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Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning: Dream Team, Dream Project

Company: EA Games

Do you like role-playing games? If your answer is "yes," do your absolute best to pry yourself away from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and/or Star Wars: The Old Republic for a bit. There's a dark horse in our midst, and I have a very strong feeling that it will surprise gamers everywhere when it drops next month. The title of which I speak is EA's Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. A rather large and lengthy demo (about two gigabytes and ninety minutes of gameplay) recently found its way to Xbox Live. I've spent a number of hours playing around with the demo, and I've got some impressions to share. If you want the short of it, all you need to know is that you should keep an eye on Reckoning. For the long of it, read on.

If you don't trust me on this matter for some reason, I'd like to point out that some of the key people behind Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning are real eyebrow-raisers. For starters, this is the first game to come from MLB legend Curt Schilling's 38 Studios. The executive designer is Ken Rolston -- the lead designer behind the third and fourth Elder Scrolls games. I'm not done; the executive art director is Todd McFarlane. Yes, that Todd McFarlane. I'm still not done; the man behind Reckoning's storytelling and universe is noted fantasy author R.A. Salvatore. ::deep breath:: Okay, now that I know I've got your attention, we can move on.

One of the reasons I really enjoyed the demo for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is how much the developers manage to simultaneously tease and reward. As mentioned before, this is a huge demo and there's a lot to see, and it's all so much fun that once you hit the end, you'll probably jet right over to your nearest retailer and make a reservation. (That's what this writer did, anyway.)

It's just as well that the developers chose to go all out with their demo; after all, this is a brand new IP, and this is an industry that unfortunately overemphasizes branding. Every budding franchise has something to prove, and it's encouraging to see that EA and 38 Studios are doing all they can do in order to get a head start.

From a conceptual standpoint, Reckoning seems to be a mix between Dragon Age and Planescape Torment. The world it takes place in has been carefully constructed, and seems to strike a nice balance between volatile politics and high magical fantasy. There are lots of different races and creatures, from Gnomes, Elves, and Humans, to the immortal Fae.

Reckoning takes place during the second decade of a violent conflict begun by King Gadflow of the Winter Court, an evil and powerful Fae who has sinister designs on the world and furthers his ambitions through his followers, the Tuatha Deohn. Apparently a new god will be born underneath Gadflow's palace; for some as of yet unexplained reason, he wages war against the other races of Amalur in this god's name. Things don't look good; after all, the Fae are immortal. Naturally, this is where you come in.

You might be confused as to why I compared Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning to Planescape Torment. Well, it has to do with the story. More to the point, it has to do with the fact that your character starts the game as a corpse on a slab. Of course, he/she lies under a shroud until you take a trip through the character customization screens. You are given the choice between four distinct mortal races, two human and two elvish: the Almain, Varani, Ljosalfar, and Dokkalfar. Each has its own racial bonuses that pertain to a certain background. For example, the Almain are holy warriors, so their skills are in blacksmithing and persuasion. The Varani are more pirate-like, and specialize in more roguish traits such as lockpicking and bargaining. The Ljosalfar are dark elves that are inclined to dispelling evil wards, while the Dokkalfar are wood elves that are better at stealth than anything else. Each race has its own gods, and by choosing one of five, you are gifted with special patron bonuses. Of course, you can run as an atheist (so to speak), forgoing patron bonuses in favor of a 1% experience bonus.

Once you create your character, he/she miraculously resurrects (in the middle of a pile of rotting corpses) as a result of the Well of Souls, an incredible magical tool developed by the brilliant gnome scientist Fomorous Hugues. Shortly after your revival however, the underground bastion is attacked by the Tuatha and you're forced to make a grand escape. Along the way, you will find all sorts of gear with which to experiment. From swords to bows to staves to daggers, the Reckoning demo seems designed to help you eliminate every shred of doubt concerning what kind of character you'll want to develop.

Before your escape from the Well of Souls, you are instructed by Hugues to seek out a Fateweaver named Agarth. Once you reach Allestar Glade and speak to Agarth, a timer starts counting down and you are left alone for forty-five minutes to do as you please, that is, as long as you keep to the admittedly expansive province of Odarath. The timer pauses when you talk to NPCs, and the game generously encourages you to take your time. Certain quest lines lock themselves out, and you can only see them to the end if you purchase a copy of the game. However, the demo features a nice helping of quests to dig into. These quests are well-written and give you deeper insight into the inner workings of the world. Some of them end exactly the way you'd expect, others... not so much. And before you ask, I mean that in a good way.

So I've spent all this time explaining the world and story of Reckoning, so how does it play? I, of course, like to play the comparison game. If the demo is any indication of the finished product, Reckoning is essentially Fable with a similar but far superior combat system. The quests are better-designed and better-written, as well. Combat is fast, responsive, and violent. Juggling between your primary, secondary, and spells is easy as can be, and enemies rarely go down without a fight. And when they do, experience and loot are there to reward your efforts.

Reckoning features a number of skill trees and similar character customization plots to help you carve out an identity. I could go into the specifics, but at this point I'll just say that the number of possible permutations is mind-boggling.

One thing I appreciate about Reckoning is how there doesn't seem to be a morality system in place to judge your actions. Sure, you can switch off safe mode and kill civilians, but you won't start glowing red or sprout wings or anything like that. If you choose to do the honorable thing, you might not be rewarded as justly as you might hope. And it's entirely possible to act like a complete bastard and be all the better for it.

I strongly urge you to check out the Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning demo. Taking your time and playing it to the end guarantees a slew of unlockables once you cross the finish line. Most are for the final retail release, but some are actually for Mass Effect 3. Even if you go in only for those unlockables, you'll probably still be blindsided by how much fun this demo is. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning will be out February 7th for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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