PREVIEW: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

At first, it might seem like an odd combination: The brains behind Spawn, the lead designer of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and a former Major League Baseball pitcher. But somehow, when you throw those three men together with a development team and set them to work on an immense universe created by a New York Times best-selling author, you come out with a winner.

Pushing its way into the crowded epic fantasy RPG market, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is due for release in February, but it’s already looking pretty amazing.

Let’s deal with that elephant in the room straight away, shall we? The giant sparkly one labelled Skyrim? It’s inevitable that there will be some shared elements between the two games – lead designer Ken Rolston worked on the two earlier Elder Scrolls titles, and author R.A. Salvatore has a history of serious fantasy works.

But beyond the simple comparisons, the two games take a very different approach to the concept. This is obvious right from the start, with Reckoning offering a slimmed down, stream-lined character creation screen. You can still tweak your character to be just the way you want it – but it’s less daunting and helps you get right to the action straight away.

The action… oh, the action. Reckoning is designed with a specific focus on combat – and that’s exactly what your first section of gameplay will focus on. Pick your own combination of weaponry and magic, and unlock new options as you progress through the game.

Like earlier games such as Fable and The Witcher 2, Reckoning sometimes forces you to think about your combat strategies. Sure, jumping around, hacking, slashing and downing health potions is one tactic – but you may be better off stepping back and reconsidering your approach when you realise that one doesn’t work.

While you’re reconsidering things, perhaps you might like to think twice before attacking that town guard. Sure, he might look like the only one in the city, but he’s got friends. Killing him will incur their wrath, and you’ll be forced to dispatch a multitude of tough military types who seem to appear from all corners. Of course, if you want that, then go for it!

[img_big]center,52,2011-11-09/reckoning_combat4.jpg,Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning[/img_big]

Incidentally, it’s lovely to note that this is an intelligent game. Not only has Big Huge Games given you the opportunity to play with either a keyboard/mouse or an Xbox 360 gamepad on PC – but it’s also clever enough to know which one you’re using at the time, even if you switch mid-game.

While you might not have played a PC game with a controller before, this one is potentially worth making the jump. Do you really want to use your mouse wheel to scroll to your secondary weapon when you could just hit Y instead?

The AI is really quite clever too, working as a team rather than a bunch of individuals – and this team is able to work out if you’re trying to run away. They also know each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and can work together to take you down – so don’t focus too much on that large spider, his smaller comrade’s the one with the bite.

[img_big]center,52,2011-10-03/reckoning_-_1.jpg,Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning[/img_big]

You’ll also be prompted to think about your destiny in Amalur. Rather than the traditional class system – or any RPG standard which has you choose your direction before getting to know the character – Big Huge Games has taken a different approach. You start the game with a blank page, and effectively play through samples of a variety of different destinies, each one with its own play style. As you play and your character grows and levels up, you’re able to combine multiple destinies, creating a class hybrid all of your own. That said, if you make the wrong decision early on, there’s an option through the pause menu to revise things – and, literally, change your destiny.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is visually impressive, too. Todd McFarlane’s comic book pedigree (hello, Spawn) shines through in a stunning, stylised art style. At this stage, there’s a few graphical issues – clipping and pop-in mainly – but even they don’t really detract from the lush lands of Amalur and the crazy comic book aesthetics of the characters.

Hopefully by the time this one launches, those last few bugs will be ironed out and the world will get a better glimpse of what goes on inside the head of a pro-baseballer once he leaves the League.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in February 2012.

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