The Elder Scrolls V, the bar by which every RPG following in its wake has been set, is nothing like Kingdoms Of Amalur: Reckoning. It’s strange that the first thing that pops into the minds of many an RPG fan is, ‘But is it better than Skyrim?’ as if this incredibly subjective question can be satisfied for everyone with a single conclusive word. In that case, no. No it’s not better than Skyrim, because we gave Skyrim a better score, even though on some levels we preferred Reckoning.
The comparison is flattering and somewhat fair too, Reckoning being the fruit of an unlikely quartet’s labour: the art of Spawn creator Todd McFarlane; lore penned by bestselling author R.A. Salvatore; the money of baseball star Curt Schilling; and, significantly, the vision of Oblivion and Morrowind designer Ken Rolston. But forcing Reckoning and Skyrim into the same box is as ridiculous as juxtaposing Call Of Duty: Black Ops with Rage.
Reckoning actually feels much closer to Fable III. It’s like all the really good parts that were shaken out of the disappointing third episode – the bits that should have brought Albion to life and given the player much more of a sense of purpose – have been hoovered up by Rolston and the team in their pursuit of a new IP. Reckoning is quite derivative, but only in the same way that Dead Space was: it has taken the best parts of many games – the random artefact generation of Dungeon Siege, combat of God Of War, an art style that bears some comparison with Warcraft – rolled it into a seamless RPG package then given it a level of polish and an attentiveness to certain details that will have genre heavyweight studios scrabbling for their notebooks.
It begins with one of the most unoriginal openings in the history of anything: players take on the role of the fateless one, a soldier left for dead on the battlefield who picks himself off a pile of corpses in the bowels of a Gnomish laboratory, with no recollection of his past and significantly, no destiny. This, in a world where soothsayers earn a crust by reading the tapestry of any creature’s fate, is an aberration – the fateless one is free not just to forge his own path, but to change the destiny of others. This ‘blank slate’ of a character will prove to be fascinating for some and a threat for others.
The idea of forging your own fate is reflected in the character creation and skill system. Reckoning groups abilities into the three archetypal classes of Sorcery, Finesse and Might (for mages, rogues and warriors respectively). These are mixed and matched at will, with three points awarded for every level advanced. Reckoning has a vaguely Dungeons & Dragons-style class system, with the benefits of multi-classing available once a certain number of points have been allocated. As a finesse/sorcery hybrid, at the highest levels a character can, say, compromise on might abilities as well as the high-level benefits of specialising in an assassin or magi class, for being a stealthy magic user. Fundamentally, it’s like the prestige class system of Neverwinter Nights except, in accordance with the story of Amalur, your character is able to change his own destiny, and visit a fateweaver for a complete re-spec of all his points. Though that does cost a fortune in gold.
Getting to grips with Amalur will be second nature to anyone familiar with modern gaming, and especially action-RPGs. The skill of combat has a focus on rhythm and reaction, players talk to NPCs to pick up new quests, and if an object has been made in any way conspicuous, the chances are it can be interacted with. We suppose that’s half the trouble really, because as soon as players leave the tutorial and step into the wild world, a yellow halo appears on the mini-map indicating the village where the next part of the main quest is waiting. But then, there’s also a glowing chest hiding just down a nearby path on the right, a tiny whirlpool in the middle of the pond on the left, the dark entrance to Stonecandle Mines ahead, and at least half a dozen patches of alchemical ingredients leading the player anywhere but the direction of the main questline.
This is a constant throughout Reckoning that probably does warrant some comparison with Skyrim: that no matter what higher purpose you’re trying to focus on doing at the time – the main mission, a faction mission or hunting down all standing stones in an area – there’s always something shiny to distract RPG magpies from their course. It’s a cheap way of keeping players entertained, and one that is common to the genre; lately, it’s only Dark Souls that has really tried to break that superficial style of open-world play. But it doesn’t make the game any less enjoyable, and Reckoning does distraction very well.
It is, however, weaker in characterisation and dialogue, which can often be flicked through and ignored to pick up another mission, and questing is largely of an MMO ‘go here, kill that, collect this’ nature – mostly uninspiring with a few exceptions. But somehow, despite being made of patchwork parts, it is never less than good fun to play and, at its best, a surprisingly intense experience – all credit due there to the twitchy and intelligently designed combat system. Reckoning is a big, meaty game that will thoroughly satisfy both RPG and action fans, and if you are a Skyrim player, then you should definitely make room for this too. You’ll love it.