, but also excited that their Well of Souls seemed to actually work, reviving a sentient dead body. Your character, based on one of four main classes and whose appearance and name are customized to your liking, remembers nothing of his past. It's evident you are a special being, though. Over the course of many hours, you will not only find out more about your past and your importance to the Faelands, but you will shape your own destiny and simultaneously alter the fate of many in the process.
But before you can go re-shaping the world and altering fates, you need to learn some basics. The first couple of hours keep things linear until you get to your first major town, teaching you the basics of gameplay and preparing you for the extensive freedom you have afterwards. During this time you will learn the controls, which are intuitive and easy to learn. Most non-combat interactions, such as harvesting plants for alchemy, talking with NPCs, or opening doors, are all done by pressing A when prompted. You also use A to run; sometimes if you are holding down A and run past an NPC or interactive object, the game will accept that already-pressed A as input and take you out of your sprint. Eh, I wouldn't call it a bug or a nuisance, but I thought it worth mentioning. Once you start talking with an NPC, you always have the option to immediately leave the discussion, or you can choose from a variety of topics, many of which are shared between NPCs. Naturally, you'll gain a more complete picture of this massive universe by talking to everyone about everything.
Interacting with objects and NPCs is common, but just as often you will find yourself in battle. There are dozens of different types of enemies, from wolves to massive trolls, to War Priests, huge spiders, ghost-like things, you name it. The variety of enemies in both their appearance and strategies is excellent. Overall, I thought the combat system was done extremely well, both from a control-standpoint as well as how it plays, and how customizable and deep it is. You are able to draw upon two weapons at anytime -- a Primary, controlled with X, and a Secondary, controlled with Y. Being able to seamlessly switch between the two allows you to get creative with combinations.
Nine or so consumable items -- a multitude of potions usually -- can be assigned to the Left Bumper radial dial as well, and even quicker is the ability to drink Health and Mana potions by pressing left and right on the d-pad, respectively. You cannot Jump, but you are able to block with Left Trigger and roll with B. You can also reset the camera by clicking right stick, but I can't figure out a way to switch targets when using ranged weapons. That hasn't been the cause of any real problems yet, however. There are numerous weapon types, although what is available to you depends on the state of your character, which you can change rather significantly every time you level up (which is pretty often). Weapon types includes longswords, hammers, bows, daggers, scepters, staves, faeblades, and others, and within these general headings are dozens of variations that you can find and craft. Many weapons and armor also have sockets for gems that give them additional attributes. These gems can be made with sagecraft, which is similar to alchemy and blacksmithing, but also considerably different, given that it's a separate skill and requires different material and working conditions.
All that said, the actual feel of the combat is really smooth, just as though you were playing a game built from the outset to be a third person action title. As a big fan of that genre, I appreciated the quality and depth of the combat in KOAR. It's on the level with most any AAA third person action title, and for being so seamlessly mixed into such a massive open world RPG is impressive to me.
Further impressive is the amount of options available. Players have a lot of freedom in how they want their character to evolve. If you start out as a tank character, you aren't locked into that. Leveling up comes at fairly regular intervals, meaning you can distribute points between the other Abilities. The Abilities are three-fold: Sorcery, Might, and Finesse. Within these are detailed upgrade paths to being more adept with the weapons and abilities associated with those types of characters. You can spread your points out as you please, and, you can literally change your Destiny with the help of a Fateweaver. For example, say you start your Destiny as a Mage. You begin as an Alcolyte, advance to an Initiate, and then move on to a Seer, Sage, Sorceror, and Archmage. But, if the idea of becoming an Assassin instead of a Sorceror sounds good, you're able to make that change as you continue to play. Mixing and matching Skills, Abilities, and Destinies, combined with the dozens of weapons, armor, upgrades, and Moves, makes for a staggering amount of customization.
Another important combat gameplay element is that of the Fateshift. In the upper left corner of the HUD, there are three meters: health, mana, and the middle, or purple one, is the fate meter. This fills up as you fight. When it's full, you can press LT+RT and enter a Fateshift. This will slowly drain your fate meter while enemies slow down and your attacks are more powerful. Once you pummel an enemy enough, an "A" prompt appears next to them. Pressing A here puts you into a simple quick time event where you just have to press a single face button as fast as you can to build up an XP multiplier (and even that's optional). Meanwhile, your character is going through a cool finishing maneuver on the enemy. When he strikes his final blow, the allotted time for you to rapidly press the face button (usually about three seconds) ends, and all enemies that you have attacked die along with the one you just finished. Fateshifting is helpful in tight situations and helps rapidly generate some XP. What's great about the fate meter is that it fills up appropriately -- not too fast to where you are using this ability too much, but not too slow to where you forget about it.
There's so much going on in KOAR, especially if you choose to accept the hundreds of optional Side and Faction quests, and Tasks. It would be hard to keep track of everything, but fortunately, it's all laid out rather nicely in the Start or Pause menu. Each category from this menu (Inventory, Quests, etc) will have a marker next to its name if there is something new within it that may demand your attention. You can review quest details and analyze the map (both World and Local views) here, too. From within the Map, you can set Waypoints and Fast Travel to previously-visited locations, saving a tremendous amount of time (especially if you installed the game to your 360).
About the only thing I didn't like regarding the map was that I had a fairly regular amount of trouble tracking down a quest marker. Only one quest can be active at a time, understandably, and when you set a quest as the active one, the map updates with a marker to indicate where you need to go to continue that quest. I just had a hard time following that marker at times, especially (perhaps only) when the quest took me into a different area than I currently was in. It can also be confusing at times because there are 'layers' to the interactive world, very basic layers, however. In other words, the map is 2D, but at times you are positioned on a plane in the Z-axis, i.e., either above or below the main plane, if that makes sense.
Another neat, albeit minor, feature I liked about the contents of the Pause Menu is seeing the Day number and time. This counter starts off on Day 1, and it's just neat to see that value continue to rise as you play. There are day and night time visual effects to match the time, although there are no weather effects. Another plus is the ability to save your game at your exact location, at anytime. Also helpful is being able to quickly compare items within your inventory. Say you get a new Staff and you wonder how it compares to the other three you are carrying -- simply pressing X to compare will show you what's what, making it easy to decide what to do next.
You could Junk the Staff, meaning that it will be removed from your Weapons list, but will still be taking space in your inventory (which has a limit). But, you can select easily select to destroy all of your Junk at once, or when you come to a vendor you can very easily select to sell all of your Junk at once.
A few other miscellaneous thoughts on my time with Amalur would include the observation that your character's facial expression remains completely monotone and unchanged through all dialogue interactions (and there are thousands of these). Most NPCs that you can talk to have six to ten topics to talk about, even though most are just a few sentences. During these dialogue sequences, the camera often shows the face of your character and I was a little disappointed that it never changes. I also felt that there were too many stacks of wooden boxes and barrels, and other similar things for you to smash. It's amazing to me how games continually incorporate these smashable objects; is anyone else tired of these? On the other hand I liked how KOAR handled accidental friendly fire. Players have to consciously select when they mean to be aggressive to neutral or friendly characters by pressing Up on the d-pad, which puts you in Aggressive mode. I've admittedly been using this feature sparingly, but I love that this was made into a 'toggle' rather than something you can't control. Nothing worse than accidentally killing a bunch of NPCs or having a whole swarm of them attack you all due to a lightning bolt blast gone awry...
As I continue to play Amalur and try to find the edges of its vast expanse, I am continually delighted and entertained. I cannot recall a game that I have played that was so detailed and on such a huge scale. True, most things that KOAR does are not revolutionary -- but everything it brings it brings in an all-in manner, and the years of development that went into this experience at the hands of many talented folks is clear from the first hour.