Version tested: Xbox 360
In the fantasy world of Amalur, everyone believes in fate - in a predestined path that they are bound to tread, with a predestined end. An elven race called the Fae believes so strongly in the immutable power of destiny that they re-enact their songs and stories, over and over.
You, however, are the Fateless One, a unique being with an unwritten destiny that is yours to control. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning begins with your death and subsequent resurrection with no memory - and, according to the seers, no fate. Not only can you be who you want to be (rogue, warrior or sorcerer), you alone in Amalur can change the way things are.
It's a convenient plot device for a role-playing game, of course. But to give creator 38 Studios its due, it's also a pretty elegant metaphor for the promise that makers of Western RPGs love to make. While a Zelda or Final Fantasy is about ensuring the time-honoured legend reaches its foregone conclusion, the American role-playing dream is to hand you a complex world and let you bend it to your will.
The thing is, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning doesn't really do that. Whilst it's designed by Elder Scrolls veteran Ken Rolston (Morrowind, Oblivion) and has many features you'll recognise from BioWare's and Bethesda's games (an obsession with the arts of conversation and thievery, for example), Amalur isn't so flexible. You can't manipulate a complex story matrix of cause and effect the way you can in Dragon Age: Origins. You can't simply do whatever the hell you like the way you can in Skyrim.
There are plenty of minor choices that have next to no impact. There are occasional major ones - "Twists of Fate" - that tend to arrive suddenly before bringing whatever episode you're following to an equally abrupt end. You're then awarded a permanent stat boost, given a pat on the back and set firmly back on the rails.
Freedom follows a different model in Reckoning, and this one is borrowed from another major influence, World of Warcraft. It's the freedom to pick and choose from an absurd wealth of content, all of it bursting to the seams with XP, gold and loot. Although the content doesn't scale to your level as it does in Bethesda's games, levelling is brisk and steady, and there's far more to do than you need to keep pace with the main storyline. Between the handful of meaty faction quest lines and the brimming constellation of side-quests and dungeons, you'll be so regularly and naturally sidetracked that you'll never even think about grinding. This game is expertly paced, and it flows like water.
Nevertheless, you're always headed in roughly the same direction and to the same end. Amalur's is an open world that branches wide before narrowing back down again, and exploration is encouraged (and handsomely rewarded) by secrets, sight-lines and an insanely detailed map plastered in tempting icons. Although it's made of discrete zones linked by convenient ravines, the world streams seamlessly and fits together naturally, and offers plenty of pretty views, if not vast ones. It's a luscious, teeming labyrinth rather than an imposing wilderness.
Thematically, it's stock-in-trade stuff - enchanted forest, rocky desert, high plains, cloying swamp - done in large, conventionally attractive lumps that owe an obvious debt to WOW's Azeroth (plus, by extension, everything from Warhammer to Middle Earth that WOW owes its own debts to). The art is polished, detailed, does landscapes much better than people, and sadly doesn't quite have the personality or atmosphere to get away with its most blatant lifts. But its rich colours, firm lines, warm tone and twinkling lighting are very inviting (not to mention rare among today's gritty fantasies). Amalur is pure, old-fashioned escapism.
It's a similar story with the writing. Mannered, lumpy dialogue, embarrassing Irish accents and obtuse concepts are nothing new to this genre, and it's no surprise to find them here in abundance. It even has a hoary kind of charm - or it would, if everyone (yourself included) wasn't so unsympathetic. The lore is involved, but founded on such a forgettable fantasy universe that it will take you a while to realise that there's more going on than meets the eye.
The plotting makes a virtue of simplicity, occasionally conjuring a memorable vignette out of clichéd busywork quests. More importantly, the faction and main quest lines are packed with incident and have powerful forward momentum, even if you occasionally lose track of their logic. You're trying to discover who you were and what happened to you while turning the tide in a bitter war against an aggressive faction of Fae called the Tuatha; the personal angle and the big picture fit together snugly.
It's professional, tidy, satisfying - and deeply generic. The biggest problem with Amalur is that, for all its fine craftsmanship, it's obviously a world made to order. It's not the creation of a fertile young mind but of a successful baseball player's bank account. 38 Studios' owner, EverQuest and WOW fan Curt Schilling, decided to make an MMO and needed a world to build it on, so he had artist Todd McFarlane and novelist R A Salvatore drum one up. But you can't buy inspiration, no matter how big the names.
Here's the interesting part, though. As a test case, or brand-building exercise or whatever, Schilling decided to graft his bespoke universe onto an existing single-player game. So he bought Baltimore's Big Huge Games and its in-development action RPG. And the mechanical guts of that game were - are - very good indeed.
Its most notable achievement is an emphatic, visceral, fast-paced combat style with good feedback. It wouldn't disgrace a purebred console action game and it makes most RPG contemporaries look sloppy. Big Huge Games manages to keep that combat clearly defined and satisfying to use while also offering considerable freedom in character development and ensuring that improving your skills and gear yields tangible results. That's no mean achievement.
The combat doesn't possess the exquisite timing, nail-biting tension and resounding physicality of Demon's and Dark Souls, it's true. It's more of a button-masher, a knockabout, pyrotechnic God of War. Like the Souls games, you need to dodge and block manually and watch your health with care; unlike them, the game is full of easy enemies to chew through, and you'll quickly build up a suite of powerful buffs, flowing weapon combos and magic abilities that expand your options for both tactics and entertainment. You can even charge up a Fate meter for bouts of slow-mo slaughter and gory finishing moves; it's incongruous with the game's tone, but a handy tool that can be used with judicious flair.
There's also considerable variety to be had. Each of the three combat classes has more than one viable and interesting build, you're free to invest skill points across any combination of them, and they all get good skills early, so a hybrid isn't necessarily a compromise. In fact, the classes are so well designed and defined that it's virtually impossible to make a bad character.
What's more, the game generously allows you to reset all your skill points by visiting a Fateweaver, so you can experiment with a different play style for a while and then revert to your favourite - at the cost of a small amount of gold, almost no hassle, and absolutely zero grind.
Reckoning's itemisation is similarly great. Loot is tasty and extremely bountiful, while all stats and status boosts are self-explanatory and relate to your character build with total clarity. Crafting works a treat - especially blacksmithing, which lets you make your own kit - and feeds into an almost hypnotic loop of enrichment and optimisation. You can easily lose an hour fiddling about in town between quests if you're that way inclined. If not, there are plenty of other ancillary skills to develop with their own benefits, including lockpicking, persuasion, stealth and the ability to detect hidden secrets.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning does all the boring, difficult parts of RPG game design very well, and marries them to exceptionally slick combat and a towering stack of stuff to do. This well-oiled machine keeps you motoring through all the sludgy fantasy cliché and through a sluggish first act. Then - just as the world opens out and the story picks up traction - that motor really starts to sing. That's when a solid, workmanlike game becomes one that's virtually impossible to put down.
It's an unglamorous kind of success story, admittedly. And perhaps it's worrying for 38 Studios that the bland fantasy world it's hanging its future on is the least enticing aspect of its debut game. But it's not all elbow grease - Kingdoms of Amalur adds a splash of colour and a lick of polish to the open-world RPG, and they couldn't be more welcome.
8 / 10