Game Review: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360

Also available for: Windows PC

From: Big Huge Games/38 Studios/EA

ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, suggestive themes)

Price: $60

Role-playing games aren't expected to play as crisply as pure action games do, and action games need not run as deep in the storytelling and character-building departments as role-playing games do. These are the compromises we've come to accept and expect.

So when something like "Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning" comes along and shoots for the moon in both areas, it's hard not to pay attention.

And when it hits the moon flush, it's impossible.

It doesn't hurt that, while doing this, "Reckoning" also inspires hope that it's capable of putting a similar charge in the stagnant art of fantasy storytelling.

Whether it actually succeeds may come down to how you play. "Reckoning's" massive world easily holds more than 100 hours' worth of main and side quests awaiting completion, and each has a story to tell or character/land/race/legend to introduce. But as often happens with a story that sprawling, tales have a tendency to get weighed down and spread thin amid a gargantuan list of names to remember and quest objectives that, at least structurally, are more formulaic than not.

At the same time, there's plenty to love about the colorful world in which "Reckoning's" legend unfolds, and your role in it - as a mortal human who returns from death to shatter an immortal race's sacred (and comforting) belief that everyone's fate is set in stone and documented in full - is a terrific catalyst around which to assemble it. That storyline can't help but occasionally disperse in the sea of characters, quests and everything else "Reckoning" offers outside the main road, but if you tend to it regularly and stay abreast of the mythology, the story makes good on the possibilities.

For its part, "Reckoning's" interfaces make it pretty painless to manage not only your quest log, but the usual host of traditional role-playing elements. Though combat is as real-time here as it is in a game like "God of War," classic role-playing underpinnings - hit points, experience points, dropped spoils from defeated enemies - still apply.

Most of what "Reckoning" does is borrowed, but it's borrowed from the best. Dialogue trees and moral barometers are Bioware game staples. The chance to find (and craft) rare armor and weapons is heavily reminiscent of "Diablo," right down to the color-coded system for increasingly rare tiers of loot. Lockpicking, extracting plants for potions, joining factions, committing crimes and warping to locations you've previously discovered are "Elder Scrolls" hallmarks. And while the system for leveling up your character is smartly designed around your fateless blank slate, it's assembled using timeless role-playing pieces.

Where "Reckoning" surprises is with how it puts those pieces into play. The aforementioned "God of War" comparison wasn't an oversell, because "Reckoning's" polished action plays markedly in that vein - fast, violent, and with equal importance placed on your skills as a player and the choices you make for your character's abilities and arsenal.

Initially, when your skills are limited and your inventory light, it's fun but simple. But as you level up, unlock new abilities and tap into the surprisingly wide array of weapon classes, the doors blow off the barn. Streamlined controls make it possible to transition between melee, ranged and magic attacks without pausing the combo, much less the game, and as tougher enemies appear, "Reckoning" places a premium on blocking, evasion and (to a wholly optional degree) stealth tactics as well.

Before long, "Reckoning's" combat is dishing out a kitchen sink's worth of ways to play, and doing so at the same fast pace at which it began. It's always been fun to find a rare, absurdly powerful weapon in a role-playing game, but being able to wield it with abandon - as "Reckoning" gleefully allows - takes that fun to a whole different plane.

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