As gamers, when we play games we inevitably draw comparisons to others. Sometimes we complain that a game didn't do something as well as another, while other times we praise a title for evolving a concept pioneered by someone else. We throw around words like innovation, originality, and stagnation, but ultimately the only thing that really matters is this: is the game fun to play?
In the five or so hours I recently spent trying out Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the first title from 38 Studios, I couldn't help but draw comparisons. In fact, I've never been able to compare any game to as many titles as I have with Kingdoms of Amalur. I'm usually the first one to decry games for lacking an innovative spirit, but in this case I have to make an exception. From what I've seen, Kingdoms of Amalur seems to be a near-perfect amalgamation of all the best aspects of the most popular western RPGs of the last decade, from The Elder Scrolls to Dragon Age to Diablo.
As I began playing the game, I had to overcome a slight learning curve, as this particular playtest was set up for mid-game content. As such, I was loading up a prebuilt character already halfway to the level cap. I chose a warrior to start, with his skill points dedicated to the might skill tree and specializing in longswords and hammers.
I decided to jump right into the combat system and was immediately struck by how closely it resembled Dragon Age 2 (Comparison Count: 1). It was visceral and fierce, and four skill hotkeys could be brought up by holding down the right trigger. Simultaenously, it reminded me a bit of both God of War and Fable 2 (CC: 3). Various melee combo attacks could be performed by attacking after dodging or blocking, or by pausing in the middle of a combo, similar to God of War's combo system. At the same time, I was able to access both my longsword and hammer on the fly by using the X or Y buttons, similar to how the Fable franchise handles its different forms of attack. God of War comparisons arose again in the form of "fate" attacks, which bore a striking resemblance to the quick-time kills the franchise pioneered. The monolithic, cyclopian boss at the end of this segment of the game was also reminiscent of God of War's epic confrontations, including the scripted finale.
I played with this character for an hour or so, before deciding that the game was far too easy. It wasn't long before I discovered the reason for it: my character was immortal. Please note that this glitch was a result of the cheat-boosted save files used to prepare for this playtest, and obviously won't make it into the final game. It's just really funny.
"[Kingdoms of Amalur has] borrowed from so many different sources that it's become something wholly original as a result."
Regardless of cause, this required me to start anew with a fresh character. Choosing a non-immortal, finesse-based character, I opted to try my hand at character building on my own this time around. After finding a "Fateweaver", an NPC responsible for resetting my distributed points, I proceeded to design a might/finesse based character that used a combination of quick dagger attacks, stealth, and the brute force of a greatsword.
As I browsed the various skill trees and designed my character — being level 20, I had a large number of points to distribute and this took some time — I drew my second comparison to the Fable franchise. Kingdoms of Amalur forgoes traditional classes in favor of three skill tress: might, finesse, and sorcery, not at all unlike the strength/skill/will dynamic of Fable. In a similar manner, players can pick and choose from skills in one, two, or even all three in order to build their character. Moreover, the game has been designed in such a way to offer custom bonuses to characters based on where their points are distributed, making it nearly impossible to create a "bad" build. It's a natural extrapolation of Fable's streamlined approach to character-building.
I also discovered that each level gave me access to a new non-combat talent point to distribute to a wide variety of crafting and support skills, very similar to the support skills seen in the first Dragon Age (CC: 4). These skills include lockpicking, persuasion, blacksmithing, and several others, with milestone bonuses being applied once a certain number of points have been distributed to each.
Once my new character was built, I ran into a new problem: I didn't own a greatsword. With many points now allocated to them, I needed to find one before I set out into battle. Luckily there were nearby shops, and as I browsed the wares available for purchase, a loot system akin to Diablo (CC: 5) and its ilk made itself apparent. Equipment has various rarities, from common, unenchanted white gear to yellow-labeled set items, green and blue-labeled magical ones, and purple-labeled unique gear.
After purchasing a greatsword, I set out to redo the same content I had just done as an immortal warrior, this time with more challenging results. However, before I even engaged in the type of aggressive frontal attacks I had previously, I discovered a new joy, and a new comparison along with it: stealth kills. Indeed, by successfully sneaking up on an enemy, I could use my daggers to perform a brutal instant takedown, not at all unlike Deus Ex: Human Revolution (CC: 6). While I sincerely doubt it's possible (and indeed unnecessary) to play through the entire game without being detected, it adds yet another option to the already robust combat system.
I quickly discovered that I had chosen a rather enjoyable build to use, and by using a combination of fast dagger attacks, powerful greatsword strikes, and well-timed dodges, I could make short work of most enemies. I also had a few activated skills to make use of, two of which were particularly useful. The first was a skill called Lunge, which allowed me to quickly dash behind an enemy to strike at their back. The second was a might-based skill called Harpoon, which would grab an enemy and draw it in close, similar to the signature attack of Mortal Kombat's Scorpion (CC: 7).
After laying waste to the cyclopian horror once again, I was able to set out into an open area of the world, where several sidequests awaited me. The world was littered with things to discover, including resource nodes and hidden treasure stashes similar to The Elder Scrolls franchise (CC: 8). Indeed, one can't travel more than a few paces without encountering a plant that can be picked or a log or rockpile that can be searched. Unlike The Elder Scrolls, however, the openness is tempered with a more rigid structure. There are set paths one can travel down, barriers one cannot cross, and although there are many, many different routes to take and nooks and crannies to explore, it actually bears a closer resemblance to the design of Sacred 2's world (CC: 9).
As I continued exploring, lots of other familiar things cropped up. The lockpicking minigame closely resembles the one introduced in Fallout 3 (CC: 10). Conversations employ a dialogue wheel in the vein of Mass Effect (CC: 11). Even the visual style bears the same colorful motif and over-exaggerated proportions as World of Warcraft (CC: 12).
It would be very easy to write Kingdoms of Amalur off as a copycat RPG, but which RPG, exactly, is it copying? It's borrowed from so many different sources that it's become something wholly original as a result. How many times have we, as RPGamers, fantasized and speculated about what would be our perfect RPG, hashing together the best elements of our favorite games like Frankenstein's monster. Kingdoms of Amalur seems like a genuine attempt at just that. It's clear that its developers know the roleplaying genre inside and out, and have a firm grasp on what's been popular and what needs to be done away with. At the end of my time with the game, I've reached two conclusions. First, Kingdoms of Amalur is not going to blaze any new trails. Second, it's definitely a game I want to play.