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Developer: Big Huge Games, 38 Studios / Publisher: 38 Studios, Electronic Arts / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Suggestive Themes]
For a new fantasy franchise backed by industry rock stars Todd McFarlane (on pictures), R.A. Salvatore (on pens), and Morrowind and Oblivion designer Ken Rolston (on the game), a staggering amount of awareness was built around the manager, baseball star Curt Schilling. This is the first game out of 38 Studios, the fruit of its acquisition of Big Huge Games…which is apropos given that Reckoning is a BIG, HUGE game.
Early showings were met with middling interest, but a play-test a few months before launch got the assembled press corps way more excited (when they weren’t asking inane questions about baseball), and the smell of potential wafted from the room, along with the BO and booze. Were we right to get giddy? Let’s find out, right ahead.
With so much game to talk about, I’ll keep this relatively short. This is classic high fantasy. Peaceful villages ravaged by marauding beasts; warring nations jostling to build a future for little Timmy; conniving politicos; personality clashes; and shitloads of people unable to help themselves, and needing a mug/hero to save their day/family/home/people. The evil Tuatha are coming, the magical Fae are waffling, and your dead carcass just got dumped on a pile of corpses that may have been subject to experiments in a bizarre lab surrounding the even more mysterious Well of Souls. So color everyone, notably yourself, gobsmacked when you just wake up…from death…and start walking around.
It’s a neat take on the stranger-with-no-name-no-memory gambit made more compelling by the belief in and adherence to Fate and Destiny that permeates the thoughts of all the people in this world. And you just broke their universe. You’re not supposed to “be” so what the hell does that mean for the rest of us, mortal and mythical magical alike?
Those are the main themes informing all the hundreds of characters inhabiting the Faelands, as they’re called. It has potential, and while the early game exposition can be a little blah-blah-blah as you’re just wanting to get out and smack around beasts, it develops meat as you progress, and as the stakes get higher and the situation more grave. In general, the route through this exploration will be familiar to anyone who’s played a fantasy game or seen a fantasy movie. But fair play, I was listening to more of the detail in the dialogue trees in the last third of the game than I was in the beginning, which I assume means it was more compelling then, rather than I was just forgetting to press X to skip through it after so damn long at the controller.
A third-person fantasy action-adventure-RPG is about right. Within the first hour it felt like a third-person Diablo with WoW sensibilities blended with the ambition of Dragon Age’s make your own story. Roll those three names together and you’re on a winner, right? How about Fable with a snarl of God of War? And that’s really what it is: an unapologetic mash-up of the gameplay techniques popularized in the best of the fantasy genre. It truly feels, in its format, in the way the game world is built and interconnected, and how you progress, like a single-player MMO. Which is funny, because that’s exactly how it started out in development.
You have all the customization options you expect, from your appearance and sex to four races, each demonstrating unique peccadilloes and religious affiliations. The very first tutorial area introduces the three class specializations–warrior, rogue, sorcerer–forcing you to try the very basic skills of each so that when you first level up and choose both an ability and a seed on the separate skill tree you should know what you like.
Once out in the world you really are free to go where you like. Each town or settlement is populated with peasants and patrons looking for someone to help them, either to forward the story of the main quest, or provide opportunities for exploration and loot acquisition in side quests. Plus there are separate tasks to pursue, and even six factions to join who provide their own unique quests and opportunities. Though to be fair, all the faction “recruiters” were kinda douchey with their expectations, and a couple didn’t even make an appearance until well into the second half of the campaign, so I totally blanked that element). But despite ignoring the faction factor, there is still absolutely tons and tons of gameplay here, mostly themed on your traditional fetch-and-carry-and-slay-along-the-way formats.
Those mission types are the nature of the beast, but I definitely felt the grind when some thirty-plus hours in I–by this time an all-round bad-ass and savior of major cities–was being asked to find some more little Timmys lost down the well. But you need to pay your dues pursuing these side quests in order to scavenge the loot that buffs your character in order to take down the main quest challenges.
While you’re leveling up along the way, plotting your skill tree and ability progression provides plenty of flexibility for character variety. I went for a rogue power machine, pouring my ability points into stealth for those cool slo-mo backstabs (though they are very tough to execute until you master the skill, with enemies annoyingly arranged in circles so any one of them can spot your sneak and alert his buddies). I also picked Detect Hidden to help find loot and secret doors in dungeons, and threw the remainder in one of the crafting skills, sagecrafting to make gems for socketed items. I gave up on collecting herbs for alchemy, there’s just too much of the stuff strewn around, even in castles, that the compulsive could commit hours to producing potions. Over time this rogue became very effective, using skills such as delayed strikes that strung into uber-powerful combos.
Combat is ferocious, pretty, devastating, and occasionally frustrating. Fighting multiple enemies, each with different range and melee skills on open plains causes the camera to zoom out to provide some perspective, but it’s still on you at times to swing the camera around to see what’s is the sights of your ranged attacks. Parrying attacks is crucial, and perfectly timing a parry causes a little pause as you briefly stun your enemy, allowing you to close for the kill. While each successive quest generally switches up the type of enemy you’re fighting, there are only so many types, each getting progressively harder, more ancient, more vicious as you progress towards the end.
Getting to that end is a good sixty hours since you simply have to perform some side missions to level up and earn loot so that when you wander into a new area along the main quest path you’re not met by red color-coded enemies indicating you’re going to be on the painful end of a thorough kicking. That said, quick props to the save system, which is fantastic. The auto-save is incredibly generous and you have seemingly unlimited save slots for your own save-anywhere options. It opens up replayability by allowing you to go back, some time in the future, and replay from a certain point making different decisions both around your character and the choices you make. It also ensured the one crash I experienced and one drop through the textures didn’t cost me dearly in time invested.
Of those choices, the game does like its concept of crime, the ability to pickpocket, steal books (!), potentially get caught and thrown in jail, and then have to escape. So much so that the horribly stingy Achievements revel in rewarding your misdeeds rather than your more obvious mission objectives and progress. And when one Achievement is earned for smashing 1000 boxes and pots, it gives an idea just how sprawling this land is, and how long it could take for you to arrive at its monumental conclusion.
Visually, the world of Amalur is very cohesive. Its wooded plains, streams, mountains, foliage, indiginous life, shanty settlements, and bones of gigantic creatures long since deceased all make sense without devolving into formulaic ice, lava, swamp, forest stereotypes. It also means that for about 30 hours you’re looking at the same kinds of coverage, used and reused assets. Even the dungeons–like MMO instances–repeat themes and art assets, which I suppose is understandable given the number of them, but I was longing for a different palette long before I finally stumbled into that new location.
The characters in combat generally look great, attacking, parrying, and dodging in fluid motions, particularly when you’re higher level and are unleashing firestorms of attacks. The style is simple in a lot of ways, but perfectly adequate in setting the scene.
I can’t say I noticed the score, but when I tried to take notice, it was understated, ebbed when you ebbed, flowed when you flowed, and rose to a crescendo rarely. The sound effects in combat, of the hiss of spiders, the grunts of ettins, and the snarl of brownies (mean little bastards) all combine in a harmonious flow that supports the action but doesn’t overstate what’s happening in the world.
The voice-over work on the hundreds of in-game characters is hit and miss. You can recognize the same handful of actors performing multiple characters of various races. Occasionally it was quite jarring to see an ethereal Fae sounding like he just walked out of Mary Poppins ‘ouse in ole London town [there’s an accent here for the VO!] Even a main character like Agarth, initially set up as one who liked his booze, never sounded like he’d had a sniff of the barmaid’s apron. I mean, none of it is awful, but on a production value level, it was probably the most affordable way to get in the can the vast number of lines of dialogue needed.
Reckoning screams value for the action-RPG fan. A completist could easily commit 100 hours to all the quests, side quests, tasks, and faction ruminations. It also displays smart design choices on how to get around (the fast travel system is fabulous, making up for the crazy decisions like town healers not selling healing potions, and good luck finding a general vendor who does), a seemingly well balanced skill progression, cool combat, and an engaging (eventually) story around Fate and your Destiny that you unravel as you travel.
And travel you will…hundreds and thousands of miles. There are no steeds, so your unlimited sprint is vital for not boring yourself senseless sauntering from quest to quest, though the map system of managing where to go also streamlines a potentially arduous process.
Yes, Reckoning is a Big Huge game. The sum of those parts don’t all gel together in some kind of revolutionary way, but the influence from them stands out sufficiently that fans any of those games will find something to love here. Be prepared for the long haul if you intend to see the epic conclusion, but don’t expect the next generation in open world free option exploration, though allegedly there are numerous conclusions…but that will take just another epic wade through this world to discover.