When a game calls itself Kingdoms of Amalur, you're going to go in with certain expectations. There will be an Evil Presence spreading across the land, naturally, and you can bet that the usual forces of law and order will be mysteriously M.I.A.. Sooner or later you'll receive a visit from someone who resembles a homeless sex offender, and he'll strong-arm you into sorting out the whole mess. To do this you'll hoodwink a party of like-minded fools - all of them with names that sound like someone cheating at Scrabble - and then go in search of a mystical trinket that will magically put things right again. Along the way you'll burgle innocent civilians, slaughter a race of midgets, and spend hours fretting over your choice of stat-boosting codpiece.
In its immediate appearance, the first UK showing for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning does little to dispel these presumptions. The game's lively art style is bolder and more ostentatious than what we might normally expect from the genre, but the blades-and-pointy-ears shtick still seems familiar. That's not necessarily a bad thing of course, but given the names attached to this project, you'd be forgiven for demanding great things. The story here has been penned by fantasy author R.A. Salvatore, while the aforementioned artwork arrives courtesy of Todd "Spawn" McFarlane. Developer 38 Studios was founded by former Red Sox star Curt Schilling, but as far as RPG fans are concerned the key player here is Ken Rolston - lead designer on Morrowind and Oblivion.
Thankfully the demo soon shows hints of living up to its pedigree. The plot kicks off with you waking up in a mortuary (Planescape: Torment, anyone?), returning to life atop a pile of discarded corpses. As a member of the recently-deceased you're the only person in the world without a Destiny, a situation that allows you to start afresh as a clean slate. There's a choice of four races to pick from - two human, two elven - while an Elder Scrolls-style set of sliders allows you to tweak your appearance in pedantic detail. Shortly into your quest to solve the mystery behind your resurrection, you'll also get to choose your class: Warrior, Mage and Rogue. And as common as these archetypes may be, their implementation brings a smattering of new ideas to the party.
In short, Kingdoms of Amalur takes a step back from the traditional limitations of its well-worn classes. The Mage can mix things up on the melee front, battering foes with his staff, and absolutely everyone can use magic via enchanted jewels that fit into slots on your weapons. Bung a Gem of Combustion onto your sword, and suddenly your blade will gain the power to set people on fire. There are three tech trees associated with each of the combat styles - Might, Sorcery and Finesse - but as there's no obligation to rigidly stick to them, there's plenty of opportunity to create your own hybrid warriors. Whereas most RPGs force players to stick to the strengths of their class, here it seems that everyone has a wide range of strategic options for a given situation. For example, a large slug-like enemy has a habit of spawning several minions to aid in its defence. When confronting this critter, the Mage might bog down these helpers an area-of-effect spell - a fairly traditional attack. The Rogue, on the other hand, might use a smoke bomb to render himself invisible, pick off the powerless assistants, and then strike at the summoner's back.
There's a single-button system for your slashes and swipes, but the timing of your inputs alters the exact move you make - allowing a block to be turned into a parry, for example. If you knock an enemy up into the air it's possible to juggle them as they return to the ground, and you can easily switch between your two primary weapons mid-combo. The fluid nature of combat and the (seemingly) accessible nature of the controls bring Fable to mind, though this may also be due to the game's vibrant appearance. Todd McFarlane's art style is bright and caricature-like, but thankfully it stops short of being cute or cartoonish. The mandatory goblin-like enemies, Boggarts, are presented as pint-sized tribesmen in wooden masks, muttering in low voices as they surround the player. They're fairly amusing as enemies go, but they still bleed profusely when dying by your sword - so don't write this off as simple fare for the kiddies, just because it dares to be colourful.
It seems that 38 Studios is well aware of this association, as it is repeatedly stressing that this is a proper RPG, rather than an action game with RPG elements. In old-school style you can expect to find a mountain of loot on your travels, but inventory management will be simplified via a small nod to modern design: when you pick up something you don't need you can add it to your Trash Pile, then the next time you visit a merchant you'll be able to sell off all your unwanted goods in a single transaction. It's another neat idea in a game that seems intent on refining and reworking the tenets of the RPG handbook, without killing too many of the genre's sacred cows.
It's early days yet, but it has to be said that EA's pre-alpha code looks really rather good. There's no clear sense of what the grander story will be like, nor have we seen much of the non-combat side of proceedings. More importantly, it's hard to get a sense of the game's wider geography. This is being billed as an open world game, but there's only so much you can tell from linear slivers of gameplay that have been stitched together for demo purposes. All the same, my first impressions are undeniably warm. Unwieldy title aside, there's a strong suggestion that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning might be worth a visit.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC in 2012.