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Dabbling with Destiny

I’ve often been asked if I could imagine DestinyQuest as a computer game; after all, video games were the main inspiration for my gamebook series. I usually answer with a most affirmative nod and then proceed to reel off a shopping list of all the ‘cool things’ I’d love to see amalgamated into a game franchise – visceral combat, tons of loot, flexible character-building, epic dungeon crawls, a free-roaming world… Yes, I could see that game. I’ve been playing it in my head for years. And, of course, writing about it in my DestinyQuest novels. Then I stumbled on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Not a title that would immediately get the pulse racing I’ll agree, but when I started delving a little deeper I discovered that this was something special – a game that sounded very close to my vision of that perfect computer game.

The initial signs were good. You see, this is a game made by an Extraordinary League of Geeks. Heading up 38 Studios is Curt Schilling, a professional baseball player with an infectious passion for gaming, in particular EverQuest and World of Warcraft. Now, there’s a man after me own heart. We’ve also got R.A Salvatore on writing duties. For those who might be unfamiliar with the name, he is a multiple New York Times bestselling author, best known for his books set in the D&D Forgotten Realms universe. He gave us the cool dark elf Drizzt Do’Urdan, held by many to be the definitive pin-up-poster anti-hero. (If you’re shaking your head in bewilderment, fear not – it means you’re cooler than I am and had better things to do in the eighties.) Last, but by no means least, we have Todd McFarlane (of Spawn fame) heading up the art department.

My copy was already pre-ordered when my editor, Marcus, dropped me a line to ask me if I’d write something for the Gollancz blog. I was currently up to my proverbials in my next DestinyQuest novel, so my initial response was a rather sorrowful bleating sound – you know, the type children make when they’ve been asked to do something they don’t want to do and believe, by twisting their face and making constipated noises, it will somehow get them out of it. Like any good parent, Marcus was having none of it. ‘It can be anything, a game review, a book review…’ At this point, my bleating had turned to an excited slobbering. ‘Did you say, game review?’ (All I could really think of was the giddy prospect of being able to play Reckoning and call it ‘work’. Then the girlfriend couldn’t possibly give me those withering looks for spending too much time on the computer. Oh yes, this was suddenly looking promising…). ‘Marcus, me old china, consider it done.’

I’ll get straight to the point, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning plays like a single-player MMO. For those unfamiliar with the term, an MMO is a Massive Multiplayer Online game. You essentially run around solving quests, hitting monsters and ignoring quest text – while hundreds of other players all run around doing the same thing, occasionally hitting you too.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ve played a lot of online games, in particular World of Warcraft. When I die, I don’t want to go to heaven, I want to become my Night Elf avatar and run a 40-man raid in Molten Core for the rest of eternity. (Sorry, if I lost you there, that’s probably a good thing.) Reckoning takes the feel and structure of these games, then gives it to you as a single player experience, in much the same way as DestinyQuest hands it to you in print format.

Reckoning, on the surface, wears its influences proudly. The art direction and the character models all have that Warcraft feel (bright and colourful, sunglasses optional). Its actually a pleasant surprise, particularly as recent offerings, such as Dark Souls and Skyrim, have opted for more realistic, muted palettes.

While you don’t quite have the ‘free roaming’ open world experience of a game like Skyrim, Reckoning’s zones are large and expansive (particularly some of the later ones, set in sprawling savannah and wind-seared canyons). You can restrict yourself to following the main storyline or take one of the many hundreds of side-quests, which encourage you to explore and delve deeper into your surroundings. While the voice-acting invariably leaves something to be desired (the Scottish and Irish accents in particular… boy, the mystery of the missing extras from Murder, She Wrote has now been solved), every character and quest in the game is well-written and interesting, encouraging you to take notice rather than hitting the ‘skip’ button.

It’s all familiar stuff. Perhaps a little too familiar. This is all so very Warcraft, I thought, as I handed in my umpteenth ‘find and collect’ quest. I was wondering where my ‘world chat’ button was, and why I wasn’t getting ganked by twelve year olds on Ritalin. But then, Reckoning gives you something that no traditional rpg has ever done before. Combat with attitude.

When writing DestinyQuest I’ve always imagined my combats as something you’d see in a console actioner, such as Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. I see opponents being flung through the air, blasted with pyrotechnic explosions of magic, while ridiculous over-sized weapons clash and spark, cutting a bright dance across the battlefield. Yes, think Agent Smith from The Matrix, kitted out for a weekend of live role play.

Reckoning comes very close to realising that vision. Its combat is fast, brutal and has a satisfying sense of weight. When your weapons hit home (or you find yourself on the receiving end of a troll’s hammer) you will feel it in all its eye-watering glory. The moves are simple enough for even a button-mashing granny to master, but with experience comes the ability to pull off stunning combination attacks, linking moves and swapping weapons mid-string to juggle your opponent (read: smash your opponent in the air and then blast them into next week with your trusty bow. You want fries with that?). Its stunning to watch and even better to play.

But Reckoning has another trump card up its sleeve, well actually quite a few – in the shape of its destiny and fate system. It was this system that first piqued my interest when I read about Amalur, as it is very similar to DestinyQuest. In DQ you don’t start your adventure by choosing a pre-defined path, such as warrior, rogue or mage. Instead you start as a blank slate. I encourage the player to complete quests and experiment with the game mechanics, before making any crucial decisions about their chosen path.

Reckoning has taken a similar approach. You see, your hero is special in that they have ‘no fate’ and therefore, unlike the other characters in the game world, they can change their destiny. You may start as the aforementioned ‘blank slate’, but once you ‘level up’ you can start putting points in one of three masteries (might, finesse and sorcery) to gain abilities and powers applicable to that path. The beauty of the system is that you can create hybrid characters by sharing your points across the different paths (fancy a hammer-wielding warrior that can cast earth-splitting spells? You got it. A fire-flinging wizard with a fetish for daggers? You got it.) Yes, it’s the MacDonald’s of character customisation and, should you end up going down a path you don’t like, you can always visit a fateweaver and redistribute your points. Naughty, but nice.

Destiny cards add an extra layer to this, allowing you to specialise in a career (berserker, brawler, arcanist etc.) and gain further bonuses. Sadly, these choices don’t confer anything more exciting than a few tweaks to your existing skills. I sense an opportunity missed here, as I like the idea of unlocking these tarot-style destiny cards. Hopefully, more can be done with these in the inevitable sequel – or the spin-off MMO that is rumoured to be coming next year.

Rather than repeat what a multitude of other reviewers have already said, I’ll conclude by saying, Reckoning is one of those rare games that just oozes passion and dedication. The team at Big Huge Games have pulled off a stunning achievement. Not only have they created an expansive and well-realised world (I’ve clocked 42 hours of playing time, and still only half way through the available zones…), but they’ve also laid solid foundations for an exciting franchise.

However, I will say this – if you’re coming to Reckoning looking for something unique and ground-breaking, then you may be sorely disappointed. Reckoning is very much a ‘game magpie’, cherry-picking the best elements of a number of popular games and throwing them all together. On the one hand it means the game is instantly accessible, but on the downside, veteran gamers may feel they’ve seen it all before. Like one of its many destiny cards, Reckoning is very much a Jack of All Trades, but when it comes to fast and frenetic combat, there’s no denying it is the undisputed master.

If you want to find out more about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, then visit the official site at http://reckoning.amalur.com/