Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was, of course, released yesterday, and numerous reviews of it have hit the gaming press. My Twitter timeline is awash in people announcing that they’re playing the game, and who are offering their impressions of it. I even threw out a few of my own thoughts in a series of tweets last night.
I’ll offer my own initial thoughts on the game (as compared to its apparently “buggy” demo) at the end of this post. But I’ll begin, of course, with the usual aggregation of news related to the game and the studio that produced it.
Curt Schilling provides the last Visionary Newsletter.
Worth citing in full:
For me, the launch of Reckoning is the realization of more than thirty years of gaming and dreaming. 38 Studios is the embodiment of that gaming life, and to finally see the results of the dedicated and passionate team at Big Huge Games is beyond words.
I started gaming on an Apple computer in 1981, and after doing some early coding in BASIC, I started to play games like the ASCII-based Star Trek and Wizardry. I was hooked from the outset. And like many of you, I’ve played hundreds of games and thought “Wow, I could do that better” and asked “Why did they do that?” I imagine in most cases I was wrong. What I’ve come to realize is that often you can’t do it better and there are hundreds of reasons why they did that.
But, unlike most gamers, I also played professional baseball, and that afforded me the financial opportunity to act on those questions. That is where we are today. From a company perspective we have something we believe dearly in, that few others have, and it’s also something we never want to let go of. We are gamers who want to make awesome games for gamers. That might sound simplistic, but it’s far harder than it sounds. We are not publicly owned or traded, so our orders and direction are still entirely driven by the folks inside the company, us gamers. That’s huge, and also rare in game development these days.
But I would tell you this: ‘Making games’ is so vastly different than what I expected it to be. I do very little, if any, game making. There are actually some very good reasons why. First of all, I’m not all that good at it. Second and just as important, I looked far and wide and found people smarter and far more creative than I could ever be, and they’re the ones tasked with bringing Amalur to life.
This game, this world, is about the journey. 38 Studios’ moment of creation, believe it or not, happened over TeamSpeak during an EverQuest 2 raid. The first core group of employees, those folks here on day one, were mainly members of our guild in EQ2 who had spent months talking back and forth about making games. Many of them worked at Sony Online Entertainment in San Diego at the time, and we were all pretty hardcore MMO players. Many a night was spent talking about this feature and that one, and what our games would be like.
At some point as the months rolled by I began to sense a stirring, internally, that I couldn’t shake. I had spent about 25 years gaming; it was as much a part of me as baseball. What was the next logical (or illogical depending on your perspective) step for me to take? 38 Studios (formerly Green Monster Games, but that’s a story for another time) was it. So like 99% of gamers around the world I thought I could do it better, and I thought I knew what features would be cooler. But unlike that same 99%, I actually took the next step.
38 Studios was formed in October of 2006, and Amalur was born. Now gamers around the world are on the precipice of stepping into that world, and I can’t really pinpoint the overriding emotion. Fear? Anxiety? Excitement? Terror? It’s all of those things, and more. In my former job, I had an overwhelming amount control and responsibility — until I let go of the ball. In a sense, the launch of Reckoning is me doing just that. It’s out of my hands now.
This team has done everything it could to make this game worthy of players’ time and hard-earned money, and I think players will feel the passion and love the Big Huge team has invested in this world. This is, and has always been, much bigger than any single game or piece of the Amalur universe. It’s always been about changing the way we are entertained.
Reckoning is the ‘kickoff’ so to speak. Starting with Reckoning, and heading down this path we’ve chosen to Project Copernicus, our MMO, we have grandiose visions of things we can and will do to try and create the next great fantasy world. Amalur began years ago (10,000 years ago, according to R. A. Salvatore), and we plan on living and breathing this universe for as long as you will let us.
GamesRadar lists five things Reckoning does better than Skyrim.
Skyrim: You’re sort of creating your own class in Skyrim, which allows for a good deal of customization – but since skill points are so limited you’re never really able to take full advantage of the different trees in a single playthrough. You might be able to put some points in stealth and some in light armor or archery, but there are only some minor synergies between them. There’s no room for experimentation. Also, since there’s no way to get refunded points, multiclassing can end very badly.
Amalur: Though the combat skills are much more limited than they are in Skyrim, Amalur’s multiclassing rewarding players for dabbling in the different skill trees. Putting a few points into the Warrior skill tree and some in the Finesse tree will unlock special multiclass perks, and the more points you spend the more powerful these synergies become. Mage/Warrior will turn you into a magical warrior with enchanted blades and the ability to teleport around the battlefield. It works in every direction and rewards you for mixing the classes as you please.
But really, though, it’s all about the combat. Combat in Reckoning is just so good. More on that below, when I give my own first impressions and thoughts.
Stuff interviews (Not That) Sean Bean and Ian Frazier.
Reckoning’s team producer shares a name with the man who personified Boromir, and Ian Frazier is of course well known to all of you here.
Bean draws a couple of rather notable parallels between Reckoning and other RPG titles:
”There are are a couple of elements of our story that are reminiscent of Planescape Torment on the more traditional side of the RPG spectrum. You’re going to see elements of our loot system that are reminiscent of Titan Quest (which Frazier worked on) and Diablon and Dungeon Siege. As far as hardcore RPGs go, you’re going to see crafting systems, non-combat ways to traverse the world, persuasion, pickpocketing. We’ve taken everything of the best we’ve seen and ever played and swirled them together in one awesome thing.”
Oh, look! Another interview with Tibby!
This time, Strategy Informer got to sit down with the good Mr. Frazier:
Strategy Informer: Do you think there?s such a thing as ‘too much’ content?
Ian Frasier: That is a really good question. There are really two answers to that question — too much content at a time? Absolutely there can be too much content. We’ve really tried with Reckoning, at the beginning specifically even though there?s a crap load of stuff in the game, to start with this small funnel of content and then gradually get bigger.
You’ll notice World of Warcraft does this really well, like it’s a ginormous game, but they start small and then grow till you have like a bazillion options, but by that point you understand what you want and can pick and choose what you want to do. It’s similar with us — Chakrams for instance, Faeblades and Greatswords…they don’t actually drop until you’re level 3. So we do a lot of things like that under-the-hood, where we control when the player experiences what. Same with factions — we don’t dump them all on the player at once.
It’s an open-world game — not like Skyrim where it’s just a massive open square, but it’s a network of spaces you can journey through. It’s a bit like Fable but more like Skyrim in the freedom side of things.
The other side of that is “how much content in general is too much?” — I don?t have an answer to that. It’s a question I ask myself regularly as we got to the end of this game and thought “my god, did we make it too big?”
If you were wondering why the Reckoning demo felt small, Dragons and Dragonettes, this would be why. I was looking at the game’s “world map” last night, and gauging it against the scale of the starting areas, and I was just blown away. Once my character is leveled up and can roam freely, I can see it taking just…a long damn time to traverse the Faelands of Amalur.
The Guardian previews Reckoning.
In more ways than one, in fact, Reckoning is steadfastly traditional. The setting is high fantasy, in essence, with a spiritual tint, but peopled by familiar friends and foes: the Dokkalfar and Ljosalfar races are elves by any other name, and the gnomes and kobolds haven’t even been rechristened. Not that I’m complaining: with elves that sound like Icelandic volcanos I’d argue sticking to “gnome” is probably a step in the right direction.
In its story too, Reckoning looks to be a fairly standard hero’s saga: you begin the game dead, only to awake in a pile of corpses, having somehow been returned to life by the influence of a gnome’s green fountain — not a euphemism. Naturally, before you can ask all the obvious questions, the fountain is attacked by an army of fiends. Unperturbed, you hoist a sword that some idiot has left lying about and carve a path through your foes to daylight, where some wise old guy who will probably die in a bit informs you you are now the Fateless One — a hero who has cast off the bonds of destiny, and holds the power to shape the future of the world. So far, so literally any RPG .
Actually, I rather like the fact that Reckoning kind of makes a big deal out of your character’s fatelessness. The “ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances” trope works, don’t get me wrong…but sometimes it’s nice to know that you’re the stand-out, one-of-a-kind hero right from the get-go. Like…the Avatar. But not!
Take This Mitt, and Pass Me the Broadsword!
I almost thought Bedwyr was linking me to an article about Mitt Romney and gaming when I saw that title. But no, the New York Times was interviewing Curt Schilling:
Mr. Schilling, 45, freely acknowledges that 38 Studios has not reinvented the genre. As a child in Arizona he played Dungeons & Dragons and computer games like Wizardry. “I stuck the Monster Manual into my notebook and read it in class in school,” he said, pausing to spit into a cup. (He still chews tobacco.) “I read Tolkien, I think when I was 7 or 8.” As a major leaguer, when not on the mound, he played the massively multiplayer online games EverQuest and Ultima Online in hotel rooms. Still a hard-core gamer, he haunts online forums as “Ngruk.”
But he is perhaps most famous for pitching postseason games with an injured tendon in his right ankle — even after sutures tore open, allowing blood to soak his sock. Now, dressed in jeans, flip-flops and a ball cap in his company’s offices, he pondered the stress of a life in baseball and of his newer profession.
“Pressure has brought out anything good about me as a competitive person,” he said, looking tired but content. “I threw harder.”
Building the world of Reckoning.
Gamasutra interviews Colin Campbell, the lead world designer for Reckoning, about the makeup of the world-building team and the choices they made in designing Amalur.
Another Curt Schilling interview!
This time, GamesBeat gets the scoop, and asks a couple of questions about how 38 Studios went about fitting Big Huge Games’ project into the framework of their Copernicus project and its world of Amalur:
GB: Did it take very long for you guys to fit it into the timeline and the universe of what you?ve been doing?
CS: No. Literally, we sent assets down on a Wednesday evening, and Thursday they flew up here with those assets in their engine running in-game. Which was very powerful to see. The engine is ours, exclusively, proprietary, which is awesome. We have thousands of pages of history. We told them, “Hey, find a place in our timeline where you think you can build an awesome single-player RPG.” Ken Rolston and Ian Frazier and those guys looked around and the Age of Arcana was where they settled. That’s the age that Reckoning comes alive in.
GB: Could you remind us of the storyline?
CS: The overarching storyline is centered on immortality. I know that’s not some new revelation, oh-my-God groundbreaking thing, but … R. A.’s a hardcore MMO player, he’s a fantasy guy obviously, and death was always something in gaming that bothered him. And so the Well of Souls and immortality became one of the focal points of our franchise. In our MMO, 2,000 years after the RPG, the Well of Souls is a defined piece of the story, it’s explained through the story. When you backtrack to Reckoning, you are the first person to ever be successfully resurrected with the Well of Souls. The magical piece of this is, you walk into the world with no fate and no destiny, in a world where every human being in the world has a fate and a destiny. When R. A. starts to ask philosophical questions around that it gets pretty powerful. Yes, there are probably basic, everyday life questions around not having a fate, but there are forces of good and evil who quickly become aware of your presence, and your value to them is obviously diametrically opposed…But that’s the story. You spend the game trying to figure out what it means, but more importantly for the play experience, what you mean to the world.
GameFront put up a three-page “everything we know” feature just before Reckoning came out.
No surprises and no upsets of note, but if you were looking for a handy reference guide to what’s in store for you in the world of Amalur, it’s worth a look.
Gamasutra interviews Todd McFarlane.
The Spawn author, who once worked on some content for Ultima Online 2 (some of which was re-cut for an Ultima Online expansion), served as the Executive Art Director on the project, and is chiefly responsible for its break from the dark and gritty aesthetic that has characterized fantasy RPGs of late.
RPGWatch has a short piece on the game’s release PR and at-launch bonuses/DLC.
EVEN MORE REVIEWS!
GameBanshee has aggregated a bunch of reviews from a number of gaming sites. Overall, the reviews tend toward the high end of positive (8/10, 5/5, 9/10, B+, etc.). Gaming Trend, Digital Chumps, Joystiq and Den of Geek all turned in reviews with scores north of 90%.
On the other hand, G4 didn’t like it, Game Critics also didn’t care for it, and Kill Screen was also quite hard on the game.
My character, in Shepard Armor. Yes, that would be a Mass Effect 3 reference. Also...chakrams!
Day One Impressions
So I installed the game…Monday night, actually, and sat down to play it for the first time yesterday evening once my kids had gone to bed. I started fresh, created a new character, and played through…pretty much exactly the same amount of the game that I covered during the course of the demo. (I did actually complete a couple of quests, however.)
The short version: I still love and greatly enjoy the game.
The longer version: where do I begin?
Combat is, of course, excellent. I just love how my character explodes into action. There’s nothing drawn out about it…she’s standing there one second, and leaping into the fray as she unsheaths her weapon into an arcing swing attack the next second. Combat in the game is kinetic without being twitchy, responsive without being excessively arcadish…and works just brilliantly with keyboard and mouse.
My single favourite fight moment so far happened during a battle with a pair of boggarts, which a wolf decided to interrupt. I saw the wolf charging, got in one final sword swing to push back a boggart for a second…and then swung around and raised my shield just as the wolf pounced to attack. That brought the shield up just in time to smash the wolf right in the face, stunning him long enough for me to whirl around, finish off the boggart, and then finish him off too.
I honestly don’t think I’ve encountered a better combat system in a game to date. I mean that, and I could probably play the game for hours on end solely on the basis of the combat system.
But of course, there’s more to it than just the fighting. As I noted on Twitter last night, I’ve only just begun to unravel the game’s story, but it has already introduced a host of themes that I hope it continues to explore in ways that are both engaging and intelligent. Religious strife, political strife, immortality vs. mortality, genocidal war, women’s ordination, determinism vs. free will…and this all on the road between a a gnome enclave and the tiny village of Gorath. It’s too early to tell what sort of treatment these different topics will ultimately get in the game, but it’s one hell of a way to kick things off even so.
The graphics, of course, are gorgeous, and merit some (though not strong) comparison to Fable. The game doesn’t shoot for an ultra-modern look, in the vein of a Battlefield 3 or a Skyrim, but it easily exceeds such games in terms of the vibrancy of the world it presents. Instead of the drab and the barren, Reckoning opts for the lush and the vibrant, with a palette of colours in almost every scene and sequence that one wouldn’t typically expect to find outside of medieval or Rennaissance art. Reckoning also, apart from how it names its Elvish races, sidesteps the Nordic trend that’s been visible in games of late, and instead offers a distinctly Celtic flavour.
And I’ll come right out and say it: as much as I enjoy the possibilities that all my moral choices in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 will supposedly unlock in Mass Effect 3, it is nice to play a game (for once) that doesn’t try and shoehorn some sort of morality meter into itself. Reckoning doesn’t seem to have anything in the way of a light/dark/paragon/renegade/influence system in place, and at least that I have seen so far doesn’t seem to be keeping a “moral score” on my character.
A few reviews I’ve read have criticized the game on this basis, but to my mind it actually fits with the core concept of a deterministic world. My character may be able to weave her own fate, but everyone else around her is locked in to an inexorable destiny, and will assume that she is too. And in such a world…well…what is a murderer, and what is murder? What, indeed, is morality? There is no such thing in a deterministic context! So it’s kind of to be expected that Reckoning doesn’t bother itself with that sort of mechanic.
I’m just wrapping up a series of quests in and around the town of Gorath (the town from the demo), after which I’ll venture out into the game’s wider world. What will I find beyond the lush forest my character is currently in? I don’t know…but I know I want to find out.