Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A World Without Reckoning

I've had a copy of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning in my hands for the last few days.  The years-in-the-making project by Big Huge Games and 38 Studios, which went through both an IP switch and a name change over the course of its tumultuous development, has finally seen the light of day.  As an open-world RPG, it's been positioned by Electronic Arts' marketing team as, more or less, a competitor to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - though four months on, it's perhaps telling that Bethesda's title is still such fierce competition.

While I've enjoyed my time with Reckoning, the game is one of the strangest that I've played in a long time.  While it does a lot of things right - fast and fluid combat, a deep and engaging progression system (at least next to most other contemporary RPGs), and a massive world to explore, there's also something decidedly vacant about the Faelands.  As a game that draws much of its inspiration from MMORPGs, Reckoning serves as a case in point that bigger is not always better when it comes even to open-world games.

All World, No Content

The world of Reckoning is massive, even by modern open world standards.  Though perhaps some players roll their eyes at the prospect of yet another sandbox experience, it's hard not to be impressed by just how much terrain is featured in Reckoning.  That large game world is divided up into approximately 30 discrete zones; save for a few city areas and the interior levels (dungeons and buildings), all of them are sprawling, lush and gorgeous plains, forests and deserts that capture a certain limitlessness that few games do.  Opening the world map and pulling back the camera can be an equally impressive experience, as well.


This illusion of size is slowly diminished the longer the game goes on - not due to growing familiarity with the world or a recognition that it just isn't quite as big as it looks, but instead, due to the general lack of actual content populating it.  The towns and cities that players visit are soon revealed to only have two or three quests to complete, each of them providing about 5-30 minutes of gameplay (which is often just running from points A to B); moreover, once you've completed a task in a given location, it's time to move on to the next, never to return - in most cases, literally.

As imposing as the world of Amalur is, it's striking just how little of consequence actually exists within it.
While I can't say specifically how many locations Amalur has, it's got to number in the hundreds.  Most towns have around three or four buildings to be explored (some of them more or less empty, others full of NPCs to talk to, shops and services, etc.), there's usually two dungeons in every wilderness zone (almost always quest-related), and when one takes into account the number of zones in total, it's clear that there is a ton of ground to cover.  However, on a per-location basis, the amount of time spent is extremely low.  Many of those buildings will be visited for about 10 seconds before players move on.  Towns and cities only take a few minutes to see the entirety of.  Unless one's goal is to inspect ever single nook and cranny of the world, these vast spaces will be exhausted of gameplay in a matter of minutes, not hours.

While I don't like to draw comparisons that are too direct, there are many other RPGs on the market that make far better use of their game worlds.  Fallout 2, despite having about 20 major locations (each of them quite small to traverse), can potentially squeeze eighty hours out of a play-through based on sheer gameplay content alone - sure, you're not seeing a new area every few minutes, but that's not a big fault when there's always a new quest to embark on or character to talk to.  After the fan backlash against Dragon Age II's content reuse last year, it's fair that developers should be afraid of offering "too little" to players, but the flip-side of that is a huge game world that just doesn't have enough to sustain itself.  The fact is that Amalur's world could have easily been half its size, the filler trimmed away and the quests given greater focus, and it would have gained from it.


The Single-Player MMORPG


Aside from the sheer size of the world, Reckoning also does some curious things regarding the structure of that world - namely, it draws very heavy inspiration from MMORPGs.  As mentioned above, the world is broke up into distinct zones, connected by convenient canyons and passes that are probably serve both technical and gameplay functions.  The player's progress across the map is more or less west-to-east, with things opening up a little bit more at the midgame point as the player's objectives expand.

For gameplay purposes, MMOs typically split their worlds up into discrete zones.  Not only does this make things easier for the developers to handle, but it also provides a level of certainty and structure for players that helps both understanding of the game world and the game balance.  Zones can usually be classified as belonging to a particular level range, defined by the monsters and quests that exist in it - 1-5 is a starter zone, for instance, while a level 80 zone is for the players who have more or less reached the top of the food chain.  Within each zone, there's usually a quest hub, such as a town or camp, which provides the player's tasks as long as he/she stays in that location, and provides essential services (healing, repairs, etc.).

Due to the sprawling nature of MMOs, and the fact that they offer more content than just about any player could ever hope to see without repeat play-throughs, there's almost never a reason to stay in a zone once it's been out-leveled, as the rewards for completing those old quests are likely to be outstripped by the ones in the new areas - and let's face it, chances are nobody's hunting down Smoked Rat Tails for the sake of the engaging narrative.  It's a simple but effective method of compartmentalizing gameplay that works within a multiplayer setting, where the sheer amount of space is needed to house so many players.

The player spends almost all the game in Planescape: Torment's Sigil, which serves to deepen the player's understanding of and emotional bond to the location and its characters.
Most traditional single-player RPGs do follow a similar quest hub structure, but instead of running off to the next hub once one has been exhausted, instead players are asked to gradually familiarize themselves with the game world.  This has a number of benefits and reasonings behind it:
  1. Reuses existing game locations for more efficiency in content creation.  Why make a new location when you can use the same one multiple times?
  2. Helps build an emotional bond to the setting and characters, as the player will spend more time in the same places over the course of the game.
  3. Gives a sense of consequence, as the world can be depicted to change based on the player's actions.
  4. Objectives can span the world rather than just individual locations, and tasks as a result can often cover the length and breadth of a game - most RPGs have at least a few long-term quests.
Most lacking from Reckoning, I think, is that sense of emotional attachment.  At one point in the game, the player is given the option of destroying the town of Canneroc, a small silk-harvesting village in the middle of a spider-infested wood.  In a more traditional RPG, the decision to destroy this town would not be something taken lightly: chances are the player would have spent some time there, got to know its residents, its place in the world, been given some sort of investment into its well-being, etc.  However, in Reckoning, it's just another quest hub to move on from, and whether it continues to exist or not has no impact on the game as a whole.  What could have been an interesting moral decision is cheapened significantly by the lack of gameplay repercussions and the structure of the game itself.

I think it's very strange that Reckoning subscribes to this MMO-style world design.  As a single-player game driven largely by its quests, story and exploration factor, there's very little reason for players not to want to complete every bit of content (at least in theory).  Even if a zone's enemies are cannon fodder, or the loot is no good, players want to be able to tick those quests off one by one.  By segregating the game world in this manner, there's a fundamental conflict of interest between the world design and the motivations of players in navigating it.

Too... Much... Loot!

I'll be the first to admit that I love loot in RPGs.  Whether it's got random modifiers or you've just got a ton of unique items to experiment with, chances are loot drops are going to keep me occupied - and I'm not nearly as dedicated as some players out there.  In giving players a large number of inviting zones to explore as one of their selling points, however, Big Huge Games put themselves into a bit of a bind - exactly how to justify all that space?

Much as I pointed out in my analysis of RAGE last week, the answer is loot.  Lots of it.  There are standard junk items, uncommon items, rare items, unique items and set items, items with sockets, crafting items... just about anything you can think of that's an RPG standard has found its way into Reckoning, albeit with a lot of the useless stuff stripped away (no more hoarding pots and pans, sadly).  Chests, in their many whimsical permutations, dot the landscape as if they were plants, and masses of alchemical reagents fill the space in-between those chests.  You can scarcely walk more than 30 or so paces without running into something to loot, whether that's a fungal pod or a Brownie's backside.

Unfortunately, this extreme emphasis on the loot factor also reveals a major issue: that aside from plundering chests, there really isn't all that much to do in Reckoning's huge world.  There's plenty of stuff to find, yes, but 99% of it will be sold off as vendor trash.  As if the developers already realized this problem, the ability to send items straight to the junk bag for immediate selling or destruction has been placed on just about every inventory-related UI element.  If so much of this stuff is junk, even to crafters (who will likely only use a handful of pieces before finding gear they like), then it begs the question: why is there so much of it?  The only answer, of course, is: to give players something to do.

The loot in Kingdoms of Amalur is so prevalent that the mechanism it follows is not unlike that of a quick-time event - cheap and easy, but empty and meaningless at once.
A lot of anger has been directed towards quick-time events, and perhaps rightly so.  While they do have their advantages, a common over-reliance on them in order to produce effectively non-interactive sequences of gameplay can leave players feeling less involved, or even bored as they watch games rather than play them.  I propose, however, that the looting that's done in Amalur isn't all that far off.  After all, it still follows the exact same feedback loop of no-skill input resulting in disproportionately rewarding output... well, in Reckoning, that Awesome Button has a new name: Take All.

When provided as a reward for players after a tough battle, for completing a quest, or for exploring a far-off corner of the world, loot can be a fantastic way of motivating players and cultivating a feeling of accomplishment.  To be frank, however, press button -> get reward is not a particularly engaging game mechanic, and placing a treasure chest around every corner, paradoxically, only cheapens the value of what should be one of the game's major selling points.  Despite there being kilometers of game to explore, the loot system only emphasizes just how empty that space really is.

Closing Thoughts

For what it's worth, I do want to stress - Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a very fun game, beautiful, and has some excellent game mechanics.  However, as much as I want to like it, the sheer size of the game has a number of pitfalls to it.  The world, being as massive as it is, is necessarily empty and devoid of unique, interesting content, and the movement through the game from one zone to the next only serves to reinforce just how fleeting and inconsequential that unique content actually is.

Reckoning is more or less the prototype for an upcoming MMORPG, so it does make sense that the game follows at least some MMORPG-style design tenets.  At the same time, it's also very clear that what works for an MMO simply does not work well for a single-player game.  A story-driven experience demands that players are emotionally engaged with the game, and in focusing everything about the game world on the player, from movement through it to the transitory nature of the quests and objectives, it's harder to care about the larger picture.

Interestingly, I think one of the game's biggest failings isn't so much its size, but its portrayal of size.  In trying to portray multiple nations and kingdoms, and even different continents, it inevitably falls victim to its own necessary abstraction.  A game like Skyrim works because it is centered around a single province, and we are more ready to accept the compromises in scale needed to keep the game a reasonable size.  Amalur tries to convince players that its cities of twenty are some of the most bustling, important places in the world, and under such strain, the illusion shatters.

In short: Kingdoms of Amalur would have been an excellent 40-hour game.  Instead, it's merely a good 100+ hour one.

3 comments:

  1. This was what I was looking for! Thanks for the review on Amalur.

    (Spoiler Alert - Fallout 3)
    I liked how you showed your distaste for the quest involving the destruction of a city. I agree completely that such an action should have consequences to the game as a whole (such as the destruction of Megaton in Fallout 3). Some people may not agree with Megaton being a good example, but I felt that connection to Megaton, especially after doing so many quests helping out within the city (fixing pipes, gathering scrap) that the decision to destroy it was completely out of the question.

    Thanks for the review on the loot. I like to play RPG games mainly because of all the time I will be spending (or wasting) finding certain items, or parts of an item. I don't mind it one bit and I feel as if it is mandatory for a true-RPG type game. Judging by your analysis, Amalur is more related to WoW than Fallout, and I recently quit playing WoW, so I think I'll pass on this game for the moment.

    Just a question, have you read any of R.A. Salvatore's works? I was just wondering if the storyline had a "Salvatore" feel to it? If not, no worries. Thanks again for the excellent review Eric!

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  2. Not really a full review - I'll be writing that for GameBanshee.com in the next day or two. This was more my collected thoughts on the game's structure and MMO leanings not working out in the single player space.

    I'm not familiar with Salvatore, but the game has a strong bent of Irish mythology built in. The game's lore is thick, and somewhat generic fantasy (humans, elves, faeries, demons etc.) but is differentiated by how strongly the concept of Fate (capital F) is tied into the world. Everything in Amalur is dictated by fate, from the Fae (immortals who endlessly live out stories), to mortals.

    As a "Fateless One" who is capable of choosing his/her own destiny, your character is able to, later into the game, do some pretty huge things to the world - just that there aren't really any long-term consequences to any of it that actually play out in-game.

    The Fae and all the stuff built around them is by far the strongest part of the game, but unfortunately the developers really don't quite do enough with it. There aren't many interesting characters to speak of, and while the game sometimes does excellent things with its storytelling, at other times it completely drops the ball by having nonsensical locations, quests and so on. The backing lore really is quite extensive and interesting, but the game just does not take big advantage of it (similar to Dragon Age, which had tons and tons of history in codex entries but in practice was just a big "kill the big monster" story).

    Glad you enjoyed the article, and thanks for reading!

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  3. Ahh I see. I guess from the Fae, I can link them to Elves or Drows in Salvatore's works. He is most famous for his books on Drizzt Do' Urden. It would have been great if there was a character like him in the game, a legendary person, who despite their background, defeats the odds and becomes a hero. Sounds corny, but Drizzt had a large impact wherever he went. I guess the user choosing to be the "Fateless One" sort of covers the legendary person aspect of the game then.

    Thanks Eric, I'll be on the lookout for the GameBanshee review.

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