EA Partners Producer Ben Smith has just finished showing me a demo for upcoming action RPG Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. He was playing it on a PC, using an Xbox controller. He's the second of Kingdom's high-profile developers to state the game's combat – a key feature - works better on a controller.
“I think that the combat really sings on the controller,” Ben states, before realising who he's said that to, “and the team's done a really fantastic job of getting a PC control scheme which we've user tested a few times now; and continue to learn new things to make it better. It's actually pretty good.”
He carries on. “It comes very close to giving you all the things at your fingertips that you would have on a controller.” He hesitates. “It's not… I don't think… as good… well, I don't know if that's the right word. It's not as… fluid or responsive… but it is good.”
Kingdoms of Amalur is no regular RPG. Developers Big Huge Games has broken away from traditional fantasy fighting systems, and implemented a combat style more akin to hack-and-slash titles such as Devil May Cry or God of War. “We feel that fighting and combat is really where we stand out in the genre,” explains Ben. “We don't take our inspiration from what other RPGs are doing. Instead, we looked at action games.” A bold move, and one that may not translate so well to the mouse and keyboard.
But, given that Big Huge Games' experience mainly comes with more conventional RPGs, why did they take a different approach to swordplay? Ben? “What we really wanted was to get the systems depth and the open world depth married to a combat system that is actually fun moment to moment.” An ambitious goal, and one that the producer recognises as demanding. “The challenge was difficult on it's own. An action combat system that works great with an RPG is no easy task.”
To tackle this dilemma, Big Huge Games set about hiring developers with serious experience in combat-led games. “Our lead combat designer is a tournament level Tekken player. His inspiration comes from fighting games, much like the guys who made action games, like God of War, who were also inspired by beat-em-ups. So when you see me do juggles, and interrupts, and you see me do launches, that's as much coming from a fighting game as an action game.”
It shows. Back to the demo, and Ben's character – a melee skilled rogue – has wandered into a cavern full of monsters. As he set about taking them apart, it became clear that powering through the nasties required more skill than simply hammering the 'hack' button. Timing was crucial – Ben ducked, dived and weaved around and (with the help of a speed buff) through the enemies, with all the agility and flair of the Prince of Persia. He easily switched from daggers to a long sword, throwing out magic spells as part of a combo chain. At the end of the combo, the rogue summoned rock spikes from the ground, skewering the luckless demon standing in the way.
I won't lie – the combat looks good. It's smooth, acrobatic and, above all, exciting; which is why I hope that the PC controls are just as good as Ben promises.
For those fearing that this focus on fighting will detract from Kingdoms' RPG roots – fret not. Combat isn't the only thing that Big Huge Games has lavished all their love and attention on. There's a whole open world to be explored – one designed by the Godfather of RPGs, Ken Rolston, and written by award winning Forgotten Realms author R.A. Salvatore. Better still, Spawn creator and avid doodler Todd McFarlane is responsible for the artistic direction. With this trifecta of heavyweight names, it's hard not to become giddy with excitement.
The game's premise is equally intriguing. In the opening moments, you wake up on a pile of corpses. But rather than this being the result of an average Friday night, you've actually been brought back to life in the Well of Souls – but why? Here's the kicker – you've been reborn with no fate, which is a pretty big thing in Amalur lore. You're special, so very special that the world itself recognises that you're a freak. What the hell are you doing here? And it's this burning question is – literally – your raison d'etre, forming the base of your epic quest.
Supporting this investigatory quest are all the usual RPG machinations. In-depth character customisation, side quests, faction quests, dialogue options, three crafting systems that encompass potions, armour, weapons and stat-buffing crystals. There's persuasion skills, fast travel, entire armour sets to accrue, inventory management, and choices to make, ranging from 'shall I do jail time for picking that pocket, or smash up the local fuzz?' to bigger, game changing decisions. And there's loot. Sweet, sweet loot.
There are also three core ability trees for you to tinker with, that allow you to create a character tailored to your way of playing. Enjoy the manly art of swordplay? Invest your points in weaponry to unlock gut-busting attacks. Feel more comfortable with magic? Blast through the Sorcery tree to learn huge spells like Meteor.
Returning to the demo, and all of these things slot together rather nicely, with the spit and polish you'd expect of an executive designer with Oblivion and Morrowind in his blood. As Ben manoeuvres his rogue around Brigenhall Caverns, it's a genuine pleasure to see a fantasy RPG that's bright and colourful, rather than toting dull browns and greens that recent titles seem to love. It feels odd to say this, but even the generic cave I was being shown through was gorgeous. Purple mushrooms gently glowed in the dark, a waterfall shimmered away in the distance, and grassy blue plants twisted towards our hero's feet as he rifled through an unsuspecting bandit's pocket.
The monsters themselves have a rather unique style, again standing out from other RPGs' catalogue ordered minions. There are no genero-orcs and standard skeletons here. Okay, there were a few skeletons, but they've got jaunty horned helmets, so that's excused. Todd McFarlane's influence really does show, and as a result, Amalur's kingdom feels genuinely alive and magical.
It may be a bitter pill for purists to swallow, but introducing hack-and-slash style combat to a traditional genre doesn't make Kingdoms of Amalur any less of an RPG. If anything, it makes it far more fun. My only worry is how such an ambitious system will work out on keyboard. But Ben has the final word on this issue. “In some ways, there are options on the PC side that you don't have access to as easily as with the limited controls we have on a controller. In some ways you can have more abilities slotted into the top. So there are advantages you get from being on a PC that you don't get on console. Or you can always plug in a 360 controller.” He laughs. I shake my head. “That's just dirty,” I reply.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is due out early next year.