Celebrities and games generally belong on opposite sides of a brick wall, or even better, in separate, tightly locked vaults. Whenever someone with a minutia of (pop culture) fame gets it into their head to make, star in, or otherwise influence the creation of a game, it never really turns out. The voice acting usually sounds phoned in, (though there are exceptions to that), or the concepts are total rip-offs (think 50 Cent, Bulletproof or Blood on the Sand), or the games aren’t really anything more than average, (in the case of John Woo’s Stranglehold, though how much input he had in that is still a matter for debate, I think). Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning had a different power behind it, though. With the name of an industry giant, Ken Rolston, of Elder Scrolls III and IV fame, talented artist Todd MacFarlane, and well-published fantasy writer R.A Salvatore behind it, Reckoning had huge potential. The problem is, it never really realizes it.

I know, that’s my entire opinion given away in one shot, but I was really disappointed by that realization. I’ve been following the development of Amalur closely, and despite the indicators that it was going to be something less than advertised, like the heavy focus on the combat system, and the screenshots that looked as though they could have been pulled from any fantasy game of the last decade, I had high hopes. I want to state outright that I didn’t wholly dislike Reckoning. It’s just that it’s unerringly average. There’s nothing that it does that really creates a name for itself, which means that it’s somewhat unmemorable when all is said and done. In a market packed with RPGs, good and bad, that’s just not something you want to happen. I feel like I’m dancing around the point a bit. Bear with me, please.

Kingdoms of Amalur Reckoning Screenshot 2

It's hard for me to care when my character has a perpetual look of complete indifference.

Right off the bat, Reckoning falls into a fairly big pitfall. This is actually something that Yahtzee, that fully ramblomatic game critic over at The Escapist, mentioned in his review of Two Worlds II, but it’s extremely valid, especially here. In a good Japanese RPG, the game world is fairly restrictive when you start. You follow the path the game lays out for you extremely closely, getting a feel for the story, characters, and world that you’re in. It’s only later that you’re given the freedom to explore more thoroughly, and by that point, you’re usually pretty invested in the story: you know what’s going in the world you’re in. Western RPGs, though, (The Elder Scrolls series and Fallout 3 in particular) often open up the entire game world from the get-go. You can explore the world almost in its entirety without ever cluing yourself into the plot, and that actually takes something away from the game. The world a game is based around loses some of its charm when its only a backdrop for you to kill and loot on. It’s only with a story that a world can truly come alive. I was nearly level 15 in Reckoning before I realized I hadn’t done a single story quest since emerging from the tower at the beginning of the game. That can sometimes be a point in a game’s favour, if you’re driven to explore the world, but in the case of Reckoning, it was more because of a lack of direction. Yes, I knew that I was supposed to go and speak to Agarth, but I didn’t know why. The world had opened up before I was given time to care, and as such, I never really did.

Part of the problem is a fairly un-engaging opening act. You wake up in the Well of Souls, the first successful resurrection in a gnome-run project to try and eliminate the permanency of death, to give the mortal races of Amalur equal footing in the war against the immortal Fae. It also features the only example I found of the player’s character expressing any emotion: a look of horror and disgust on their face as they wake up on a pile of bodies. Anyway, turns out some Fae are attacking the Well for some reason, so off you go trying to escape while taking the typical action-RPG active tutorial about the types of weapons, armour and magic you can use, to let you figure out which you prefer. The thing is, there isn’t a whole lot established in this scene. Even when you reach the gnome in charge of the well, whose name I’ve totally forgotten, he only gives a couple of very vague inklings as to what’s going on. Part of the reason for this seems to be to keep the player hooked, and invested with finding out what happens next, but the problem is, you’re not given enough information to get invested. It’s possible to get the player involved while revealing very little, RPGs do it all the time, but Reckoning fails to give you that little bit that hooks you into the story, and as such, when you emerge from the Well, you don’t care enough about the character you’re playing to motivate you to learn more about him. When I finally began doing story quests, it wasn’t because I wanted to know what was going on, it was just because I knew that I had to progress through the story eventually. There was absolutely nothing driving me to keep playing, other than my continued efforts to try and like the game a lot more than I found I was.

Kingdoms of Amalur Reckoning Screenshot 1

Although sometimes they just flat out refuse to attack you. That's pretty surprising.

I’ve been ragging on it kind of hard, but it isn’t all bad. A lot of the monster designs are actually really cool. The Brownies are my personal favourite, just because they look like an odd cross between a lawn gnome and a teddy bear, with wicked sharp teeth. It gives the first few hours of play a nice feel, because in addition to fighting bandits, wolves, bears, and spiders, (in typical action RPG form), you also fight the aforementioned Brownies, boggarts, Ettins, and an array of other creatures that keep the fighting interesting. The problem is, the game doesn’t really keep this up, and after a short time in any area, you’ll have seen all that there is to see. This means that by the time you reach the end of the game, there aren’t really any monsters left to surprise you.

The environments you fight these monsters in don’t really hold up, though. They look like they could have been cut and pasted from World of Warcraft, (actually, EverQuest is more likely), or even Fable. There’s a lot of trees, rivers, and caves around. It is quite large, but it’s very sparsely populated. Whether it’s true, or just idle rumour-mongering, I’ve heard that Reckoning was originally intended to be an MMO, (and that there is actually an Amalur MMO in the works), and, even if it isn’t true, I can see why people would think this. The environs are so big, you’d expect to see other players running around, pulling mobs, farming materials, or even ganking the lower level players. But no, it’s just wide open, empty space. The monster population is large enough that you do have distraction from the monotony of running from place to place, but I feel like there should have been more villages, towns, and NPCs around. It would have made the world feel more alive. And maybe, just maybe, it would have made it possible for the world you’re in to feel like the actions of you, the Fateless One, actually have some impact. For all their touting about how your decisions could alter everything, you never really see an example of this. I’d like to see a choice I make lead to a destroyed village, or a new one popping up somewhere, or something. Just make me feel like I have an impact on the world, and I’m not just there as eye-candy. Even do what Bethesda does with their games, and have people mention your accolades in ambient dialogue: I just want to feel like something I did had weight. But Reckoning never gives you this feeling, and suffers all the more for it.

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Some of them become a game of follow the yellow indicators on your map, as well.

I know I haven’t touched on the combat yet, even though that’s one of the game’s biggest selling points, so here it is: yes, the combat is quite fun. I decided that the best way to see whether or not the combat was actually up to snuff was to forgo specializing in more than one area: it’s easy to say your combat system is complex if you’re forcing the player to switch between swords, bows, and magic. So I be stuck with the ‘Might’ tree, leveling up my melee abilities, and the game still tosses enough abilities at you to make combat flow very well, even if you just plan on sticking enemies with the pointy end of a sword. Given that the combat director formerly worked on fighting games, the fluidity of the combat is no surprise: it’s like a simplified fighting game system pushed through a filter to make it fit in a fantasy setting. It’s certainly an improvement over the combat in other RPGs, but it’s not enough to carry the game on its own. Confusingly, the games Reckoning system, wherein you slow down time to dispatch nearby enemies and gain an experience boost, actually negates the need for the combat system a little bit, as you can use it to take on bosses without a problem. Yes, you can choose not to, which would technically balance out that particular criticism, but it still points to the notion that the system probably should have been balanced a little better: when the only thing you have going for your game is the combat, implementing a system that then eliminates the need for that combat seems somewhat counter-intuitive.

As for the side-quests themselves, most are pretty common stock: kill this, collect this, find this person, go to this cave to find this person but they turn out to be dead so you grab what’s on their corpse and take it back to the quest giver who never seems all that torn up that the person they sent you after is dead. What I did like about the faction quests in particular is that all the runarounds they sent you on were linked. It’s not like the Fighter’s Guild or Dark Brotherhood in The Elder Scrolls IV, where only the last handful of missions have a greater story arc to them. The problem is that since the choices you make don’t have any ultimate effect on the world, most of the side-quests feel kind of pointless, and the well-connected story arcs of the Faction quests just lose any impact.

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There's no excuse for my character not being centred in the screen. Or for the head of that warhammer to be floating...

There are a few buggy moments, too. The camera sometimes has trouble following you, and will often disappear behind walls during a cinematic, or simply break completely during combat. That second didn’t happen often, but it does happen, and in this day and age, a buggy camera should be inexcusable. For the most part, the bugs are small enough as to not get in the way of the game, but because I was trying so hard to like it, their presence was infinitely more noticeable.

I know I’ve been kind of hard on it, but that’s purely out of disappointment. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is by no means a bad game: it’s just a lot less than advertised. The fantasy world it takes place in is, for the most part, quite generic, and the story is in no way engaging. There’s just no way to become invested in the events or characters of a story if they all of their dialogue is delivered stiffly through fairly immobile cinematics. The landscape is nothing new, and will be totally familiar if you’ve played an MMO, or any single player fantasy RPG at any point. The combat system is as engaging and visceral as promised, even if you choose to specialize totally in one area and don’t mix and match the three styles, but it’s not enough to carry an entire game. At the end of the day, it’s just a generic fantasy RPG with one innovative gameplay mechanic that simply doesn’t sell it. There was a lot of potential here, and I hope they get another crack at it, but as far as Reckoning is concerned, it’s just too thin. If you’re a fan of action-RPGs, you’ll probably enjoy it, but even then, I wouldn’t recommend buying it at full price. It’s a shame: this was one of the few original IPs I can name being released this year, and I really wanted to like it more than I did.
Kingdoms of Amalur Reckoning Box
Title : Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
Format : 360, PS3, PC
Developer : Big Huge Games
Publisher : EA
Release Date :02/07/12

[starreviewmulti id=1 tpl=20]

*Article first published as Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning: An Honest Opinion on The Honest Opinion Corner.