Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Review: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Demo

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (hereby shortened to KoAR because there's no way in hell that I'm typing it out in full every time) is an action-RPG with what on paper looks like a fantastic cast list: the lead designer of Morrowind and Oblivion; a best-selling fantasy novelist; and the creator of Spore are all on board, and it's developed by the same company who made Rise of Nations and Age of Empires: III. I have to admit, though, that I got all of that from Wikipedia scrounging because I only really took notice of the game after it was so highly praised by Penny Arcade. Like many people, this was the first I'd really heard of it, so my immediate reaction was to download the demo, expecting great things. After the usual Steam faffing about, I fired up Fraps and set up my good microphone, and got ready to produce a fantastic first impressions video.  

However, first I had to create an “EA Infinity Account”. Why, I have no idea, but it's not a good way to start your game. Especially when said account requires my date of birth. Especially when said account creation keeps failing because of an “unknown connection error”. Especially when I then have to un-check around 15 boxes to say “No, please do not sell my information to the Chinese”. AND ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU THEN CRASH THE GAME AND MAKE ME DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN. Sorry. Anyway, not a great start. 

The next joy was the opening cinematic, which, well... look, I don't want to say anything bad about R.A. Salvatore, partly because I know what his usual standard is like, and also because he used to work as a bouncer, but it really was weak. I know that he was hired to do “world-creation” rather than actual dialogue, but the cinematic doesn't make the world look that great either. From what I can gather, there were some Fay folk who turned evil and now everything's on fire. Oh, and the villain has a red glowing goatee and sits on a blood-red crystal throne while doing an evil laugh and occasionally muttering “Oh, yes”. I mean, really. Even the villains in WoW had more character. Maybe I'm being too harsh – at least the ending was interesting. It's not often that you start a game by being dead. Anyway, here's a copy of the cinematic so you can see for yourselves:
  I mentioned WoW in the previous paragraph and it's a comparison I think we'll see a lot of, mostly regarding the graphical style. It's certainly very similar, though considerably more polished. Some people have complained about it, but personally I think it works rather well. Having a brighter, more colourful palette is certainly appealing, and a welcome change from the greys and browns that are so popular at the moment. Skyrim was beautiful, yes, and striking, but after a while I found myself longing for some variety and a landscape that wasn't sparse, barren and mountainous. While I didn't have a chance to move too far out in the demo, there was certainly the indication that we'd have lots of varied zones, which was one of the best things about WoW's visual design.

Cartoony but pretty.

However, I wasn't immediately able to appreciate the eye-candy because the game decided that it would make more sense for me to stay in the dark and have a completely black screen. A quick Google search told me that the solution was to turn off post-processing – apparently this isn't an uncommon bug. The demo in general was buggy to the point of broken. Apart from the aforementioned black-screen issue, it would crash for any or no reason: on Alt-Tab; on opening a door; on starting a cinematic; on leaving a cinematic; on equipping a weapon... the list goes on and on. I mentioned earlier that I'd tried to make a video, but after a while I gave up, because there are only so many error screens that I can expect people to look at. Apparently many of these problems have been fixed in the full game, but it still feels awfully unprofessional to release a demo that's this broken. 

The fleas of a thousand camels.

Wow, 700 words and we've not even reached the gameplay. So, let's get on with it. You start off dead, or on a slab in any case, and while the gnomes escorting you to the incinerator laugh about your ridiculously undersized genitals you can determine your race and appearance. You have a choice of four races – two humans and two elves, all with unpronounceable names – which provide various bonuses, and the option to pick a patron deity, which grants you further buffs to mana or crit chance or similar. Interestingly there's also an option to pick no god at all, which gives you a 1% experience buff for your “self-reliance”. This is all well and good, and in keeping with long-established RPG tradition, but it carries with it the common problem of not knowing what the stats actually mean. Some are obvious (e.g. “Stealth”), but what the hell is “Sagecraft”? Do I need it? Even more commonplace stats such as “Alchemy” are confusing: presumably it makes my potions better, or something similar, but how important is that? Will I be making potions a lot, or relying on drops? All these are things you'll pick pretty fast as soon as you start the game, but asking you to know the answers before you start playing seems rather unfair. At least Skyrim told me what Enchanting actually did, even it it did neglect to mention that it was the single most important stat in the game. 

The character customisation is good if a little basic compared to Skyrim and its ilk, but to be honest I see that as an improvement. I'm not going to be looking at my character's face most of the time anyway, so I really don't care about getting the exact angle of his jawbone right. I will, however, be looking at his hair a lot (you have the option to turn off helm visibility, which is fantastic), and so KoAR gets full marks for providing a male hairstyle that isn't bald, ponytail/really long or a mohican. Anyway, once all the starting mucking about is done you're given a rusty sword and told to hack your way to freedom. 

The combat in KoAR has been heavily praised, and most of the time this praise is deserved. Melee swings feel meaty and connect well, and the way in which you can cleave enemies standing side by side simultaneously is a particularly nice touch. In the tutorial dungeon most of the combat involves frantically clicking the left mouse button, but once you start learning different moves for each of the many, many weapon types combat becomes much more fluid and skill-based. Personally I found staves to be particularly satisfying. However, there are still issues with the combat, and the most significant of these is aiming. Because the game is being released for consoles as well as for the PC the developers have decided to go for an auto-target system rather than a crosshair, and it's pretty terrible. It's bad enough in a melee situation where sometimes your character will opt to attack a passing butterfly rather than the thug with twin daggers standing behind it, but if you want to use a ranged weapon or a spell it's absolutely atrocious. While it's clear that you're supposed to be able to switch between targets by moving the mouse left or right, half the time it seems to pick one at random and removes your ability to switch unless you're actually walking towards the target. And given that enemies have actual line-of-sight aggro rather than some vague circular range (which is a good thing), the odds are that you're going have your gonads cut off before you have time to line up your power shot.
Claustrophobic combat

Spell casting, by and large, suffers the same problem. There were a number of occasions where I tried to open combat with a spell from a distance, but ended up frying a critter off-screen to the right or left and having to wait a minute before I could continue because casting at low levels completely empties your mana bar.

If you don't want to fight with sword, shield or spells, then you can also try stealth. The toggle-based system earns points for showing how visible you are to individual enemies, but then loses some by having stealth defined by a database entry rather than on line of sight or shadows (partly forgiveable; this is an RPG), and then loses even more by making your reward for successful stealth a canned animation, character incapacitating one-hit kill. There's also a rage-bar mechanic which basically enables you to occasionally kill a mob with a quick-time event to get extra experience. It's fun the first time, but then becomes irritating and ultimately feels rather pointless.
Killing an enemy with the QTE isn't as fun as it looks

There are a host of other minor annoyances: the fact that there's no keyboard shortcut for “Take All” from a looted body; your character can't jump, meaning that you get stuck on gravel; the ridiculous limitations on weapon switching – that last one probably merits expansion. You can define a primary and a secondary weapon (for example, a sword and a bow), and switch between them by scrolling the mouse-wheel, but if you want to change what those weapons are, you have to go through three different menu screens. There's no way of hotkeying weapons; no Skyrim style quick menu (well there is, but it's for consumables only). So if you want to take a melee weapon, a ranged weapon, and daggers for stealth kills, well, you can't. So much for hybrid classes. 

All of these gripes fade into insignificance, however, when compared to the monumental irritation that is the camera – or rather, the camera distance. By default it sits about an inch from the back of your character, and there's no way of changing it. On a 1248x1024 monitor, this means that about a third of the screen is taken up with the character's body, and while I did indeed appreciate his taut, pert rump for about a minute or so, the novelty faded and left me unable to see much of the world. This restraint of vision also means that you're extremely likely to be ambushed by mobs you just can't see. Fortunately it zooms out a bit during combat, or at least it's meant to. It worked for me about half the time, and even then I was still being hit in the back by enemies I couldn't see. For me this was the single biggest problem with the game. The FoV (if that term can be properly used for a 3rd-person game) was so tight, and the character so obscuring, that I felt almost claustrophobic. It made everything irritating; combat became a frustration, exploration awkward and situational awareness just disappeared. I don't know if I'm the only one to find this annoying; maybe if I had a massive monitor it wouldn't be such an issue, but for me it pretty much broke the game. 

Which is a shame, because the rest of the game is pretty nice. The characters are all excellently written and voice-acted and characterised, even if too much of it is done through cutscenes; after ten minutes or so in the starting village I felt that I had a pretty good grip on their fears and motivations, even if I hated half of them (especially that ranting woman by the entrance to the monastery: I could hear her from about half a mile a way and she would not shut up). It's not an open world game by any stretch; about half the map of the first zone was inaccessible because it was a mountain or a giant tree or something else copy-pasted from the Darnassus starting area (I know, I know, WoW wasn't original either); but it's certainly not a linear game, and you're free to wander off and find side quests and dungeons and all sorts of other entertainment. While the interface is a little ugly, the inclusion of the "Junk" feature is very nice indeed.

The talent system would take too much effort to explain here, but can be summarised by saying that in addition to the three normal trees of mage, thief and fighter you also have the option of choosing various “destinies” or archetypical roles which are unlocked based on your current talents and provide various boosts (for example, going heavily into magic with a side order of melee would give you a destiny that benefits both to different degrees. The point is that you can hybridise without being penalised for it, which I whole-heartedly approve of.
The first basic destinies.

In conclusion, KoAR is a game that does a lot of things well – story, combat, dialogue, exploration and questing – but which hides its light under a bushel of poor design decisions and minor irritations. I don't know if I'll be picking it up on release (7th February) or waiting for the inevitable sale. I want to like it, but there's just too much holding it back.

~Roxton.

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