Preview: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Curt Schilling’s enthusiasm for 38 Studio’s first title, Kindgoms of Amalur: Reckoning, is unquestionably infectious.

I’m at the Baltimore-based Big Huge Games, a studio that sits a mere three miles from where I live. I’m listening to Schilling talking about the game in a small, dark room, sitting next to his 38 Studios partners: artist and Spawn creator Todd McFarlane; best-selling fantasy author R.A. Salvatore; and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion designer, Ken Rolston. Schilling, best known by most as a former pitcher for the MLB, is grinning from ear to ear. A long time gamer, this is his dream team, and his excitement is palpable. It’s hard not to smile along with him.

Sports fanatics who participate in rotisserie leagues do it for the fantasy, the thrill at being able to piece together the all-star team of their wildest sports fantasies. Looking at the talent Schilling is putting behind Reckoning, it seems that’s exactly what he’s done, only with game development in mind. If what I’ve seen from an early look at Reckoning is any indication, the gamble may pay off big time for both action and role-playing game fans alike.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Developer: 38 Studios, Big Huge Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 2012

Our demo, a first look at pre-alpha version of the software, starts off in the game’s very first dungeon that players will experience when they boot up the game next year. A young man wakes up in a mountain of rotting corpses, and as you’d probably do given the circumstances, vomits on his boots after freeing himself from the pile’s twisted limbs. It wasn’t long ago that the man was a piece of the pile, and fit in quite nicely, actually — he was once dead, too.

As Reckoning’s creative director Mark Nelson explains, the game’s main protagonist — and that’s “you,” but we’ll get to that in a second — is one of the first to be resurrected by something called “The Well of Souls.” The hows and the whys are a bit foggy at the outset, something for players to uncover as they work through the game’s open world quest through Amalur. What that means for the game world, you’ll learn, is equally as important as what it means for the player.

“Where every mortal in Amalur has a destiny,” Nelson explains, “fate has already determined their path. We, [as the main character], come back a blank slate, and we’re able to determine our own destiny, and this is something that is going to play both into the story and the [game’s] systems.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before determining our destiny, we must determine who we are, or at least what we look like.

Expect Reckoning to offer up the full range of expected options in its character creation. Visually, you’ll have control over things like bone structure, skin color, facial hair, eyebrows, tattoos, and whether you’ll be male or female. Beyond that, you can choose from four of the game’s races — two human and two elven — each of which will provide a bonus for the game’s non-combat skills. Depending on that very choice, you’ll be offered the option to choose a patron god; I saw a slew of different deity options in the demo, each offering up their own bonuses, as well.

“We want you to create a character that you really feel is your own,” Nelson says of the opening process.

What you won’t choose, however, is your character class. That comes into play based on your own choices, with something that is being referred to as the Destiny System. Reckoning will feature a very traditional-looking skill tree system, broken up into three branching paths: might, finesse, and sorcery. Where you invest your skill points will ultimately determine the class you’ll become. The idea is to have the game recognize how you’re building a character and then offer up the equivalent of a traditional character class.

These destinies, we’re told, can be changed as you play the game. If you feel like you’ve plumbed the depths of the sorcery path, you can begin to build on the Might tree, changing the course of how your player will progress and feel.

“Too often this happens in role playing games,” says Nelson. “One of the very first decisions you’re asked to make, before you’ve ever swung a sword, before you’ve ever cast a spell, [is] what class do you want to be. How do you want to spend your life, for the next 100 hours in this game? You make the wrong choice, it’s not as good as an experience. We want you to have all the choice in the world, but we don’t want you to make a choice that you’re going to really, really regret a few hours in.”

Regardless of what choice you decide, it’s clear that Reckoning may provide some of the most visceral, in-your-face combat of any open-world role-playing game to date. In fact, this was one of the focuses of this early demo, and it may be one of the main points that sets Reckoning apart from its peers. From the very first battle, it’s clear that the game’s combat is closer to God of War than anything we’ve seen from action-role playing games in the past.

The warrior on the screen deftly wields a sword and a massive hammer simultaneously, knocking enemies back with vicious strikes that hit hard. Anything unfortunate enough to get in the way is completely destroyed, adversaries falling to the ground and cowering in fear as they beg for their lives. Quicktime events finish many combat loops, a cinematic-style kill the team is calling “Fate Shift Kills.” Outside of looking damned cool, they’re being coy on what using those kills will mean, but promise they’ll have an impact on not only the player, but the game world as well.

There’s no hands-on with the game just yet, but 38 Studios explains that while combat looks and will feel great, don’t worry if you’re not a particularly deft action game player.

“There are no combos to memorize,” Nelson says, explaining that what we’re seeing is all about rhythm and timing. They’ll leave the long strings of button patterns to remember to someone else. “That’s the realm of action games and they do it perfectly well.”

All of the animations in the demo looked smooth and moves seamlessly transitioning into one another, the combat team on the game obviously inspired by fighting and action games. Looking around their offices I spot a few videogame gems and possible inspirations, including everything from Assassin’s Creed to Soul Calibur II. There’s even one weapon we saw in action — flaming boomerang-like blades used in melee combat — that had a completely different look and feel from anything you’d expect in a fantasy role-playing game.

Even the game’s magic attacks are worked seamlessly into combat, right alongside more traditional weapons like swords, hammers, and axes. One particularly inspired magic attack is called “The Mark of Flame,” used to “paint” multiple targets before triggering a fiery hell storm. We’re also shown a telekinesis attack that pulls enemies in towards the player, setting them up for attacks, not unlike Mortal Kombat’s Scorpion and his infamous “get over here” spear. It’s clear that in addition to the game’s deep traditional RPG systems (which I’m positive we’ll see more of in the coming months) 38 Studios wants to make sure everyone feels like a bad ass when encountering the baddies of Amalur.

Just because our first demo placed a strong focus on combat, that doesn’t mean legendary fantasy author R.A. Salvatore’s input is going to waste. The New York Time’s best-selling author was involved with the story writing process throughout the entire development journey, helping to build a vast and believable fantasy world that lived up to his own standards.

“Something that R.A. has talked to us a lot about is that you want to feel like this is a world worth defending if you’re going to be the one defending it,” Nelson explains.

“It’s important to make it feel like the world has a history, that it didn’t just get plopped down for this game,” he continues. The player in the demo discovers a hidden ruins, and while it’s not explicit by anything you might immediately see in the game, Nelson quickly rattles off the site’s history like it was fact.

“That’s something R.A. will talk to us a lot about,” he says, “nothing goes in the world without a purpose. You don’t just put something in because it’s cool. It should still be cool, but make sure there’s a reason for it being there.”

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is scheduled to hit PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC in 2012.

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Nick Chester
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