Sitting down with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, one of several RPG titles coming from EA in the coming months, is a unique experience in several ways.
Playing as a mash-up of recent hack-and-slash action titles and classic RPGs, Reckoning places you in the boots of a customisable hero who has become the first person in history to be resurrected from death. The story follows you as you try to piece together your former identity and escape those with sinister interests, all the while piecing together a new set of abilities in what designer Ken Rolston has called the Destiny System.
Sitting down with Rolston for a fifteen minute chat about Reckoning is an even more astounding experience than playing the game itself, if only because the man is so unique in everything he does. Having designed legendary titles Morrowind and Oblivion, the star power attached to his name is undeniable, but the pumped-up style of gameplay promoted by Reckoning is a world away from that of the slower-paced Elder Scrolls titles (“which you better have heard of”, he notes, with only the slightest trace of irony).
Not that the fame of these games has gone to his head, as he introduces himself as an “internationally celebrated game designer” and our “humble servant” – and that’s before he starts talking about Amalur. “I am now the visionary – notice, the visionary as opposed to the guy who does honest work – the visionary for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning”, a game, he notes, “that has way too much fun with the combat and yet all the other things that you wanted…narrative, exploration, combat and advancement!”
That combat was mentioned twice is either a sign of Rolston’s gentle decline into mental insanity or an intentional slip of the tongue designed to indicate just how important the fighting engine is to the gameplay; or rather, how important it is in the context of an open-world RPG:
I kept saying, “Wow, I bet we could go play an action game and see how fun that game would be”, but I hate action games, always did. It’s not because they’re not fun per unit time – I mean you’re doing stuff and getting excited – but…very often you’re just trying to figure: “What does the designer expect me to do here? Do I hit him with a hat rack or the oil-based paint can or I don’t know…You always feel like you’re trying to figure out what the designer’s doing".
Rolston’s visionary design for the game couldn’t be achieved single-handedly. He may have had the concept of a new form of RPG but he was adamant that he could not go the distance alone, bringing in New York Times bestselling writer R. A. Salvatore to create 10,000 years of backstory – “which, by the way, I don’t have to do now” – and comic artist/Spawn creator Todd MacFarlane to assist with the art direction (in case “he would know something about animation and the theatre of combat”).
Of all the systems created for Amalur, the Destiny system is the title’s crowning jewel. Tying into the game’s “clean slate character” storyline, the Destiny system discards with the common convention of picking one fixed class in an RPG in favour of a system allowing for total cross-class customisation as players level up during the game.
We’ve broken them up into little bits and also we’ve removed some of the interconnections that make them so brittle,” says Rolston. “The reason that that’s great is that of course you don’t have to commit yourself to a character, a direction. We expect, for example, there will be some of you who are hardcore; you like to play a fighter because it’s simple: bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-repeat! And by the way that’s great…but in this case you’ll be doing this and then you’ll find out that a magic user, when he pushes the dodge button, he teleports behind his enemy, and there’s that special moment of a sense of betrayal: “I can’t do this as a fighter?” And then it weakens you, it weakens you, you’re seduced to the dark side!
The advantage of breaking up classes into multiple destinies is that some of the really cool stuff you would normally find yourself replaying the entire game to find may well present themselves later in your current playthrough instead. As Rolston dictates: “Role-playing games tend to exhaust all their real cool novelty and deliciousness early on in the game: I’m maybe done after 5th, 6th, 7th level, and the idea of going to the 45th level of an MMO, I just don’t care: there’s not that much novelty.” He then cracks a huge smile: “We have got cool stuff that you have to wait a long time…but on the other hand you get your money’s worth if you keep playing: you can drop comets on guys and it doesn’t suck! Yeah, the meteor strike…it’s an assload of fun.”
Rolston has that childlike joy about him, despite being a long-term industry vet, in that he understands what’s cool in a game and what isn’t. He’s done table-top games, he’s dedicated himself to working on slower-paced traditional RPGs, and now that he’s taken a few years out to take a rest – before recalling that “it’s been so much fun and I like the people that I work with, so why would I wanna stop?” – he’s hungering for an adrenalin shot and a punch to the gut.
“Having been there and done that and walked through that process…I don’t want to make another thing like the thing I’ve done before,” he says. “But I’ll admit that the moment of truth was when I could actually play it and it didn’t suck because I was bluffing up until that point. There were moments where I was saying, “Oh, I’m writing cheques that I cannot cash. And then I guess some of you who have played it, you can tell…it’s just cheap, cheesy fun.”
Ultimately, Rolston just wants the game finished and in the hands of people ready to take the leap from shallower action titles into something deeper. He has a lot of faith in the storyline and in the Destiny system, but ultimately looks forward to tossing and turning people about their journey through the world of Amalur. “It is my job to refuse to reveal anything to you, so that you should suffer.” So your character’s a clean slate, we ask? “That’s what you think, and that’s what I tell you, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a treacherous lying sack of s**t!”
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is out on February 10th in Europe on PS3, PC and Xbox 360.