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Amalur? I hardly knew her.

Here is a game that initially fell under the radar because it is yet-another-fantasy RPG, and I have a ton of those already that I can not make adequately time to play, so why buy another?  However, following a Rock Paper Shotgun suggestion to play Kingdoms of Amalur:Reckoning, I gave the demo a spin, and almost immediately fell in love.    And why not ?  The game was excellently reviewed, even if the developers themselves were worried it wasn't that fun, and sadly the studio is finished so we won't be seeing more of it.

Putting that aside, however, let me tell you one little thing about me: I hold the quality of the central game mechanic as the most important thing about the game.  What impressed me so much about the Kingdoms of Amalur demo is that I was able to identify that it did several things better than Skyrim, and I'm not the only one to notice this.   First and foremost to my concern, however, is what you (as the player) will be doing for the majority of the time and, like Skyrim, that comes down to combat.

Though it may be the best system in the Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim's combat sucks.
  • Sword and shield is the most advanced style, attacking with one hand while blocking with the other, but how do you attack?  Click to swing, hold down the button to do a power attack.  (I call it "more advanced" because you need to keep a second mechanic in mind with the blocking hand on the other button.)
  • Archery?  Click to fire an arrow, hold down the button before releasing to do a more powerful attack. 
  • Destruction magic?  Click to cast a spell, equip in both hands and hold down both buttons to do a more powerful attack.   
You should be seeing a pattern here: Skyrim's core combat mechanic is simply "regular attack and power attack" no matter how you choose to do your damage.  In this way, combat in Skyrim is very simple, and the gratuitous "kill cam" animations would almost seem to be there by means of apology.

Well, okay, there's a little more to Skyrim's combat than that.  Specialized perks do unlock melee directional attack modifications, but they're quite shallow.  For example, you can unlock it so that, when you hold back on movement when you perform a power attack, you have a 25% chance to paralyze (which is not interesting enough, IMLTHO).  There's also a dragon shouting system but, for me, it always felt tertiary and strange, adding something to a melee Dovahkiin but feeling sorely vestigial to anyone who already had some magic spells.  I often forgot I could shout at all because there simply was not a place in my combat routine - the only really useful shout was usually the "slow time" shout.

In this way, Skyrim's combat does not give the brain a whole lot to chew on, and this is what I mean when I'm talking about the importance of a central game mechanic.  I keep trying to get back into Skyrim, but this overly simple, now-thoroughly-played-out-for-me mechanic keeps driving me away.  Thinking back, I was bored of Skyrim's combat before I even played Skyrim, because what was my first Dovahkiin's organically-chosen stats?  Conjuration and archery.  Conjuration because I'd rather summoned beasties do the fighting than me, and archery because it was a straightforward way to end battle quicker by adding damage from afar.

Amalur's combat is unabashedly over-the-top, which may bother players who prefer more realism, but more importantly it keeps the player occupied.
 
So it is with great relief that I say that, along the lines of a more interesting combat mechanic than Skyrim, Kingdoms of Amalur delivers. 
  • In Amalur, each type of weapon (longswords, greatswords, hammers, daggers, chakram, staves, a few others) has a unique three (or more) hit combos, power attacks, blocking combo attacks, and more.  There's a different pace and strategy to using them all, whereas in Skyrim the primary difference between a dagger, longsword, and greatsword is simply how fast the weapon swings (and that you can't wield an offhand weapon, shield, or spell with a two-handed weapon equipped).
  • In Amalur, spells are essentially another extravagant attack.  In Skyrim, they're just crude jets, bolts, or waves.  In Amalur, when you hit something with an elemental vulnerability to a particular kind of spell or elementally charged weapon, it is actually broadcast, so you know that's a good attack to use... not so in Skyrim, which is a pity because those meaty enemy health bars make it next to impossible to gauge if you're using a particularly effective elemental attack or not.
  • There may not be dragon shouts in Amalur, but there is a mechanic where, once you have accumulated enough fate points to maximize your fate bar, you can enter a temporary extreme badass mode.  That's a fun mechanic partly because it subjects the players' eyes to marvelous fantasy violence porn as your hero carves up enemies with weapons fabricated out of raw fate energy. 
A common critique among some Amalur players is they get in a pattern of defeating everything with the same boring attacks, but playing the game in the most boring way possible is partly their fault.  Granted, one could level the same critique against me and how I often forget to even consider using dragon shouts in Skyrim due to their general lack of usefulness.

Aside from combat, Amalur has improved gameplay on a great deal of other systems as well:
  • Alchemy is about the same: combine up to four regents and see what you get, Skyrim keeps better track of failed experimentation, while Amalur provides convenient access to making potions you already know and buying recipes adds them to that interface.  Still, I will say that Amalur makes identifying what plants are good for considerably more intuitive because there's only one affect per plant and it tells you up front what they are.  Skyrim's four-effects-to-plant discovery system is rather a chore after the nth time of trying to populate my plant database on a new character.
  • Smithing is a bit more complicated than Skyrim's method of turning ingots into weapons and then "refining" those weapons with more ingots.  In Amalur, smithing involves breaking things down into components (or buying those components from a vendor) and then combining those components to make better gear.
  • Enchanting is replaced with "sagecrafting."  Instead of capturing souls in gems, you find gems, and combine two of them to create gems that you can socket in gear.  It's quite a bit more sophisticated, but not quite as open-ended as Skyrim's system in that you can't simply take a Grand Soul Gem and put any enchantment in the game that you've learned on it, you need to have the right gems for the job.
  • While Skyrim has 18 skills you can improve up to 100, Amalur has multiple progression systems.  In Amalur, there's an "ability" tree that is somewhat similar to Diablo 2 in that you unlock the next abilities by investing points in a the ability trees and sufficient points invested in each of the three trees unlock more abilities, albeit it lacks branching.  There's also a "skill" system where you can find the trade skills, detect hidden, two kinds of lock breaking skills, stealth, and a few others - ten ranks of each skill, five of each can be unlocked if you find the trainers and skill books.  There's also a "destiny" system that is basically choosing class benefits (such as doing bonus elemental damage).  A complete progression refund system is in Amalur, but then, Dragonborn added something similar in Skyrim.
  • Amalur's user interface is quite a bit better than Skyrim, unless you're using the SkyUI mod, in which case I'd say they're about the same once you factor in Amalur's bugs (which are fortunately quite rare).
  • I would even argue Amalur has a slightly better stealth mechanic because you can see yourself being detected by individual enemies, whereas in Skyrim you just know you're being detected by someone.  The time it takes you to be discovered in Amalur is a little more generous, too.
About the only thing Skyrim does better than Amalur is overall immersion, since Skyrim an absolutely gorgeous first-person-perspective experience and Amalur's rag dolls are glitchier, and lockpicking, which has a suspiciously identical mechanic in Amalur but it's balanced and looks better in Skyrim. 

So it's good thing I didn't buy that Dragonborn expansion, I think I'm done with Skyrim.  As far as being a "single player, fantasy RPG, with equal parts combat and dialogue" is concerned, it has been usurped by Kingdoms of Amalur.

I shouldn't be surprised.  It seems the developers behind Amalur have really done their homework on the competition.  Indeed, I can see parts that have been appropriated from other competing titles in the field.  I've already mentioned how the skill progression reminds me of Diablo, but it also borrowed the idea of equipment slots and loot having prefixes and suffixes.  The atmospheric musical score, third person perspective, and equipment balance has been managed in a way very similar to Fable.  A lot of that crafting mechanic reminds me of the Two Worlds series.  Those quest hubs, and a hint in the artistic style incorporation, has been taken from the reigning PC fantasy RPG champion, World of Warcraft.
This is the core complaint that Yahtzee rightfully levels at the game: just who is this game made for, really?   Although I'm not sure what he was thinking when he reported Kingdoms of Amalur was "baby's first Skyrim," because, given Skyrim's weaker game mechanics that I've outlined above, it's much closer to the other way around.

This decision to cop the best features from the genre may actually have hurt Amalur in the end because there's a significant question of who is this game really made for, really?  Copying Warcraft may have hurt them the most of all, because many players complain that Amalur is a single player MMORPG.  Because the world is huge, but you're ultimately alone with a bunch of NPCs.  You keep tripping over NPCs giving you quests, many of them, "find x amount of thing" or "kill x amount of monsters."  There's even a big fat experience bar stretched out over the bottom of the main GUI, which conveys to the player that grinding is as important here as it is in WoW.  Now Amalur was not only in competition with single-player games, it was in competition with MMORPGs as well.

Oh well.  All I can tell you for certain is that Kingdoms of Amalur is the most fun I had in a fantasy RPG since Rift was first released (before grinding the same dynamic event became overly gratuitous, before everybody was just min/maxing flavor-of-the-month builds, and before I found PvP involvement to be less than voluntary).   I guess I'll just wrap this up by saying I am passively mourning Big Huge Games' closure because, aside from leaving a few minor bugs behind, those guys did a great job on Kingdoms of Amalur and deserved better (and it would have been nice for them to survive to make those sequels and fix the bugs).

I do have a bit of a distraction from Kingdoms of Amalur coming up just now, as the immediate effect of the Planetside 2 server merge is probably something I should get on board with while it's hot, if only for the spectacle of seeing some genuinely large battles again.

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