Your first few steps in any open world role playing game need to be memorable. The Elder Scrolls series has its little prisoner gimmick, but being a brand new entity Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning needs to come of with a bang - and it does so by introducing the player to his or her avatar as it is being wheeled away by a couple of gnomes. Your character is dead. The gnomes have attempted to revive you using a device called the Well of Souls, but seemingly not having any success the are wheeling you off towards a pile of discarded bodies.
It sets up the story nicely. You're the chosen one, brought back from the dead, to save a world where the mortal races are well on their way towards extinction at the hands of a twisted new force called the Tuatha Deohn. Amalur is a world where every individual carries a fate, and so called fate weavers now that no living person has it within their fate to save the world, thus a hero brought back from the dead, without a predetermined fate is needed - cue your player character.
At the start you're given the choice of four playable races - all sporting fancy names you're unlikely to have heard before. There is the Ljosalfar - light elves and a proud people who can shape nature around them. Then there is the Varani - a nomadic Human clan of people who while not politically caught up in the conflict often find themselves employed as mercenaries in armies fighting the Tuatha. We also have dark elves - the Dokkalfar - a race who are masters of manipulation, diplomacy and magic. And finally, there is Almain, a clan of humans keen on Order and excelling through the strong military tradition. It's what I choose for my first character, and Eldrin the Almain, awoke in a pile of corpse, unaware of the key role he was to play in the war that threatened the entire world.
In typical role playing fashion you're introduced to the combat, the various play styles, and basic concepts such as loot and conversations as you make your way out of the gnome caves to find out what your fate is going to be. Professor Hugues, the gnome responsible for bringing you back to life, is presumed dead as you escape the collapsing caves as the Tuatha attack the Well of Souls, presumably worried about it bringing about a hero unbound by fate. While he failed to give you any proper details about your past or your role in the world, he did give you direction on how to find out more and this is the lead you will follow up in the main quest line of Reckoning - you will soon run into characters who have crossed path with you in your previous life - and interacting with them is key to learning more about your past and thus furthering your quest to liberate the world from the threat of the Tuatha.
But once out of the gnome cave, you're treated to an expansive and colourful woodland area, one of five distinct lands found in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. You will run into plenty of side quests and things to do, on your way to the next objective of the main quest. One example of a side quest was a man claiming to be a wolf transformed to a man, and he needed you to seek out a magical well, fill a bottle with its water and hand it to him. I won't spoil the quest for you, but it was rather humorous and also an example of how Reckoning's side quests often resemble fetch quests you'd expect to find in MMO's. Another such quest saw me collecting the remnants of perished silk farmers who had fallen victim to giant spiders. Nice little diversion, but a far cry from the often long and time-consuming side quests of an Elder Scrolls title.
Combat is an area where Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning differs from its competition. Perhaps, it is best compared with the hack n' slash antics of the Fable series. Stringing together combos using a primary and secondary weapons as well as easy to access spells (hold down the right trigger + one face button), and using a shield to block (left trigger). It's very fluid and visually pleasing, but then another layer is added with Reckoning mode - time slows down, and damage increases. Once your meter is full you pull down on both triggers to enter into Reckoning mode, and you will "manipulate the threads of fate". Perhaps most importantly you will get bonus experience when in this mode, and engaging more enemies means even more bonus experience. At the very end of Reckoning mode you will be able to button mash your way to even more experience as the finale of the mode is a quick time event. Using this strategically against more difficult enemies and as often as possible in order to maximise your experience is going to keep players on their toes throughout Kingdoms of Amalur.
It's hard to gage the world of Amalur after just a couple of hours as I hardly even scraped the surface of the first town. There seems to be a few layers of story to delve into there even if I did not feel as much of a living breathing world as in Fable or the Elder Scrolls games. What is clear though is that 38 Studios and Big Huge Games has infused their world with a warm sense of humour and that even if it's a world of humans, elves and gnomes it still has elements of its own and doesn't always adhere to well established fantasy conventions.
Spending a couple of hours of the Xbox 360 version of the game, and sitting next to the PC version it was easy to see just how much crisper and sharper that version looks. I wouldn't go as far as saying that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning on Xbox 360 is an ugly game, the design is nice throughout, but it at times it looks a bit crude and lacking in detail. It's hard to tell whether the game is more suited for consoles or PC, however, since the combat feels more natural with a controller. Then again, you can always use a controller with the PC version.
Another problem I had was with the map, and more specifically with the path mapped out to your next quest objective. The blue line jumped and was redrawn to consider moving objectives as well as ridges or barriers that you cannot cross. It took some getting used to and perhaps my problem also stemmed in my insistence on trying to centre the camera, which kept the map spinning.
Small issues that there is plenty of time to iron out in time for Reckoning's release in February. I'm still hopeful that we might get a new contender in the open world RPG category with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, but I wasn't blown away with my first couple of hours.