Although when I think about it that's not really surprising. Let's look at the pedigree here: EA Games + Ken Rolston + R.A. Salvatore + Todd McFarlane = Blah, blah, buh blee blah: Reckoning. Now you might say to yourself "What?! That's an amazing team! This should be awesome!" And you are right, it should be. But here's the thing, what does having three powerhouse creative individuals working on a project usually guarantee? Safety. Stability. Comfort. And that's what you get. You get a nice hot cup of Earl Grey Tea... which is nice and it's familiar but what it's not is exciting or interesting or new.
And this is probably what EA was banking on because, let's face it, when it comes to my clumsily selected metaphor EA is nothing more than a cup of hot water with a lemon in it. EA is the absolute safest of the safe that this entire industry has to offer and I am confident that they have produced a game that will sell well within their expectations of fiscal solvency. Because Kingdoms of Amalur does appear to be a good game. Yes, a good, good, fine, acceptable, good game...
Much like one of Salvator's novels we are given a veritable smorgasboard of familiar elements that all blend together to present us with something that is technically proficient in every sense of the word but exhausts itself on the very idea of attempting to reach for anything more. Here we have a nameless hero of your own making thrust in to a fantasy world completely indistinguishable from any other fantasy world conceived of since J.R.R Tolken took pen to paper and given amnesia (My GOD! They couldn't even shy away from the SAFEST LITERARY DEVICE IN RECORDED HISTORY!) then left to sort out a mystery in an open world of hack and slash adventure. There is a war in progress against dark forces (of course) that you will eventually face. There is a tangled destiny (or non-destiny as the story would have it but I have my doubts as to whether this will be a unique plot device or just an excuse for the developers to say "Hey look! Meaningless choices!") that you must unravel. And there is a lot of pointless dialogue that in any novel would have been left on the cutting room floor for fear of becoming redundant but in the videogame world is considered pure gold because "Our game features 300hrs of non-stop adventure!"
The art direction, under the guidance of the very talented Todd McFarlane, is apt with little touches of brilliance that come out mostly in the fantastic character animations. The actual mechanics are a mish-mash of elements taken from The Elder Scrolls, The Legend of Zelda, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, and Fable all tweaked for a standard fourteen button, four axis controller so don't expect anything too complex there. There's a crafting and alchemy system that is competent and unremarkable just like the loot it creates. The voice acting is serviceable. The leveling system, while made a big deal of in most of the promotional literature, is the same three class, skill tree based thing that we've seen in every MMO since Everquest with a fate system that I will admit could not be delved in to in too much depth in the fourty-five minutes the demo allowed. This could be something special but from what I saw the fate cards seem to just tweak stat bonuses so that you can play more effectively as a combination of two or all three classes.
The combat is fun, I can say that. The combat is legitimately fun and very responsive. Dodging about at just the right moment and planting a few arrows before getting in close and sticking a dagger between your target's ribbs and rolling away again had a kinesthetic reality that I thoroughly enjoyed. My one regret is that the rather sizable demo didn't allow for enough progression to do some of the amazing looking combos in many of the videos that I have seen. But while the combos could certainly improve upon the stale nature of the game's design decisions, at the end of the day that wouldn't be enough to change my impressions about this wholly unremarkable product.
So Amalur looks like it's going to be good, maybe even very good. But, to return again to my initial metaphor, I would never pay the $20 for a box of Earl Grey that I would pay for a good tin of Japanese Matcha. And I will never pay the $60 for Kingdoms of Amalur that I spent on Skyrim.
A note to Bioware: GET THE HELL AWAY FROM EA NOW! You can't see it but everything I mentioned in this article is happening to you! You are roughly three published titles away from mediocrity and irrelevance! Run! Leave Big Huge Games to the wolf and ruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuun!
This is just a no brainer. No single game has ever gotten me together with real, God honest, wouldn't lie to you, actual, physical people more often than Borderlands. First of all, it has experience. We all love experience, right? It's like integrated, light roleplaying mechanics are becoming the game design equivalent of a clock radio or an iPod dock. Well Borderlands took those exp bars and jammed them all up inside a futuristic post-apocalyptic shooter with some pretty slick graphics and more guns than the average human mind can comfortably conceive without training at Westpoint. So now you're filling bars by shooting Mad Max extras in the face with shotguns that fires rockets. That's great. Game sold already. Wait, now you're telling me that the entire thing is centered around a four player cooperative mode reminiscent of Sega's unbelievably entertaining Phantasy Star Online? Oh, and there's loot. Holy CRAP there's so much loot... Gearbox, how did you get ahold of my dream journal and please don't tell people about that weird thing my sleep-brain made me do to Ryan Gossling...
Sweep the leg, Johnny...
I would spend hours upon hours in Pandora on an open session with players going in and out of my world helping me creep ever so gradually towards the most anti-climactic ending that has ever been seen in any form of media (No, it was not Lost, it was Borderlands). But hey, the story isn't why I was there (for once). I was there because Borderlands lights up that part of my brain that craves meaningful progression, and that other, less compelling part of my brain that craves human interaction. Speaking of which, when I got to my apartment for that year's Summer stock I could not believe that there were three other men all with their 360's and a copy of Borderlands ready to scrape together three crappy, thrift store televisions (The kind with the RF jack. Remember those things?) and take the game all the way through General Knoxx's Armoury and beyond. I thought I had found a precious little gem of a game that no one else really knew about but, apparently, it was kind of a big deal.
Who loves you, baby?
So now we have Borderlands 2 and that's kind of an even bigger deal. From what I hear there's going to be more guns. From what I hear there's going to be more Pandora. From what I hear Anothy Burch is going to un-suck the ending of this one. I'm sure there will be more loot, I'm sure there will be more classes, and i'm sure there will be many, many, many more hours dumped in to progressing through a virtual world of post-apocalyptic mayhem while my progress in the real world comes to a screeching halt. And I could not be more excited about it all.
Developer request: a voice identification system that will allow me to block children and d-bags before they ever even reach my server. I do not want them. Anyone who does not drop in ready to cut the inane chitchat and shoot that giant shock-scorpion in the carapace with an exploding revolver will be dropped anyway, so just help me save some time, guys.