Anticipation can be a horrible thing. Not matter how good a game is, if it doesn’t reach my initial expectations, I will always find it hard to appreciate what it does well. Regular readers will know how much I was looking forward to Amalur. After going hands-on at an event in Sydney, I was convinced that it was going to be the next Skyrim, the RPG to consume hours and eat lives. I proceeded to tell the world. Twitter, Facebook and forums everywhere had entries from yours truly stating that Amalur was the next big thing. Well folks, I was wrong.
The game started with death, my death to be exact. As I was trundled towards a pile of bodies by two gnomes, I created my character, which went pretty much as I expected with only one abnormality – I didn’t pick a class. Once I had created my hero, I was lead through the tutorial which allowed me to sample the three different classes that Amalur had to offer. Here I found something a little different. The class system actually rewarded mixing disciplines. I played as a Battlemage, putting equal amounts of points into the Magic and Warrior skill trees. This unlocked destiny cards to suit my play style, giving me bonuses relevant to both my mystical and fighting abilities. I really appreciated this more natural progression system, as when I play RPGs I rarely want to stick to one path.
The combat in Amalur was, without a doubt, the highlight of the game. It felt like it was taken almost directly from Darksiders. I found myself with two active weapons and I could use any combination that I liked, from close quarter weapons such as swords and magical staffs to long range weapons such as sceptres and bows. Settling on a longsword/sceptre combination I managed to smash, bash, burn, freeze, shock and crush my way through countless waves of enemies. It wasn’t until the last few hours of the game, when my character was incredibly overpowered, that the combat lost its lustre. I found a wonderful flow with the fighting mechanics. The ability to seamlessly combo my two weapons and my magical abilities gave me a great sense of freedom when approaching groups of enemies. To put it simply, it was a lot of fun.
Somewhat regrettably, my enjoyment was limited to the combat. I found the rest of the game to have significant problems. Probably my biggest disappointment was the story. Given that it was written by famed fantasy author R.A. Salvatore, I had high hopes for a top class tale. Instead what I got was a mind numbing drudge through fantasy cliché. I just couldn’t bring myself to care about any of the one dimensional characters in the game and found myself pressing the skip button during 99% of the conversations. Without characterisation and plot to keep me interested, I found the last third of the game a bit of a chore. I was just going through the motions, causing me to turn the Xbox off more than once due to boredom.
The main story and faction quests were quite interesting. While they didn’t really tread any new ground, they mixed things up sufficiently to keep me playing. The side quests were another matter entirely. Usually when I play this sort of game, I suffer from an almost OCD need to finish every mission in the game. In Mass Effect 2, for example, I literally scanned every planet in the galaxy, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. However, not even my compulsive nature could keep me interested in the horrible MMO-style fetch quests served up by Amalur. Go to point A. Kill person B. Return for a reward. This was as complicated as it got and it just made my head hurt.
The setting also felt empty. The NPCs were generic and the locations, whilst amazing to look at, felt lifeless. The game world seemed to me as if it lacked soul. That is not to say I didn’t find any interesting locations to visit or complicated characters to interact with, because I did, there just weren’t enough of them. Whenever I discovered one of these appealing situations, it simply highlighted how desolate the rest of the game was. I couldn’t help but feel that the developers just ran out of time and padded out the game with cardboard cut-out characters and towns, instead of breathing life into a potentially interesting world.
In the end, despite my somewhat critical review, I had a good time with Amalur. If the game had been released five years ago, I would have loved it. Its problems actually feel like a legacy of that era. Since then, titles such as Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect 2 and Skyrim have not only addressed these issues, but firmly consigned them to the history books of bad game design. This just makes Amalur seem out-dated and hard to recommend when compared to these giants of the genre. If a sequel is to be made, Big Huge Games should take note of the lessons learned here, because if they do, Amalur could well be a world worth spending more time in.