It's not always the case that game developers are prepared to be upfront and honest about their work, particularly when it's under development.
Many may have raised a sceptical eye last year when Reckoning's Sean Bean offered the suggestion that the combat would be the "single biggest thing" players would take away from this new IP. But as it turns out, he was entirely correct.
That's not to say there aren't additional worthy aspects of Reckoning that beg further investigation. The story, penned by R.A. Salvatore of The DemonWars Saga fame, keeps pace ably with the voiceless protagonist, twisting a tale of corruption, invasion and the endless struggle of good versus evil in a land where not everything is as it seems. Which, when factoring in the use of initials in the author's name, pretty much covers everything necessary for a fantasy saga.
Where Reckoning tries to differentiate itself from conventional high fantasy in it its reliance upon fate – or rather the lack thereof – as a central plot device. Playing one of four character classes, each adventurer is reborn into a world where the fate of all is predetermined, and loosely communicated by mythical Fateweavers. These NPCs have the ability to see deep into the future and ascertain the outcome of all worldly decisions, but this balance is thrown into confusion when the player is resurrected completely bereft of any fate whatsoever.
Alone, with free will and the ability to shape the future by swinging a large weapon about in a decidedly reckless fashion, the vast majority of the game consists of the steady decimation of Amalur's evil minions. In order to achieve this with any level of efficiency, the player can choose from a number of character attributes in time-honoured RPG style, gradually building stronger abilities in whatever generic RPG class so desired. There's staffs, bows, swords, daggers and hammers, and the appropriate speciality skills for each. Lockpicking, blacksmithing, crafting, it's all here – socketed, rare, unique and set items, ditto. When viewed from above, everything has a remarkably similar feel about it.
In fact, it's often difficult to find any real originality anywhere. The colour palettes and world generation clearly owe a lot to World of Warcraft and many of the vertically challenged NPC's look like they're on sabbatical from Gnomeregan – perhaps unsurprising given baseballer-come-financier Curt Schilling's oft-reported obsession with Blizzard's epic. The non-linear story choices are inspired by Dragon Age and Mass Effect, although never really approximate the depth of either. The clumsy lockpicking and jurisprudence concepts are poor cousins to those found in Skyrim, and the mini-map quest waypoint system looks almost identical to the one found in Sacred II. As it wasn't particularly good in that game, this inclusion is somewhat baffling.
The kingdom of Amalur is certainly a pretty place to be however, with vibrant landscapes, bold colours and just enough flamboyant character detail to keep the proceedings firmly embedded in the fantasy genre. It's no grand technological accomplishment, more a steady attempt to provide content over flashy graphics. The score and accompanying sound effects provide tension at all the right moments, although some of the characters aren't quite sure if they're Irish or Scottish half the time, or, come to think of it, if their mouths are remotely in synch with their dialogue.
Despite a decidedly one-size-fits-all approach, Reckoning still manages to enthrall with its sheer depth. Quests come thick and fast, alternating between primary obligations and secondary tasks that can be completed at leisure according to geographical or factional constraints. Many adhere to a traditional FedEx framework, but there's enough diversification to keep interest piqued, and the player seems to always move forward in a fairly linear fashion through the vast and satisfyingly diverse landscape. The pace of content delivery is surprisingly well-managed considering the amount on offer, with gradual level-ups, weapon bonuses and magical enhancements all evenly distributed, and frequently requiring a good deal of thought before application.
With so much at hand, it would be easy for the combat to be overlooked as a mere sideshow to facilitate progression, but this is far from the case. Being as it is some kind of bizarre fusion of Ninja Gaiden, Bayonetta, Final Fantasy and World of Warcraft, confrontations are seldom without a level of pantomime that rarely fails to generate a grin. Choosing between a button-mashing combination of blocks, blows, rolls, magical attacks, ranged attacks and timed combinations allows the player to leap about the screen dispensing steel justice with scant consideration for personal safety. The action frequently manages to outstrip the ability of the camera position to keep pace, perhaps one of the few complaints able to be levelled at this aspect of the game.
Even large groups of mobs can be picked off in a number of ways, such as luring peripheral creatures in solo, or entering stealth mode to achieve the same goal. Failing that, and assuming sufficient health potions are available, a frontal onslaught can be attempted compliments of the Fate meter; a kind of accumulated rage system entitled "Reckoning Mode" that can be entered to slow down the passage of time and deal massive damage on surrounding foes. The repeated stab of a button at the right time will increase the percentage of experience gained, and the immense satisfaction upon performing swiftly calculated attack combinations to annihilate the enemy cannot be oversold; Reckoning not only allows players to assume the role of a hero, it goes a good way towards convincing them too.
Reckoning may have taken from numerous other games, but it certainly gifts back some fairly solid suggestions for how future RPG titles can liven up mob encounters. The only other fly in the otherwise clear ointment is the propensity for some mob groups to break player attack combinations mid-stride, and effectively over-block rendering some encounters difficult to bypass. But then, it'd hardly be a fun game if it were easy all the time.
Although there's no multiplayer content on offer whatsoever, the dozens of hours spent exploring Amalur will be more than enough for most. Even though characters can be built with many hybrid features from other classes and still retain a great deal of viability for almost all encounters, a Fateweaver can be paid to reset all attributes further adding longevity to existing builds. Even the difficulty level can be changed on-the-fly without needing to reset and start over.
Likewise, the fringe tasks tied into passive skills such as blacksmithing, mercantile trade and crafting make town visits an experience to look forward to. The crafting alone is pleasingly entertaining, allowing players to gather components from the environment or as loot from battles and combine them in a particular order to produce something greater than the sum of their parts.
Much will no doubt be made of the similarity between Reckoning and Skyrim, but both offer sufficiently different experiences to keep all RPG fans attentive. Those growing weary of Skyrim can certainly look to Reckoning to provide another world in which to become wholly absorbed, and although not professing quite the sophistication or polish of Bethesda's juggernaut, there's plenty here to cause Hallmark to run out of "I'm Sorry, Please Forgive Me" Valentines cards this year.