Monday, June 24, 2013

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

A lot of mixed reviews have been floating around the internet about this game and I have considered trying it on a few occasions. Although I expected it to quite mediocre, swords are always a plus. When it came available for free through PS+ in June, I decided to give it a spin. As expected, there was nothing revolutionary about it but nevertheless it was quite enjoyable to play. I'll explain how in just a bit. Let it just be said that this game lacks original ideas and its plot is the usual nonsensical teenage fantasy crap (well, R. A. Salvatore was involved in writing it so no surprises there). I am not above enjoying such plots every now and then but the one in Amalur made less sense than most. Anyway, story, not the point.

1. Busywork gaming

Amalur is the perfect excuse to write about busywork gaming. Unfortunately I have forgotten the source for the term but the concept is interesting. It explains the popularity of a lot of genres including a bunch of Facebook games and of course MMOs. Being an offline MMO, Amalur definitely employs a lot of busywork gaming. The appeal of busywork gaming is in stark contrast to what is usually understood as good game design. It is, roughly, progress without challenge. It is totally stress-free, and more or less comparable to watching television. Although Amalur has some degree of challenge on the highest difficulty, much of the game is about constantly doing some small tasks to improve your character.

As such it is a power trip much like Borderlands, but Amalur offers even less variety and space for creativity. Instead, it offers several different systems of busywork. Sidequests are just the start. As usual, there are a) too many of them and b) they are too boring. They don't really provide much of anything either - most of the rewards are just money and experience. The crafting systems are what actually hold more appeal to them because of their more immediate rewards. Amalur is a game ruled by equipment so it is quite easy to see how crafting your own has high appeal - especially when the crafted equipment is actually better than stuff you can find most of the time.

There are actually three different crafting systems, two of which kind of overlap a bit, and one that is entirely separate (alchemy, for potions obviously). This means a lot of collecting, and that is more or less what the player does all game long. Most found equipment goes into the grinder to see what components drop out. Surprisingly there is no grinding involved because stuff is abundant and naturally encountered while going through quests. As some readers might have noticed, I have mixed opinions about crafting systems. Amalur falls mostly into the light side, because crafting doesn't work with recipes. The outcome is the sum of components used, no mystery involved (well, except alchemy, that works with recipes).

It is indeed the fluidity of systems that make busywork in Amalur strangely relaxing. Basically everything is guaranteed to grant progress, be it experience (levels come with new crafting skills) or components. This is what makes it somewhat different from recipe-based crafting systems where new components are only useful if they are part of a recipe the player wants to make. In Amalur each component creates new crafting options - although they are not always actually useful. Customization also grants a greater sense of ownership over the created piece of equipment - and hey, you can name it too. In contrast, recipe-based systems always feel more like obtaining a piece of equipment in unnecessarily small pieces.

So although I do often bash various games about their busywork aspects, I do indeed enjoy it when it is done correctly. I can even somewhat enjoy large grinding efforts if they are done for a greater purpose. Busywork gaming is, all in all, still guaranteed progress. It is suitable for times when even gaming stress is not particularly welcome. We all do all sorts of meaningless things for the sake of progress in meaningless efforts to take our mind off other things. It is my belief that to work, busywork systems indeed have to guarantee progress. Grinding for items with super low drop rates (F U, Demon's Souls) doesn't fit the bill.

I'll try to find the book section or article I used as the source for this, it is more interesting than my rambling about the subject.

2. Sidequest, man, what happened to you?

Another sidequest rant, yay. They are a freaking plague though, someone has to stop the madness. As a concept the sidequest has existed for god knows how long, but somewhere along the line something happened to it. It has become a bureaucracy of faceless tasks. While some games like Borderlands 2 grant a great deal of personality to their sidequests, the whole thing is now a system. You have your quest log with its completion ratios, milestones and cute little check markers for done quests. Every corner of the world has some helpless or ten in need of your help (while you should be busy saving the world).

I don't have a problem with sidequests as a concept. The problem is their modern "quantity over quality" design philosophy. I would not be surprised to find out that some games have generated sidequests and sadly, those would not be that much worse than what we have now. Every RPG seems to want to provide 100 hours of gameplay, regardless of the length of its main content. The most disturbing thing about this pandemic is the flood of new quest logs entries upon entering every single new area. It's just overwhelming. At first you might try to do all just to be sure, then be on the lookout for ones with nice fat rewards and in the end it's just fuck-all, I want to finish this game.

Some sidequests in Amalur are however reminiscent of better days - which is why I included this section in the first place. Remember Baldur's Gate 2 where most sidequests would actually take you to an entirely new place or in the very least have an actual plot of their own? In comparison, modern sidequests are mere tasks at best. Every now and then though, there are ones that make an effort. Amalur has faction quests, a set for each of the game's six or so factions. Unlike your bread and butter tasks, these quests actually form a side plot of multiple quests. Although the quests themselves are equally bland as the rest, the continuity does go a long way toward creating better experience.

I call for a sidequest reform. If a quest doesn't involve any sort of joy of discovery, be it a side plot or, a new area or an exciting enemy, it should not be in the game. Want to add gameplay hours? Make the quests longer, without increasing their number. I take one long quest any day over ten small ones. Of course we all know that creating new content is expensive, which is why they don't do this. So here's a radical idea: don't have sidequests at all if there's no real budget for them. I know the reply will be "but you don't have to do them!" but there never is any indication how optional they really are. Games set different expectations, but it is usually not implied in any way.

This puts the player in a weird position. In one hand, they want to of course get any advantage they can in form of rewards - but, on the other hand, doing too many sidequests is going to make the main quest a cakewalk. BG2 actually had a good indicator for what is enough: once the player had enough gold to proceed in the main story, they were likely to also have enough levels to have an enjoyable challenge in the main quest. Of course a lot of people probably did most of the quests anyway because, you know, they were actually interesting.What purpose do sidequests serve in your game? Perhaps it is something the player would also like to know.

Another thing to consider is sidequest density. The further in the game the player is, the more likely they are bored to death with repetitive sidequests so maybe new ones shouldn't be popping as frequently. It's easy to say "don't do them", but the fact that they are there, in your quest log, is always nagging you. We don't like unfinished business after all. So consider this: after doing sidequests by the bucket, do players really feel like being showered in even more? The busywork appeal only lasts for so long, and after that there's just the nagging. At first there's the excitement of exploring a new world, and sidequests can be good guides - but this does not last forever. 

It feels like this sidequest business is for RPGs what multiplayer is to other genres. You just have to have it, says the publisher. I don't see anyone bashing a game for not having enough sidequests.

3. Ability trees and combat balance

Although an offline MMO by design, Amalur does have a surprisingly decent combat system. As far as action RPGs go though, it is fairly standard. You have your strikes, blocks, dodges and spells - the latter not too many in number, even when playing a mage. It's not a revolution, but it works. At leats on hard difficulty there's even some challenge. This is created by following the basic principles of stagger and recovery mechanics. Everything has a longish recovery time, which opens a careless player to enemy attacks. Enemy attacks stagger, so the player has to go on defensive mode. All in all, a functional system. Now let's talk about abilities.

I have talked about over-conservative skill design before. In general, it means that the designers have been too afraid of imbalances. The end result is that all abilities in the game are rather unremarkable. I did not fully explore the other two trees of course, but at least the Might tree (for warriors, obviously) had mostly abilities that were truly bland. You have your passive number bonuses and a handful of actives. You won't see the effects of most abilities. One active that is supposed to be crowd control has such a long casting time that it becomes almost useless. Another ability doesn't even work as described (which would have made it useful).

What usually happens though is that there is one ability that outshines everything else. It may sound unremarkable on paper, or it might even be disguised. In this case it was disguised by making it look weak on level 1. You can't actually see the upper levels beforehand, so there is no way of knowing. Actually my alarm bells should have rung though, even with the -50% armor penalty on the first level. You see, the ability makes the player immune to stagger. On highest level, the armor penalty is gone too. Now, stagger immunity is huge. The meaning of stagger (aka hit stun) has been discussed before, but let me remind you.

The biggest threat in games like this is often not the damage from a single attack, but the stagger. Groups of enemies are the most dangerous because they can engage the player in a stagger chain. Since being staggered typically prevents and intercepts attacks, it is a big deal. A huge deal really. Stagger is what gives fighting its dynamic and prevents it from becoming a DPS mashfest. Being immune to stagger is a massive advantage to the point that I still consider poise to be broken in Dark Souls. See, if your attacks cannot stagger the enemy, they lose all of their threat. The opponent has no reason to respect your attacks, and attacking becomes a loser's game.

Poise in Dark Souls had drawbacks and it could have been balanced with more consideration. Too few things in the game punished having high poise, and too many rewarded it. Poise made you slow, because only heavy armor granted it. Being slow was not big enough of a deal in the game but it could have been. Fighting in melee against someone with high poise in online was a game you could only win by not playing. Whenever you attacked, they could also attack and possibly follow up with more while laughing your stagger off. The best way to fight them would have been to wait for their attack and parry it, but they had no reason to attack really. So, basically no one had incentive to attack.

Back to Amalur though. So if poise, which wasn't always full stagger immunity mind you, is broken, how would you think of full stagger immunity with no drawbacks? Okay it had a 20 second duration, but that also is quite a long time. However with two linked abilities, this one became absolutely game-breaking. Here is what you can get on top of full stagger immunity, from the same skill: a chance to reflect damage back to the enemy and a chance to steal health. Not only is the threat of stagger gone, you don't actually need to care about most damage either because your uninterruptable attacks will constantly heal you.  This is honestly so ridiculous that I do not see how it got through playtesting. After obtaining this package the game does become a trivial mashfest.

This ability is so dominating that everything else in the tree becomes redundant. It solves every possible situation in the game, for free (practically at leat - there's a mana cost but you can regen it between fights). Furthermore, there is nothing interesting in the ability tree so it's not like there are even any cool alternative ways to play a fighter. There are no drawbacks, so it is impossible to design around it - anyone with full stagger immunity will be at least as good in every situation as  those without, and often better (in Amalur, always better). As I said I didn't try the other two trees but I somehow doubt their ability to compete with this insanely broken ability. It is simply impossible to die with this ability.

In closing, I want to stress this: never ever give stagger immunity to the player for free. Even if it has a cost, make sure the cost is steep enough, because stagger immunity is very likely to break your game. It's good to throw on some enemies if you want to make them really nasty though. Stagger immunity in a nutshell: Enemies yes, players no.


I did enjoy my trip to Amalur for most of its duration. Although the game is really nothing special, it does have enough appeal and can be rushed quite quickly once it starts to get boring. As far as offline MMO experiences go, it is not bad at all. It's got nice scenery. Very lazy dungeon design though, as I was able to recognize certain "building blocks" that were present in many dungeons, looking exactly the same. Should you play it though? If you don't mind the potential time sink factor, you are probably better off playing a solid MMO for much of the same appeal. Likewise, if you are looking for some good sword and sorcery action, there are the Souls and Witchers. However if you are like me and have actually played most of the important titles already and yearn for some heroic, light adventure then go ahead.

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