Do you believe in fate? And perhaps that's not up to you anyway, eh? Well, 38 Studios - founded by ex baseball pro Curt Schilling - is staffed by the likes of Ken Rolston (Morrowind, Oblivion), Todd McFarlane (Spawn) and RA Salvatore (loads of nerdy fiction), and whether or not those guys believe in fate, it was certainly mathematically improbable that a game they worked on together would be anything other than a high-fantasy role-playing game set in an open world.
Debuting at the Game Developers Conference, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (presumably their first task was to build a random RPG name generator) kicks off with a bit of slider-bar character creation before you wake up as a cipher in a pile of corpses, and the game presents you with a simple mystery: who killed me, and how did I come back?
According to 38 Studios and co-developer Big Huge Games, the idea is to suck you into Amalur with a personal story, before the game gets onto the more significant and inevitable issue of having to save the world from whatever's going to go wrong with it.
So, it turns out that the dude who brought you back from the dead is a gnome who created the Well of Souls, an iconic aspect of Amalur lore that allows people to return from the dead - or at least allows a person to return from the dead, since you're the first one to make it back in one piece.
Life, death and destiny are all areas the developers want to explore with the story, and, as a starting point, you are special because you have been reborn without fate - something that everyone else in Amalur has, and something that you will be invited to shape and reshape in yourself and those around you as the game progresses.
The first people whose fates you dabble in, to run with that, are some half-finished Well of Souls rejects - horny little blighters who leap out of the gloom to attack you as you explore the gnome's dungeons, and who serve as an introduction to combat.
The combat is distinctly action-orientated, almost akin to Fable or God of War. Single face buttons map to particular weapons - longswords, hammers, magic staffs, etc - which can be hacked and slashed about or developed into different combos, swipes and juggles with longer or more rhythmic button presses.
But the developers also promise that everything in the game has an RPG backbone to it (in other words, you can rely on someone to be hiding behind every treasure chest and stone wall shaking some dice to help determine the outcome). As such you won't be able to battle through the whole game using twitch skills - you'll also need to level up to remain competitive in combat.
We see a warrior type of character dealing out hefty combos, smashing down hammers and summoning stone spikes from the ground with his finishers, and so on, and this variety is also true for other specialisms, like a mage, who is more about damage-over-time, area-of-effect, and robes and wizard hats.
Specialism changes the basics of your character - for example, a warrior rolls sideways to dodge while the mage teleports - but while there are four races to choose between in Amalur, you don't actually pick a base class. Instead you specialise based on how you choose to upgrade your character in sorcery, might or finesse areas of the tech tree, and focusing on one area means those traits will be emphasised in appearance and behaviour as well as your capabilities.
The developers claim that while most RPGs only pay out the best benefits if you max out particular areas of the tech tree, Amalur's system of "destinies" allows you to continue experimenting with untapped potential in, say, might and finesse, even if your core focus is sorcery. It remains to be seen how this works, but if it can be pulled off then it should be interesting.
Meanwhile, just in case the fact that this is an RPG isn't at the forefront of your mind at all times, whenever you kill an enemy a big XP bar pops up centre-screen to illustrate your progress towards the next level. You can also loot corpses, crates and so on for gold and randomly generated pickups.
The tug of war between real-time action and RPG is evident here, as the inventory tries to offer the best of both worlds - allowing you to quickly swap stuff around if you're not bothered with customisation, or to delve deeper to reap hidden benefits if you like micromanaging your equipment and behaviour.
Customisation is also possible when you reach towns, where you will be able to buy and sell stuff but also spend time crafting. Alchemy and blacksmithing are available, but today we see sagecrafting, where you socket gems you've collected onto different weapons to add particular effects, like a flame speciality to a favoured longsword.
Amalur also encourages you to explore, but as with combat this manifests itself as more options rather than more obligations, with rewards for doing so rather than punishments for not. For example, as you wander around the world you may spot a deer-path leading into some trees - if you follow it, you could discover some loot, a side quest or in this case a new enemy to fight.
Enemies have been bussed in from all over the fantasy RPG spectrum, with giant trolls, kobolds, sea serpent things, little goblin guys and plenty of spiny, spindly, bipedal nasties to encounter and dismember. The developers are fond of the slow-and stop-motion attack chains that emphasise spears through heads or swords through guts, too, so expect some grisly finishers.
"The developers note that if you're invited to save the world then it should feel like it's worth saving."
With a lot of combat apparently about managing the space around you as much as picking your attacks, the camera has to be on the ball, and this has been an area of focus for the devs, who say that it is always intelligently framing up the most obvious aggressors that you might want to target rather than expecting you to do it yourself (although you can do that, too).
Those kinds of guiding hands are a common theme of the GDC presentation. We're also told to expect lots of subtle visual signposting, like making sure that the two kobolds outside a dungeon are of representative difficulty for what lies beyond the entrance. That way, if you are going to bite off more than you can chew by entering, you do at least know what you're getting yourself into.
Amalur is split into five huge regions - the usual bleak Lord of the Rings stuff, of course, but also the lush, verdant fields and sparkling forests of Albion. The developers note that if you're invited to save the world then it should feel like it's worth saving, which ought to come as music to the ears of anyone who finds the Fallout games depressing places to spend a lot of time. (Not that I'm saying they are but, you know, "bleak".)
The scale is very Lord of the Rings or World of Warcraft, too, with huge statues abounds, giant ruined buildings that ooze with untold back-story (told by NPCs nearby in some cases, obviously), and a feeling of old-world certainty and depth. Amalur is a huge, thousands-of-years-old place, and apparently we're supposed to understand that without feeling dwarfed and insignificant.
While the game isn't a life simulation, it is host to lots of obvious touches that make it feel alive, like a lovely day-and-night cycle which we see once through - from the warm, summer brightness of midday through the cooler midnight hours into the sparkling morning and back again.
The real question though, in the absence of much story detail or particulars on how characters grow and interact, is how Reckoning differentiates itself from the likes of Dragon Age, Two Worlds, The Witcher and so forth - or even whether it can be sensibly compared to any of them directly.
It's something we hope to learn the answer to next time we see it. In the meantime, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning offers a strikingly rich template for a solid RPG, but one that is rather lacking in personality and detail at the moment. Then again, as a game about being reborn without fate, perhaps it's fitting that a lot is still to be determined.