I like Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning for what it attempts rather than what it accomplishes.
The Big Huge Games team at 38 Studios clearly wanted to maximize player agency by creating a highly polished hack & slash. Unfortunately, Reckoning’s combat doesn’t quite deliver. That it gets so close makes its flaws all the more glaring. What should heighten immersion diminishes it.
Not nearly as compelling as it looks
When we talk about facilitating immersion, we refer to several elements that encourage engagement: world building, sensory stimulus, and player agency.
RPGs like The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim take player agency to one extreme. The level of interactivity far outstrips most games at the cost of polish. Action games take it to the opposite extreme. In God of War, Kratos plods along linear corridors dispatching waves of enemies.
However, this simplistic description sells the genre short. Well executed action titles work by generating an experience called “flow,” a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. We feel it when our skill just matches the difficulty of the task at hand. Working toward the goal challenges us without frustrating us.
In the throes of flow, we concentrate so intently on a task that we literally can’t focus on anything else. The result: complete absorption. The outside world may as well cease to exist. In games, distraction works just as well as detail to draw players in.
(For a more detailed treatment of the concept, see Bitmob community writer Nathan Jedziniak's Leveling up with "Flow".)
RPGs, for all their world building and interactivity, don’t generally do this. They do distract on a much wider scale: players won’t worry as much about what’s on the other side of the far mountains (nothing but a skybox) if they’re too engrossed in the diversions on the near side. The resources needed just to make such a massive world generally preclude the focused effort required to create a tight combat system. But some developers have tried to bridge that gap.
With Mass Effect 2, Bioware created an intense sense of urgency in combat. The obvious influence of Gears of War works to its advantage. Enemies flank aggressively through environments riddled with side paths and entry points. Vicious and unyielding, they work to overwhelm the player. Flashy effects vie for attention, encouraging a state of mind that filters them out. Upping the difficulty a bit demands complete focus from even a Gears veteran.
Similar scene, more tension
Unfortunately, Reckoning’s combat is both too mechanical and too easy to achieve this. Enemies amble in sparse groups and hang back almost timidly, each waiting for its turn. Bumping the difficulty to maximum buffs enemy health and power slightly but doesn’t force the player to change strategy. Designs and effects lack character and fail to engage. The game falls prey to the oft heard complaint that, “I just pressed attack over and over.” (To be fair, I also dodged some.)
But why do I care so much? Why not just enjoy it for what it does right? Why compare it to games like God of War? Skyrim’s combat barely qualifies as such. Why not attack that game?
I’ve come to think that Masahiro Mori’s uncanny valley may actually represent a specific example of a wider phenomenon. His hypothesis says we feel revulsion at things that appear almost but not quite human. It happens because we’re so familiar with what a human should look like. But the valley respresents something more subtle than simply "does not meet expectations." Highly stylized representations, like cartoons, don’t produce the effect.
Not nearly as polished but, somehow, it doesn't matter
I’m suggesting a similar but more subdued sensation that applies to anything we’re sufficiently familiar with. Mass Effect 2 excels at imitating Gears; I accept it fully. Skyrim doesn’t try to do anything but improve Elder Scrolls, so I expect nothing else. Reckoning tries its hand at killing Olympians and makes a good effort. But something feels… off. When playing, I can’t get away from how artificial it feels.
Amalur never becomes a real place for me. It’s too busy being a pale imitation of another game. The more the medium matures and the longer we play, the less we will forgive. But that's not a bad thing.
I’m disappointed by Reckoning but it gives me hope for the future. That Big Huge made it at all means somebody agrees with me about what games should be. As long as developers keep trying to create the ultimate immersive experience, I’ll keep playing. I look forward to what comes next.
Do you feel Reckoning fails to deliver in the action department? It seems to borrow from a lot of games. Is it good that Big Huge Games made the effort to blend these elements or would it have been better if they picked a style and stuck to it? Where should RPGs be headed? Voice your opinion in the comments.