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Review: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Game: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
Recommended price: Debatable ($5)
Metacritic Score: 81
Completion Time: ~45 hours
Buy If You Like: Single-player MMOs, Action RPGs

Graphics aren't half bad.

Graphics aren’t half bad.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (hereafter Reckoning) is a 3rd-person, over-the-shoulder action RPG that comes the closest I have ever seen to any game perfectly emulating an MMO experience. After being resurrected and freed from the constraints of a setting bound by Fate, you set out into the world to stop the various forces that want to make your death stick this time. Along the way, you will kill many enemies, destroy a lot of boxes, explore many caves, and complete quests until you get so utterly sick of them that you swear you will never accept another quest in any game, ever. Then you will complete some more.

As mentioned, Reckoning is for all intents and purposes a single-player MMO. About the only thing missing is the ability to zoom out the camera (an issue that becomes rather annoying after a while) and the ability to jump. Other than those two, you will doing a lot of the same things in exactly the same ways. Each new town will have a half dozen or more NPCs offering quests, there is a quest-tracker of sorts, monsters can randomly drop rare/epic/legendary loot. As you level up, you can put skill points into three different skill trees that correspond with Fighter, Mage, and Thief. Depending on how many points you slot into each tree, you can choose certain Fate cards that are basically “classes” which give you certain passive bonuses. While the bonuses are generally worth specialization, it’s also entirely possible to cherry-pick some of the better abilities in the early trees.

In terms of general gameplay, I would say Reckoning is alright. Your main attacks are bound to left-click and right-click, with some of them requiring aim via the mouse. There is some element of timing to your attacks rather than just spamming the buttons, although it’s possible to do that too. Part of the game schtick is “Reckoning Mode,” which is really a re-skinned Limit Break from FF7 – kill enemies until the Reckoning meter fills up, then unleash a ludicrously powerful attack. And by ludicrously powerful, I mean forcing all enemies into slow-mo, killing normal mobs in two hits, and otherwise cheesing 100% of every boss fight in the entire game. Oh, and did I mention that your final attack against whatever target will trigger a Quick Time Event that lets you spam a button to get increased XP for all the dudes you just murdered? Yeah.

That's right, he's going to be impaled on that spike.

That’s right, he’s going to be impaled on that spike.

Beyond what I have already talked about, there were two main issues I had with the game. The first is a nitpick of sorts, and an unfortunate one at that. Basically this game came out three months after Skyrim. There is nothing at all this game does better than Skyrim and a whole lot that it does worse. Is it a fair comparison? Nope. But having played Skyrim first, you just can’t help but feel every little thing they have in common – such as picking herbs out in the world, questing, exploring, etc – is simply worse-Skyrim. If you are sensitive to that sort of thing, playing Reckoning will be an issue.

The second thing is that Crafting is broken. Like most of these sort of games, Reckoning allows you to put points into Blacksmithing and whatnot to craft your own gear. And like many games in which you can do this, the designers – either on purpose or accident – allow you to very easily craft gear so far beyond the scope of any possible random drop that loot itself loses all meaning. I understand that there is always a tension of sorts between crafted loot and random drops, in that if random drops are better, then the crafting system becomes a bit useless in comparison. But, seriously, come on:

The crafted weapons are just as ridiculous.

The crafted weapons are just as ridiculous.

Just so we have it in text form, my equipped gear was 82 Armor, +12% crit damage, and +3% crit chance. Meanwhile, my crafted gear is 122 Armor, +12% crit damage, +28% Health, +17% Damage Resistance, +10% Physical Resistance, and +15% Damage. I don’t even remember at which level I crafted that piece of armor, but I basically never equipped anything else until the end of the game. Which meant 100% of the armor drops I received from then until the end were vendor trash. Which meant my motivation for actually completing these quests and/or acquiring more gold dropped to zero.

Overall, it is sort of hard to recommend Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. The game isn’t terrible, even if it cannot really stand up to its peers. If you enjoy the combat and the questing, there is a ton of content that will keep you busy far beyond the ~47 hours it took me to beat it. In fact, that is sort of what happened with me: I was on a mission to complete ever single quest I came across, up until I got burned out and just did all the storyline quests until the end. Then there is the sort of mystique that comes from playing the game from the imploded studio and getting a feeling for what the Amalur MMO might have looked like.

But if you are strictly interested in compelling games to play, well, I might recommend taking even that $5 somewhere else. Reckoning is probably worth $5 in a vacuum, but that same $5 can buy so much more these days.

The Stealth Dilemma

As I mentioned last week, I have started playing Kingdoms of Amalur. At one point during the tutorial, the game showcased the ability to perform stealth kills.

Surprisingly brutal.

Surprisingly brutal.

So, now I have a dilemma. Do I actually trust the designers to have gone all the way?

Stealth is always a risky game design concept. By its very nature, stealth avoids traditional combat; yet unless a game is stealth-centric – such as Tenchu, Metal Gear Solid, etc – it must feature traditional combat robust enough to satisfy a more action-oriented playstyle. The more robust the traditional combat is though, the more powerful stealth itself becomes. Indeed, as players become stronger and enemies increase in deadliness, stealth can pass a certain threshold of absurdness that makes any other strategy seem poor in comparison.

Few mixed-gameplay games handle stealth well, and even fewer take stealth “all the way.” When I started up Dragon Age: Origins for the first time, I chose to make a dwarf rogue. My thought process at the time was that I always wanted access to lockpicking and trap detection, but the thought of those sneak attack criticals also appealed to the tactical gamer in me.

As it turns out, playing a rogue in DA:O was a pain in the ass. While you can scout out rooms and such, the nature of these sort of games (and most games, actually) is that ambushes are controlled by invisible programming triggers, such as “enter this room.” Sometimes this let me pull some counter-ambush maneuvers, such as flooding a room I knew to be occupied by hidden enemies with fireballs and poison gas. Other times, my rogue was made visible automatically by mini-boss or cut-scene decree. While I could still occasionally score sneak attacks in combat, doing so basically removed my main character from the battle until she could slowly move into position while the rest of the party got battered.

There are only two games in recent memory that I feel handled stealth well. The first is Dishonored. While it is true that the game is stealth-centric and thus shouldn’t really “count,” I was nevertheless impressed by the designers’ gumption to take the stealth mechanics all the way, i.e. even usable on the last boss. Unfortunately, killing the final boss with a single shot also felt horribly dumb, all things considered; it should not have been easier taking out the last boss than the very first enemy you encountered. The opposite wherein bosses are immune to stealth isn’t much fun either, as Deus Ex: Human Revolution demonstrated.

The second game that I felt supported stealth all the way was Skyrim. While I am not entirely sure if you could actually stealth around the last boss (such as it is), there was a talent at the end of the Sneak tree that allowed you to temporarily cloak long enough to activate your heightened Sneak Attack critical multipliers for an attack or two. Like with Dishonored, it felt sort of cheesy, but I had been two-shotting sleeping dragons with my bow for hours beforehand, so I already knew the absurd stealth line had been crossed.

Now that I think about it, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas also supported stealth gameplay all the way. Indeed, sometimes I feel like my playthroughs would have been 20-30 hours shorter, had I not been crouch-crawling through most of the game.

And so now I am left with the Amalur decision. As I level, shall I invest in stealth-based skills and abilities in the hopes they won’t be made irrelevant by boss battles and dungeon design? Or should I ignore the fig-leaf stealth design and instead focus on more mundane, useful abilities that I can actually utilize against 100% of the enemies I face, including the final boss? Or perhaps I should trust in my moment-to-moment stealth gameplay joys, having what fun I can in whatever percentage of the game allows me to stealth through?

It remains a dilemma either way. Many people celebrate having these sort of choices in their videogames, but choice requires trust in designers that one’s choices will actually be meaningful, and most importantly: balanced. When it comes stealth, as fun as it is, sometimes it is not worth letting the player have his or her way.

I Think I’ll Pass, Curt

A few days ago, I realized I had a GameFly icon on my desktop and couldn’t remember why. As it turns out, I had bought Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning at some point, undoubtedly during a sale of some sort. After installing the game, I was presented with the following screen:

I wonder if it all gets forwarded to Rhode Island?

I wonder if it all gets forwarded to Rhode Island…

I declined, of course.

Out of curiosity though, I checked to see what exactly would be going on with the website:

Strangest cyber-squatter ever?

Strangest cyber-squatter ever?

Uh… huh.

In any case, now that I have Amalur downloaded and synced to my (sigh…) Origin account, I think I’ll go ahead and give it a spin. It kind of boggles my mind though, that Amalur still has a MSRP of $30 on Steam – nevermind how it was $60 last year, months after the bankruptcy. I know creditors need to be paid and all that (or maybe not), but those banking goons should have taken a page out of the THQ handbook when they did their massive sale blitzkrieg on Saints Row the Third and other games. I did end up getting Amalur on a $5-$10 sale, but they could have gotten my money a lot sooner than they did.

Shooting the Moon

As you may have heard, the companies behind Kingdoms of Amalur and the followup MMO are basically out of business. While I am sensitive to the dangers of schadenfreude, and loath to quote the same guy twice in three days, there was something about Keen’s final good-luck paragraph that struck me oddly:

[…] Following games closely and being so excited for something, just to have it shut down at a moment’s notice, is the hardest part of being such eager gaming enthusiasts.  Such potential for something fresh or new is destroyed, but we’ll continue to see a new Call of Duty game released every year and a horrible MMO will see the light of day simply because it has a huge publisher.  So frustrating.

Kotaku is reporting that 38 Studios only would have been saved if Amalur sold 3 million copies.

Let that sink in. Three million copies or bust. Depending on who you ask, Amalur sold between 400k and 1 million.

I dunno, I am of two minds on the implicit lament in Keen’s quote. I do consider it a serious problem that the barrier to entry for RPGs (and games in general) has gotten so high as to choke out all but the biggest studios. Remember the thousands of garbage NES games on the shelves back in the early 90s? Most were bad, but at least it appeared as though someone with a good game concept had a realistic chance of getting their cartridge on store shelves.

On the other hand? I feel like it is a bit unrealistic. It is easy to hate on Call of Duty when a “new” one is pumped out every year… but Black Ops sold 25 million copies. MW3 made $1 billion in 16 days, and that was seven months ago; god only knows how much it’s up to now.

Desiring fresh and new things is fine, but it’s code for “I’m not getting catered to.” At some point, you have to ask “Who can afford to cater to me?” If Amalur’s direction was your thing, good for you, but the market clearly couldn’t support it. So… Curt Schilling should have settled for less, designing a less expensive game with a lower break-even point. But would any of us have been satisfied with that? Would you be fine playing an indie-level MMO or other game? Would you be willing to lower your (obviously high) standards to meet the developers making the actual games you’re talking about?

I am probably not coming across very clear; in fact, if any of that makes sense to you, let me know, because it kinda doesn’t make sense to me. It is just that whenever I see a lament about how a “horrible MMO will see the light of day” as compared to presumably a good one on the cutting-room floor, I cannot help but shake the “Whose fault is that?” retort. The publisher? The fans? Or our own unreasonable expectations?

Whatever the case, I always a respect for those who attempt to shoot the moon. Win or lose, you always leave with a story – which is more than most.

Kingdoms of Amalur, Used Game Sales

As you may or may not be aware, there was a minor kerfuffle surrounding Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. The gist is that Amalur is an EA-published single-player RPG with an Online Pass that unlocks Day 1 DLC, which is like a triple-word score on the Scrabble board of controversy. The thread on the forums ballooned to 48 pages of indignation, Curt Schilling (CEO and some baseball guy) responded in an eminently reasonable manner, and now the thread is about three times as big.

The irony in all of this is that this particular incident is not that big a deal. However, it touches on so many things that ARE a big deal, that it becomes something that should be a big deal. Specifically, the demonization of used game sales, which has came up before in an unfortunate Penny Arcade post back in August 2010. Later on in the Amalur thread, Curt Schilling laid out the issue:

Herein is the dilema no one wants to talk about right? We CANNOT in ANY WAY cater to people that buy used games exclusively right? We see ZERO revenue. Now as a consumer you may care nothing about that, and that is absolutely your right and we respect that.

However we are a business, we have 400 people, every single one of them is awesome, but I just can’t get them to work for free, so we need to make money to pay them, to make more awesome games.

Now the issue is the straddler, there are people like me, never ever bought a used game in my life, or pirated one, and never will, and people that ONLY buy used because they don’t have the means to buy new or whatever, but they have their reasons, agree with them or not it’s not relevent.

The straddler does both, he buys new and used, he turns in used to buy new, and that new game could be ours right? How do we handle that? How does the industry handle that? Industry? That’s the huge challenge.

I want to talk to the executives out at EA and other game companies for a moment. Are you guys listening? Get ready to write this down:

Fuck you.

A used game sale is a guaranteed new game sale at a lower price point.

Don’t you see? These people are ready and willing to give you money, and YOU ARE NOT LETTING THEM. No one is buying used games because used is better; used games are universally worse, with possibly scratched disks, missing manuals, missing cases, and so on.¹ No one is buying used games to specifically deny money to the developers; otherwise they would simply pirate it. People buy used games because they are otherwise being priced out of the market (which includes people who don’t feel a game is worth full MSRP).

I understand it’s EA or whoever’s right to set their merchandize at whatever price point they like. I have doubts that $59.99 is the precise intersection of Demand and Supply, but whatever. My point here is that used game sales is literal demand that is being filled by other people expressly because you refuse to accept any less than an arbitrary amount. The idea of Online Passes is to get something back from the secondary market, right? Instead of selling $10 Online Passes, how about, I dunno, dropping the price of the game by $10?

Maybe the Online Pass thing makes them more money. If a game is resold ten times, that is potentially $100, right? But if that game was resold for $40 ten times, that means EA could have sold TEN NEW COPIES AT $40. Gamestop could sell used copies at $35, sure, and maybe no game company one wants to get into such a race to the bottom. But at that point, I would hope that EA and friends would get on the right side of incentives instead of the wrong.

Because here’s the thing: this is all about the continual erosion of Consumer Surplus. When you buy a brand new game for $59.99, the ability for you to sell that game to Gamestop for $20 when you are done with it is Consumer Surplus. It is value, whether you explicitly exercise it or not. We can imagine a world where used games somehow don’t exist in any form.² In such a world, you have LOST $20 worth of value and have likely received NOTHING in return – probably LESS than nothing, if the mechanism that prevented used games inconveniences legitimate customers the same way DRM harms actual customers. This is the reason DLC (especially Day 1 DLC) is troubling, the reason Cash Shops are troubling, the reason being forced to go online and register offline, single-player RPGs is troubling: all of these things are signs of Consumer Surplus extraction.

Remember back, say, 20 years ago? When a game company only received greater profit by ensuring they put out quality products? Those days are long gone. It is no longer about generating more sales, but from extracting more dollars from the sales that ARE made. Whoever came up with the phrase “value-added services” is a goddamn Doublespeak genius. Instead of simply getting those extra costume options, we pay for them. Instead of getting free map packs, we pay for them. Instead of being able to earn Sparkleponies and Disco Lions, we pay for them. This incentivizes game designers to have us pay more for less, instead of pay less for more.

The Kingdoms of Amalur controversy is not that big a deal in the scheme of things. Indeed, when you put it in the context of pre-order bonuses and Collector’s Edition items, it’s hard to see 38 Studios “giving away” DLC as particularly nefarious. Lesser evil is still evil though, and I can’t help but wonder whether in a different age those seven quests would have been included in the game, or in a free patch later on. Or as a poster in the Amalur thread said:

Is it just me or does that PR statement just admit that they develope DLC at the same one as the game, or in non moron speak, the game you’re paying 60 bucks for is having parts removed so you could buy then later.

AHow incredibly fucking nice of them to give Us the entire game up front, oh wait, they just admired to holding that back.. What else did they pull out? What other content did they strip from the title to bilk us for later?

Looks like $20-30 GOTY edition it is.why would I pay full price when I can’t trust or believe I’ll actually get the full….Fucking…. Game?

¹ Remember when games came with cloth maps and game posters? I still have the two game posters that came packaged in the FF6 box. Those sure as hell didn’t show up with your used game copy.

² Just look at Steam: no used game sales. Of course, you should also look at Steam because they are on the right side of consumer incentives. In return for DRM and no resale of games, we get hassle-free DRM, truly ludicrous sales (consumer surplus!), automatic game updates, amazingly fast downloads, integrated community, and the ability to manage a library of titles without worrying about CDs or CD keys. Compare that to the typical ham-fisted Ubisoft or EA implementation of DRM.