In the past five years or so, as videogame markets have either stagnated or vanished entirely, a concerted effort has been made to mold two or more genres together in an attempt to win over both crowds. Too Human, for instance, strived hard but ultimately failed to meld the grind of Diablo with the hack and slash of Devil May Cry. The upcoming Mass Effect 3 is being pitched as half shooter, half RPG - to much concern, I might add.
But creeping ahead of the pack is Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the joint venture from Big Huge Games and 38 Studios, with the likes of Ken Rolston, Todd McFarlane and R.A. Salvatore involved, too. EA brought Reckoning along to GamesCom this week, and we finally put hands to pad on the latest build. And you know what; it's probably the closest we've come to a full-blown RPG with genre-defining combat.
"This is really hard to demo," laments Sean Dunn, the studio general manager at Big Huge Games as he fired up Reckoning. "There's literally hundreds of hours of content!" To demonstrate, Dunn loaded up the world map, a sprawling canvas covered in swathes of forest, desert, swamps and countless villages, towns, outposts and dungeons. Amalur has five distinct geographic regions and over 120 hand-crafted dungeons. It's big.
First, an introduction. The world of Amalur was once a relatively peaceful place; humans and elves lived in coexistence with the immortal Fey, until the latter suddenly declared war on all mortal life. A great battle ensued, and much was lost. You, the player, wake up in a mound of rotting corpses, the first successful product of the Well of Souls, a device built to resurrect the dead. Manned by a bunch of affable gnomes who whisk you away to safety at their own peril, you embark on an epic journey to discover who you are and why the Well of Souls has only worked once, on you.
A stock fantasy set-up, but thanks to some strong writing and characterization, not to mention the brilliantly vivid world of Amalur, it's compelling stuff; a far cry from bleaker affairs such as The Witcher and Skyrim. But where Reckoning distances itself from its peers is with its class system, or Destinies as Big Huge Games has opted to call them.
You see, unlike other RPGs where you pick a class, be it a swordsman or magic-dealer, and spend the rest of the game charting that particular path, Reckoning allows you to hop from Destiny to Destiny throughout the entire game. Not enjoying the Ranger? Well check out the Wayfarer, then. Or the Assassin.
It's eye-opening stuff, and hopefully will ensure Reckoning doesn't suffer the mid-game slump most RPGs encounter. You have over 60 abilities to upgrade, and can also explores activities such as the Blacksmith or Sagecraft. A robust loot system provides a number of dynamic pick-ups, not to mention a few hand-crafted items, as well; and the alchemy features allow you to craft potions and poisons from Amalur's diverse flora and fauna.
"We believe we have the best combat system in any RPG," Dunn boldly proclaimed as our beefed-up hero encountered a pack of White Palm Assassins. Sporting dual enchanted daggers ablaze with acid-green fire, our hero - an Assassin - leaped into the fray, reeling off combos, dodges and devastating finishers.
It's impressive stuff. It looks meaty, engaging and, above all, fun. The animation is sublime, and the AI generally presents a solid challenge, surrounding you in considerable numbers. But this was only a small portion of what Reckoning has to offer. With a multitude of classes, powers and weapons, it's just the tip of a very tall, very fun-looking iceberg.
When the demo was over - Dunn having successfully tracked down a troublesome gnome and handed him his miniature ass on a platter - we all shifted nervously in our seats, expecting to be shuttled out to make way for the next wave of gawkers. "Now it's time for you to try it," Dunn exclaimed, gesturing to two PCs tucked away in the corner, their monitors displaying two separate heroes idling on-screen.
"Who would you like to play; the Warrior, or the Mage?" Dunn asked me. Considering Big Huge Games has been keen to stress just how much fun their take on the Mage is, I had to plump for their spell-caster. But if you're expecting a wizened old gentleman with a beard and robe, think again. Reckoning's Mages are badass warriors in their own right, sporting an enchanted staff and chakrams, mapped to Y and X respectively.
Dunn had made a bold declaration earlier, that Reckoning has the best combat in an RPG to date, so I was more than a little curious to test the merits of such a claim. At first, Reckoning feels a little, well, simple. You have a light attack - the chakrams - and a heavy attack - the staff. You can mix the two, or cast a variety of spells, mapped to the face-buttons when the right-trigger is held down.
However, like all good hack and slashers, Reckoning has depth. For instance, you can chain the staff and chakrams together, forming organic, on-the-fly combos. Furthermore, if you tap X or Y repeatedly, you'll perform a particular attack; slow it down and allow the animation to cycle, and you'll deliver another.
It truly is an excellent system, and despite the short amount of hands-on time afforded by EA, I'm very nearly convinced. Reckoning's combat is deceptively complex, but accessible enough so as not to ward off newcomers. Oh, and Mages wielding chakrams is such an awesome idea it's a wonder it's taken so long for someone to pull it off.
For me, walking out of the Reckoning preview, I was struck with a distinct thought; Peter Molyneux would love this. Indeed, Reckoning feels like the game Fable always sought to be. It has an epic, involving fantasy world; a great cast of characters and monsters; and perhaps the finest combat yet seen in a Western RPG. You know what; it might just have been my game of the show.