I want to begin this musing by saying that I am a huge Elder Scrolls fan. When I was growing up the game that made me think about getting into game development was Diablo, followed by Diablo 2. But the game that cemented that fact for me was Morrowind. And what a game that was. I was about 12 or 13 the first time I played it, and for me it was the openness that blew me away and the world that sucked me in. No other game I had played up until that point was so… huge. As a player I felt like I could do anything I wanted. Which is why I stole every spoon, fork and plate just because I could. I remember walking up to the Silt Strider in Seyda Neen(the starting town) to fast travel to another town for maybe the third time and then suddenly coming to the realisation that this wasn’t a game where you have to “teleport” between levels. I could WALK to Balmora(the second town) if I wanted to! And that’s when the game captured the guts of 400 hours of my childhood.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was a great addition to the series and while I had my issues with it, it was still more of that Elder Scrolls world I had fallen in love with. Fallout 3 to me was “Oblivion 2:The Dark Future” more so than a sequel to the original Fallout games. And the build up to Skyrim releasing was nerve-wracking and painful. It was similar to the Diablo 3 build up which is currently driving me crazy. But when Skyrim released, it was fantastic. I’ve never been happier with an Elder Scrolls game. Oblivion was great but never lived up to Morrowind for me. But Skyrim… Skyrim was like the amalgamation of everything I loved in Morrowind and everything they improved in Oblivion, and more. The world drew me in, the scale still blew me away, the combat was more fun and everything just felt bigger and better.
Alright now that I’ve explained how much I adore the Elder Scrolls franchise, I want to talk about a game which was released a little too soon(for me) after Skyrim and is in some ways similar, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. I keep seeing the two games getting compared and I keep hearing the reasons why one is better than the other. But to me, even though they are similar in the sense that they are both open world RPGs, they are miles different with the experience they are providing.
Skyrim is a world where things seem real. There are dragons, there is magic and a whole host of other unrealistic elements, but they are all handled in a way which makes you think “If Skyrim was real, all of this stuff could totally make sense.”. Amalur as a world, is not in any way trying to be real. They push the fantasy elements in more colourful and crazy ways. Artistically and stylistically Amalur is beautiful, but completely unrealistic. Greatswords in Amalur are huge and exaggerated, hammers are much the same. Everything in Amalur is done to make you, as the player, feel awesome. What’s interesting to me is how the two games are taking the same initial concept and going completely separate but equally awesome directions. At this point I find it important to note that the Executive Designer on Amalur, Ken Rolston was previously the Lead Designer on both Morrowind and Oblivion.
There are two major reasons why I loved the 80 hours(so far) that I’ve put into Amalur. The first is that feeling of being awesome. There are a whole bunch of “feel good” games these days where you play an empowered character capable of taking on the world, but there’s a lot more to it than that in Amalur. To me as a game designer, Amalur is a masterpiece. Starting characters in Amalur feel quite bland to play. You have one attack combo which involves hammering the attack button and watching your character go through his three piece combo. When you unlock a new skill in Amalur it adds a new level to your character rather than just adding another “this spell/ability deals X damage blah blah blah”. You skills add depth to the gameplay. They allow you to charge up an attack with the attack button. Or change up your combo by delaying a button press rather than hammering the button. And once this started to happen, I knew Amalur was something special. Suddenly I wasn’t leveling my character so that I do slightly more damage, take slightly more damage and wear slightly better equipment. I was leveling up to see what other interesting things my character could do. There’s something incredibly rewarding about a game, especially an RPG, that allows you to unlock new parts of your character’s moveset.
Another way in which Amalur is a godsend designwise is in inventory management. Most of the loot you find in a game like this is stuff you want to sell back to a vendor, naturally. Every gamer and designer knows this. Skyrim again takes the “realistic” approach, as suits the title, and you need to sell potions to a potion vendor, weapons to a weapon vendor etc. Skyrim also gives vendors a set amount of currency for the day, so if you need to sell more stuff, you need to wait for them to gain this back. Amalur on the other hand, makes selling stuff a breeze. I honestly did not realise how much hassle it was to sell my loot in Skyrim until I played Amalur. In Amalur, as you’re adventuring through caves or open plains, you can go into your inventory and choose any item to be added to your Junk pile. Then on returning to any vendor, you can sell each and every item in that Junk pile with one button press. That’s right, a single button press. Another design choice I personally loved was the ability to “respec” your character as you wished. That opened up a whole new level of the game for me. Instead of spending 10 minutes weighing up my options every time I leveled up, I was choosing what I thought I wanted straight away because I wasn’t being punished for making a wrong decision. All of these things allows you to keep having a lot of fun with title by avoiding the usually tedious aspects of RPGs.
I mentioned earlier there were two big things that made me love my experience with Amalur. The game design is the first. The second is that it gave me that feeling I got when I first played Morrowind. It’s a feeling which is really hard to put into words but basically it’s a feeling of “this game is just so vast compared to anything else I’ve played”. It’s not just that the world is huge, or that it’s varied, or that there is so much to do but a combination of all these things. As I played Amalur I couldn’t help think “if this was the first open world RPG I played at age 13, it would have had as big an impact on me as Morrowind did.” And that’s possibly the one of the biggest compliments I can give a game to be honest. Amalur wasn’t perfect, no more so than Morrowind was in its time, but hot damn it’s a fantastic game!
So to collect my thoughts and musings, as this seems to have turned into a longer post than I intended, I love both of these games. I think Skyrim is leaps and bounds ahead of any other game world out there. I can get completely lost in the experience to the point that I forget I have a life outside of Skyrim. But I think Amalur is so incredibly well designed as a game, that it would almost be impossible not to have fun playing it. So my final point is this: there will never be a perfect game in any genre because you have to make concessions on certain aspects of a game to make others perfect. But Skyrim and Amalur are both phenomenal, so check them out!
Eoghan “megajenius” O’Donovan