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Hands On: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Soul Destroying?

We sent Agent Smee to have a good long play of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Below is his detailed report on the colourful open-world fantasy 'em up where atheism gives you an XP boost.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, from what I can tell, appears to be a summation of the last ten years of western RPG development. An open world RPG that embraces every mechanic the genre has to offer, from quests involving moral decisions to class customization, crafting and gem socketing, tied into a slick combat system straight out of one of those console-based third person action brawlers? Sign me up. I had 4 hours with the game at EA's offices in Guildford, interrupted only by stability crashes typical of a build still in development. A couple of months from release but from what I saw, everything about the game is finished apart from those issues.

I played the opening tutorial and a portion of the bombastic main quest before exploring the open world. Straight off the mark the references begin: Reckoning starts its story in such a similar fashion to Planescape: Torment that for a brief, mad moment I thought it was some kind of HD remake: a body on a cart being taken through a dank fantasy mortuary, mistakenly thought by those in charge to be dead. From here it turns to character creation, a choice of facial looks, two genders, four races and a pantheon of Gods to swear fealty to, granting race-specific passive bonuses to skills amongst the three holy classes: Warrior, Mage and Rogue. Cutely, there's an option to be self-sufficient, beholden to no gods, which turns out to mean an increased XP rate. Atheism: cheesing leveling.

Anyway, after being unceremoniously dumped in a big pile of bodies, my chosen hero woke up in an understandably worried state. The tutorial dungeon does a quick job of introducing melee combat, archery, stealth mechanics and magic with a few giant rats and Tuatha soldiers, the main enemy, to test it all out on. A lesson in inventory management and armour types was taught before my plucky fighter stumbled out into a bright and sunny world with the knowledge that she could reach into the very soul of another being and rip out the strings of fate that binds their existence to this world.

That's the Reckoning of the title, a combat-based power up you can unleash on unsuspecting foes. There’s an armoury of different weapons and fighting styles but they’re all controlled by a rudimentary combo system chained by rhythmically clicking or holding attack and nudging the flurry of sharp things that your character just turned into towards the enemy. Damage numbers appear above their heads as you pound them with lightning bolts and arrows - it has the speed and style of God of War but it's always obvious the fast-paced action is hanging off an RPG framework, your elemental resistances at work and the various magic spells and skill abilities accessible through a customisable quickbar.

It all ends with the Reckoning, the aforementioned cutting-the-strings-of-fate manoeuvre. It's listed alongside Health and Mana with a nice purple Fate bar which increases by killing things, and when full allows you to turn blue and be rather nasty to everything around you. Make an enemy fall to their knees and you can execute them in a gleeful sequence where time slows down as you hammer away at the prompted key. It's a quick time event, except it's only mashing the one button, and the faster you click the more bonus XP you gain from destroying the fate of your foes. Friendly characters react with surprise at this ability, though really, I'd have thought killing anyone with any method would be severing their connection to what Fate had in mind for them.

Out in the world I met a pleasant chap who introduced the concept of Destiny, which turns out to be a deck of Tarot cards full of Warrior, Mage and Rogue archetypes I could choose from to further specialise my class. However, Reckoning appears to be very lenient with that most important defining decision: people like him, Fateweavers, can also completely respec the player character and switch out the Destiny cards, allowing you to change class entirely whenever you’d like by paying some gold. Further than that, the Destiny cards also have categories for cross-class combos, even supporting a jack-of-all-trades WarriorMageRogue build. It's total freedom to create a character of your own choosing, specialising in whatever role suits your fancy. Neat!

A helpful EA rep then fast forwarded me to about two thirds into the main plot and replaced tattered dead person rags with gleaming epic armour. Those Tuatha guys were back in full force, this time laying siege to a castle with a huge army. High up in the castle ramparts above the melee on the ground below, I was tasked with dispatching invading soldiers. Like the tutorial, it was essentially a linear dungeon crawl populated with waves of enemy soldiers, happy to meet my upgraded magic and skills with powerful abilities of their own. These hardened foes were no giant rats easily stomped on, and I quickly learned that a last-second dodge-roll (or a teleport, if playing a Mage) was crucial to survival, as was countering enemy blows with a shield, forcing them to stumble. Constantly spamming health and mana potions helped a lot too.

Progressing through the trap-laden corridors, finishing off the waves of invading enemy soldiers and netting a few sneaky stealth kills along the way with my shiny new super-dagger, I reached the top of the castle and came face to eyeball with the beast the Tuatha had been spearheading their siege with. Spawn comics creator Todd McFarlane had a hand in designing Reckoning's art style and this thing looked like it had just crawled off his drawing desk: a gigantic, wrinkly, slug like monstrosity with clawing arms and a little goblin riding on its back holding onto a long bondage harness that pulled on its eyelid, sporadically blasting eye lasers at everything. You'd better believe it's the boss fight, and taking it down was straight out of an action brawler. Hitting it with arrows from afar, dodging it's sweeping claw attacks and getting a few hits in on its face whenever it slumped forward, you know the drill. Exciting stuff, if unremarkable.

Victorious, I emerged in the city the castle looked over. A bustling market, merchants of every description and agitated persons with exclamation points hovering above their heads vied for my attention. Finally let loose in the open world, I dutifully ignored the main quest marker and embarked on a series of small adventures, first in the city itself and then in the rolling green hills outside it. My first adventure was to crouch unseen to steal some much needed health potions from an alchemist, be caught red handed, enter into combat with the city guards who I just fought alongside with and was summarily thrown into jail. Hero of the people, that’s me.

I could have waited out my sentence in return for an XP hit, Elder Scrolls style, but because I’m not a total wimp I picked the lock of my jail cell, sneaked through the guard’s quarters, stole back my equipment and hightailed it out of there, Elder Scrolls style. Reckoning really does owe a lot to that series, but that’s unsurprising, as the lead designer of Morrowind and Oblivion, Ken Rolston, is the executive designer on Reckoning. It plays much slicker than those, however, and not just because combat is straight out of God of War – the general minute-to-minute wandering feels more like Dragon Age.

That’s reflected in the quests. After speaking to a concerned citizen in the city’s hospital about groans from the basement, a spot of catacomb exploration revealed the good doctor who healed me earlier has a sideline in necromancy research. She offered to share her findings with me if I silenced the witness. I of course attacked the foul witch, she raised a catacomb’s worth of dead things, and then I died. After reloading I went and stabbed the helpless sick patient to death inside his hospital room, which turned out to be a much easier fight. Then I stole medical supplies from the wounded. Hero of the people!

Leaving the city behind me I ventured out into the countryside, whose picturesque country lanes was beset by everything from bandit gangs, wolf packs and walking tree spirits. Meeting a lone farmer toiling in her barren fields, I was sent me off to a nearby cave to find some sacred magic artifact to revitalise her crops or something, I wasn’t really paying attention – for all the fun on offer, the tiresome writing and bored voice acting don’t much help matters along. On my way to the cave, I was accosted by an angry priest who asked for the magic thingy herself, labeling the farmer as nothing more than a beggar and a squatter.

There’s some undercurrent of racism and religious intolerance at work in Reckoning’s lore, something to do with elves and humans and land rights that I didn't take the time to understand because, boring. It was present in many of the quests I was picking up, and it’d be interesting to see if and how my actions would change things. I didn’t play enough to see anything like The Witcher’s stern consequences, but the decisions I was making during the quests at least hint at overarching change. I was sent to uncover a ring of spies hiding out in a village, for instance, with the choice to kill them, turn them in, or let them go. Skill-based persuasion attempts are in effect for these kinds of interactions, so investing in a silver tongue seems to be a sensible option, as always.

It just seems worth mentioning here that the graphics options were robustly customisable and accessible in-game from the main menu, as was redefining all the controls. There’s no side by side stat comparison in the inventory, but there is a compare equipment button, and an option to hide your character’s inevitably face-covering helmet. She could also sprint forever, which is nice when the open world is so open.

Returning to the city I had previously saved to sell all my loot I was distracted by a friendly tournament in the guard’s barracks and went a few rounds with the men and women of the city watch – with their consent this time. Afterwards I spoke to their blacksmith, and he allowed me to use his forge. The smithing interface allowed me to break down my useless loot into component parts and forge new equipment with fancy artifacts I had found on my brief travels. Bits like enchanted pommels or extra-sharp blades could be used along with shiny gems I had refined from cracked shards, socketed into the new equipment. I’m getting a little tired of mentioning the names of venerable RPGs, so I’ll just let that one slide.

The glowing acid sword I subsequently forged was better than any other blade I had found, and I was eager to try it out. Unfortunately my time was up, so I left EA's offices with my mind filled with stats and numbers, already planning my next build, hoping to max out the stealthy dagger assassinations, wanting to get into chakrams to live out the Xena fantasy. I remain apprehensive that the standard of writing won't be up to scratch, which turned things into somewhat of a dreary mess, but there are always those faithful numbers ever climbing upwards. Coupled with the brawling combat and eminently cutomisable everythings...well, I'm more than a little concerned, actually. I’ve got 160 hours in Skyrim so far, nowhere close to finishing that story and this next one has already wormed it’s way into my brain after a short afternoon.

Oh well. Here's to adventure.

Kingdoms of Amular: Reckoning will be with us in February of next year.

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