This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning in remembrance of its one-year anniversary this past February, knowing I'd have to contend with two things that dominated discussion about the game: the politics and failures behind the 38 Studios disaster and dealing with a game I had been warned was filled with fantasy nonsense names and detailed lore – a model of storytelling I find quite annoying. But when I finally played Reckoning, I was surprised to learn how much I enjoyed it. I had an instant gut reaction to the game's beauty. It reminded me of the best times I'd spent in massively multiplayer role-playing games, and that was totally unexpected.
My first character in World of Warcraft, the MMORPG that consumed most of my time with the genre, was a Night Elf starting on the island of Teldrassil. What I remember of that first character's journey wasn't tied to game mechanics, player interaction or even narrative, it was the feel of that starting zone. I remember the lush setting, trees with a slightly exotic, magical tinge, luxurious purples and greens, the seemingly perpetual twilight, the hints of corruption and danger, and the music hinting at all of those things and the history of the Night Elves. Indeed, most of my best experiences while playing WoW solo took place in those verdant, corrupted provinces, with Feralas probably my favorite of the old world.
I didn't expect to ever have the same feeling again, but Reckoning delivered. The reaction I experienced with World of Warcraft seemed like a feeling that could only come along once. That expectation had been reinforced by the last several MMORPGs I've played that failed to provide me with the same reaction. Star Wars: The Old Republic felt too mechanical and over-designed. Guild Wars 2 had the right art design, but even then I was acutely aware of how I in the middle of a video game and not transported to a world, thanks in part to it making its beautiful vistas a series of collectibles. And I certainly didn't expect it from a single-player game, because their smaller scope almost never makes you feel like being a small part of a large world.
As soon as you pop out of the short opening dungeon in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the game presents you with a lush, verdant forest setting to wander around. The trees are greener than normal trees, the plants vast and purple. The setting of the entire first act takes place in the cartoonishly gorgeous forest of Dalentarth. What Reckoning seems to get, that most of the games described as single-player MMORPGs do not, is that the aesthetics more than the mechanics are critical to conveying that idea of being a part of a huge world.
Instead, most of those single-player games have relied on adapting the mechanics of their massively multiplayer counterparts, which seems mistaken and backwards to me. The incredible success of Everquest and World of Warcraft made the MMORPG combat model easier to spot in single-player games. That form of slow, real-time battles of class-based parties with special abilities reliant on cooldown meters made its way to into some of the highest-profile single-player games of the last decade: Dragon Age: Origins in the west and Final Fantasy XII in Japan, for example. The flawed assumption in the translation of multiplayer combat to single-player RPGs is that MMORPGs are popular because of, not despite, that combat.
Specifically, there are a large number of compromises which are necessary to make massively multiplayer games accessible. Combat is real-time so that slow players don't annoy everyone, but it's slowly-paced with cooldowns so that players with better reflexes don't dominate.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning avoids that combat mechanic trap by making its battles something that could only work in a single-player setting. These take their cues from action games like God of War, with fast-paced combos, dodging, and stylized executions. This makes Reckoning play smoothly – combat is fast and fun, and appropriate to the solo, single-character structure of the game. Since the combat isn't stressful or dissonant, it's easier to focus on exploration and the world of Amalur.
That leaves room for Reckoning to take the most effective parts of massively multiplayer games. In addition to the aesthetics and their immediate emotional grab, Reckoning's level design is also MMORPG-like, with large segmented provinces, connected by much more limited passages and roads. Each of these has a few quest-givers who tend to push you gently in the next direction once you've completed what you need to, which was precisely my experience with World of Warcraft.
I wouldn't go quite so far as to say that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is some unheralded classic Its quest rhythm makes it too easy to get bogged down in the mass of barely-differentiated side quests, while the action-style combat that's so good at first struggles to remain fresh over dozens of hours. But even though it's not perfect, and even though I may struggle to play it to completion, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning reminded me of the potential aesthetic beauty of role-playing games, be them either single- or multiplayer. That is the reputation it deserves.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.