Just as there are supergroups like The Traveling Wilburys, Cream, Black Country Communion and Them Crooked Vultures, occasionally gaming gets its own version. Backed up by EA, 38 Studios' Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning already has three big names attached to it. The first is 23-time best-selling fantasy author R.A. Salvatore, a man so steeped in the world of Amalur that when asked for initial assistance he went and presented the developers with 10,000 years of history and lore.
The second big name on the roster is Todd McFarlane, the man most closely associated with Spawn. As Mark Nelson, 38's creative director tells it, McFarlane has been very hands on indeed, particularly with regard to animation and visual design. Finally, we come to the name gamers might be particularly interested in: Ken Rolston. As lead designer on Morrowind and Oblivion, he's helped to creatively oversee two of the finest RPGs ever made. Now he's applying that experience to Reckoning for 38.
The heavily stylised, vividly drawn world, met with the action-heavy gameplay seems, at first, to be more reminiscent of Lionhead rather than Bethesda. Nelson explains that the game's engine has been built from the ground up specifically for the purpose of an open world RPG; initial development on the series veering towards MMO-territory, the game was switched to being a singleplayer game when Rolston leapt onboard.
The presentations began by showing us the opening couple of scenes from the game. Reckoning begins with the player choosing a male or female character from one of four races. Each of them will purportedly have their own differing strengths and weaknesses, along with offering different story elements. Fittingly, coming from a team staffed with several ex-Bethesda members, there's no class choice at the start, with one's path determined by the game's upgrades system and skill trees, falling into three main categories: Might, Finesse and Sorcery. Nelson noted that traditionally, RPGs have tended to nerf players who attempt to diversify, but he insists that the creation of amalgamations - mages who can mix things up a bit in battle, warriors who can dabble in magical arts - won't result in underwhelming cross-class characters, though they'll never be as out and out powerful in one department as a more single-minded hero.
'As you invest points into the various skill trees you unlock new destinies,' said Nelson. 'If you start investing points into Sorcery, you unlock Apprentice Mage and then Wizard and Archmage if you're just plugging the one line. If you invest into Might as well, you unlock Battlemage and Spellsword. There are many different combinations to be created here, the choice is really up to the player. [...] Uninformed choices are not as much fun.'
The story unfolded with the player waking up on a pile of corpses, left for dead by a couple of cartoonish gnomes hoping you'll be the first successful guinea pig in their resurrection experiments. It begs the question, asserts Nelson, 'why'?
'It sparks of all of these questions,' said Nelson.'Who am I? How did I die? How did I come back? We thought it was important to start with a personal story. It's hard to invest in a world when you haven't spent very much time in it.'
There was a brief look at the 'Well of Souls', the mechanic by which you've been brought back from the dead, and an explanation of some of the lore behind it. Everyone else who's come through the Well has come back a monster...except you. It turns out that everyone in Amalur has a predestined fate...except you. It's a freeing contrivance and it immediately sets up the game's focus on delivering choices - at least in terms of player growth into your hands.
Then Nelson got stuck into the game itself and what we saw looked promising. Very promising indeed.
The game looks pretty stunning already, even in a pre-alpha build. Every locale we were treated to looked vibrant, colourful and interesting, with dynamic lighting and a day/night cycle to make things more interesting. From dingy dungeons to fabulous forests, there was a significant amount of detail. It is here that perhaps the Fable connection really struck home - Albion has arguably always been the greatest attraction of Molyneux's fantasy epics, precisely because the game world is so vividly realised. It is lofty comparison, but a fitting one. There is a real sense of craft about the whole venture.
The same extends to the soundtrack, which is being overseen by Grant Kirkhope, Rare's go-to guy once upon a time. The sweeping, incessant orchestral scores of games in the past has instead been replaced here with one that plays host to a number of gaps. For a fair amount of the time, everything will be rather still, with recognisable motifs emerging during specific encounters or when you step into particular areas.
But it's the combat that got the most attention, and with good reason. It kicked off with a fairly blunt statement from Nelson: 'Combat in RPGs, moment to moment, just isn't much fun. So we wanted to implement a system that allowed for things you'd normally find in action games - launches, juggles and evades.' He's not kidding either, the combat looked far more akin to the gameplay you'd associate with Bayonetta or God of War.
Things start out fairly simple, with one-button combat the order of the day. But it's not long before the addition of a shield allows for enemy attacks to be blocked and parried, the latter opening up enemies to counter-attacks, but requiring timing. Amusingly, the mage parry sets people on fire. There's an evade move thrown in there as well - the mage character we were shown teleporting short distances rather than using the roll associated with the brawler we were also shown - that will no doubt allow for the odd backstab as well as neat defence. It's not long before multiple weapons get mapped to the face buttons and awesome combos start unfolding before us involving, as Nelson marked earlier, launches, juggles and smash attacks.
The absence of predetermined classes means that magic-oriented characters can mix it up in battle too. 'Look at Gandalf,' says Nelson. 'Gandalf was a melee mage!' We got to see some of the ranged magical attacks that you'd normally associate with the mage class - including Meteor, one of the most powerful moves in the game, which allowed for targeted torrents of fire and brimstone - but Nelson's mage also leapt fearlessly into the fray, the standard mage accessory now swung vigorously about like a quarterstaff. At the touch of a button, though, the mage was requipped with a couple of ring blades that could be swung about manually and flung around the area like boomerangs. It felt a bit wrong at first, but then as the mage swept the ring blades in several circles about him, feeling foes with each circuit, it suddenly felt very right.
There's plenty of loot to be had, as well, thousands of combinations of items, weapons and sparkling ephemera to be scavenged thanks to the game having a loot system 'similar to the one found in Diablo'. There are crafting mechanics at work too, with towns offering the player ways to augment and power up their weapons through upgrade gems, one of the demonstrations turning a previously unassuming longsword blade into a fiery tongue of burning death.
In sheer gameplay terms, we're very excited about Reckoning. Seemingly pulling in all of the best bits from Dragon Age, The Elder Scrolls and Fable in terms of looks, feel, combat and specialisation, the only thing that remains to be seen is what's going to tip the scales further to ensure this isn't just a comparison piece. Reckoning needs to have a personality all of its own and, with few story details emerging at the moment, going toe-to-toe with the best in the business, it seems to be far more of a homage to others than one forging its own identity.
That said, one of my favourite games of the last year or so, Singularity, was a game that read like an FPS Best Of, so it's a formula that can work. In spite of my own well-document predilection for a good story, the RPGs we've seen emerging in the last twelve months have been short on fun. Dragon Age II and Final Fantasy XIII both served up games that were astonishingly poor when it came to actual gameplay. 38 Studios might be talking big, but it's that ambition, the identification of issues of late with the genre, that's got us excited. To be honest, they had us at 'no auto-levelling', we honestly can't wait to hear more.