PREVIEW: Presumably Shakespeare had loftier subject matter in mind when he wondered aloud 'What's in a name?' but should we ask it of Studio 38's Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the answer is not a whole lot. There's no escaping the fact that this game has a title so bland and generic that it appears doomed to sink to the bottom of the bargain bin within weeks of release.
Things get more curious still when we learn that developer Studio 38 was founded by a former Major League Baseball pitcher, Curt Schilling. Outside of his professional sports career, Schilling has nurtured a passion for MMORPGs such as Everquest, World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online.
You could be forgiven then, for assuming that Reckoning is the glamour project of a wealthy retired sports star who received one too many balls to the head in his heyday.
At least we hope you can. On the back of this scant information alone, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was something of a running joke for the press gathered outside an art gallery in Shepard's Bush, London. Inside, however, we found something altogether more appealing.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is an open-world RPG that borrows from action hack 'n' slashers. Players will find a world that has overtures of Warcraft's Azeroth and Fable's Albion, highly stylised combat that can be likened to God of War, a random loot system similar to something like Diablo and an intuitive character developent system that blurs the warrior, rogue and mage class delineation of more traditional RPGs.
It boasts a roster of high profile talent including RA Salvatore, the New York Times bestselling fantasy author. Salvatore is responsible for the lore and setting - and, no doubt, the woeful name. The verbose Ken Rolston is leading game design. Rolston is best known as the mind behind the Elder Scrolls series. Rolston is also joined by a handful of former Bethesda designers. Then there's Todd McFarlane, creator of the Spawn comic book series, leading art direction.
Players begin the game dead. A gnome alchemist pursuing the secrets of resurrection has experimented upon his or her body but the player's case would appear to be another failure. As a pair of assistants wheel the player's cadaver away from the Well of Souls and towards a pit, they discuss the character's unfortunate fate. Here, players select from a handful of races and patron gods that have some small bonuses to the character going forward. What they don't select is a class. Rolston rightly points out that asking players to decide how they're going to play before they start is counter-intuitive.
Back in the game, the character's body is unceremoniously tossed onto a pile of rotting corpses in the sewers below.
Fate is the central premise of the world RA Salvatore has built. All creatures in the world of Amalur are burdened with one. When the player's character awakens moments later he or she becomes the first to exist without a predetermined future. As such, the player becomes an object of fascination to various factions and forces for good and evil within the world.
Beyond the confines of the gnome's laboratory lies Amalur. The world's colour palette and presentation is much more vibrant than what RPG players might be used to. Typically, RPGs are set in wan worlds ravaged by evil, proposes RA Salvatore. Instead, Amalur is pitched as a world worth saving.
The developers claim that the world will offer ample opportunities for tangential gameplay and will reward players who choose to explore off the beaten path. There, they'll be able to find set encounters and dungeons.
Inside such a dungeon, Reckoning's dynamic class system was demonstrated to us. Rolston strongly believes that while most players ultimately err towards a character archetype, they like to play around in the grey area between the more regimented class definitions. When choosing skills, players can select from any of the three archetypes - warrior, mage, rogue - allowing for curious hybrids such as stealth casters.
As we fought through various sections of the dungeon, we switched between these classes. The warrior deftly juggled earthquake effects between two-handed hammers while the mage used chakrams - magical fiery Frisbees, for lack of a better term - to create a dervish of physical damage in between more elaborate spells. The rogue cast poison spells on his daggers and teleported behind targets.
However, where the combat truly stands out and where Todd McFarlane's influence can be seen best is in the elaborate finishing moves. When a target is low on health, players are prompted to enter into an optional scripted finishing sequence. For example, the mage can knock down a target and create an icicle that protrudes from his fist. This is applied to the throat. They're violent and entertaining, even if what we've seen so far lacks variety. There's only so many times we can watch a warrior bring down a two-handed hammer on the cranium of a minion in slow motion before some of the sheen begins to fade.
That said, with the game due in 2012, there's ample time to increase the variety of finishing moves available. What's more important is that combat appears natural and fluid, and the animations flow together effortlessly. Enemy AI was highlighted; mobs will flank the player and try to assume advantageous angles. As the fight turns against them they'll become more desperate - some even become suicidal.
Put together, these elements suggest Reckoning has a strong platform to grow from. What remains to be seen is more of RA Salvatore's world, its scale and depth, and how the player fits into it. As with any system, the more dynamic it is, the more unpredictable it is: Reckoning's class system will no doubt require months of quality assurance and balance testing.
But should the vision of these luminaries align, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning could very well transcend its titular trappings.