Yesterday I played the XBox 360 demo for Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning. And, whilst there are still plenty of ways in which the full game could fail to deliver, based on the demo, I'm inclined to believe this could well be the next big thing to hit the world of fantasy RPGs.
Let me put that in context. Ever since Dragon Age: Origins (which I loved) and Dragon Age 2 (arguably the most disappointing game of 2011), I've been eagerly devouring fantasy-themed RPGs in the hope of finding a game that could recreate the kind of immersive, fun-filled experience I first enjoyed as I wandered the vast expanse of Ferelden as a Grey Warden.
Nothing came close. I've tinkered with the likes of Dungeon Siege 3 (not a stellar solo experience but reasonably good fun in co-op), dabbled in numerous Japanese styled hack-and-slash epics, and dipped my toes into the horribly uninspired waters of lacklustre efforts like Venetica and D&D: Daggerdale.
Towards the end of last year, the RPG community fell in love with Skyrim. Sadly, I didn't. Sure, it looked stunning but, when I've played a game for several hours and I'm still having a harder time battling the game's controls than I am battling the game's monsters, I find the word "tiresome" comes to mind far more readily than "immersive".
I stumbled upon the Kingdom of Amalur demo by chance and, to be honest, I wasn't expecting much. It labours under a typically cumbersome title, takes place in a setting already far too familiar to devotees of Tolkien or the Brothers Grimm, is populated by a number of races with generically unpronounceable names (the Ljosalfar?) and is being marketed primarily on the reputations of those behind it, rather than the game's own merits.
Am I likely to buy a game just because it can boast contributions from Todd Mcfarlane (creator of the demonic comic book hero Spawn), R A Salvatore (fantasy writer) or Ken Rolston (games designer on two Elder Scrolls games)? Nope. The aimless wandering of Morrowind and Oblivion make those two of my least favourite RPGs of all time and, as for Mcfarlane and Salvatore ... well, we all know that success in one medium is no guarantee of quality in any other. So what won me over?
The first thing that struck me about the demo is its look. The world may be made up of fairly staple components (expect winding tunnels, gloomy dungeons and quaint mediaeval villages), but the colour is extraordinary. There is a hint of this in the opening section (an underground system of tunnels peopled by gnomes and infested with - yes, you guessed it! - giant rats and spiders) but, unlike so many other games of its type, the pillars that support this subterranean network glow bright green. Not spectacular, but a small hint of what lies ahead.
Make it through those tunnels and step out into the sunlight and the colours of the world that awaits are vibrant - think Fable 2 with the colour settings on your TV turned up to 11! Reds, yellows, greens, purples and blues are there in abundance - each one incredibly bright, radiating an inner warmth. This is a million miles removed from the pin-sharp but relentlessly bleak beauty of Skyrim's graphics. After only a few minutes in Amalur's countryside, the greyish shades of blue, the greyish shades of green and - let's be frank - the greyish shades of grey that characterise Skyrim's undeniably detailed landscapes start to seem just a little too ... monochromatic!
The demo gives the player a chance to complete a number of minor quests but the focus in something of this length is inevitably on combat. Two features struck me here. The first is the character's ability to block attacks with a shield. As a player, this is a function I rarely use in games. Blocks are typically too easily overcome and, if attacked by more than one enemy, they tend to be pointless, since they do nothing to protect the character from attack by flanking enemies. Not so in Kingdom of Amalur. Raise your shield to block one attack and, if you keep it raised, your character will automatically turn to face whichever direction subsequent attacks are coming from - again and again and again. Finally - a blocking move that actually does what it says on the tin!
The other feature I liked was the ease with which the player could use a bow. Just as I very seldom use a block function in combat games, I almost always use bows when I get the chance. In Kingdom of Amalur, your bow automatically locks onto a target. This, of course, is by no means an innovation (many games do this and have done for years), but it's in marked contrast to the manual aiming required in Skyrim. I can understand the argument that having to aim manually is more "realistic" but, let's face it, these are meant to be story-driven games, not hardcore archery simulations. I found Skyrim's system made it a matter of luck as to whether you could actually hit anything with a bow (or even impossible in the case of moving targets) and, eventually, I gave in to my frustration and stopped using the bow all together. Now, with Kingdom of Amalur, I can look forward to picking up my quiver again!
In a short demo, like this, it's impossible to get a feel for the bigger story that will eventually unfold in Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning although, predictably, it does include such fantasy staples such as a hero with no memory, a looming war and the growing presence of orc-like bad guys (the "Tuatha"). A nice touch, however, is the inclusion of mythical creatures drawn from ancient Celtic lore, rather than exclusively from the more usual Germanic/Nordic sources. Alongside familiar monsters such as trolls and a number of game-specific creatures are references to, for example, the "fae" and "boggarts". Ultimately, this may amount to little more than a change of nomenclature but, combined with the gloriously colourful surroundings, I found Amalur reminiscent not so much of a world created by Todd McFarlane, as one created by Neil Gaiman.
Of course, a pretty world and an efficient combat system are not enough to make a game worth buying. The success of the game will ultimately depend on whether the story and characterisation are strong enough to draw players in and make them feel invested in the fate of the character they control. We won't know whether that's the case until the full game is released in February but, on the strength of the demo, it appears that Kingdom of Amalur will, at least be a fun game to play, with easy to use controls.
My initial reservations have already proved completely unfounded and, contrary to my expectations, I'm now looking forward to this game immensely. I know this will be blasphemy for the many millions of Skyrim players but, in the couple of hours I spent playing the demo, I had more fun than I did in days of wrestling with Bethesda's behemoth. Go try the demo now!