When Curt Schlling announced to the world at large he was a gamer they all kind of laughed at him. Okay not all, those of us that are gaming stood up and cheered. It was really cool to find another of us coming out of the closet and talking about our love of gaming. Curt however did not just talk about it, he put his money were his mouth is. Upon retirement from baseball he moved swiftly to form 38 Studios, a company dedicated to making an new MMO. To help him, Curt assembled an all-star level group of people and the process began.
When an opportunity opened for 38 Studios to acquire Big Huge Games Curt was all over it like a base running stealing home from a wild pitch. The acquisition meant they could produce a solo play game based on their MMOs game world, Amalur and do it with an experienced team that was ready to roll. So was born Kingdoms of Amular: The Reckoning.
The Reckoning is the gateway product to the world 38 Studios is producing, called Amalur. in Amalur the Fae, specifically the Winter Fae have gone mad and are killing all of the mortal races. The war goes badly for the mortals because the Fae are immortal and when you kill them they are reborn., the mortal races do not share this luxury. However a Gnome has created the answer, the Well of Souls. The Well has reconstructed your body and pulled your soul at the moment of death into this new form, you have been reborn. However there is a small problem, your memory was not reborn with you. From this beginning you venture forth into the world of Amalur to try and find your Fate.
It is from this beginning that you find yourself thrust into the Kingdoms of Amalur. The graphics are inspired by original art work done by Todd McFarlane and my sources say he actually played a pretty big role in the actual games graphics creation. The graphics range from dark and foreboding the bright and vibrant. Reckoning bucks the current trend in the gaming market of striving for “realistic” graphics and remembers that this is game. The graphics however are beautiful to look at and crafting to put into the scenery is obvious after only a few minutes.
The games combat system is fast and fluid, when tied to the graphics it is beautiful to watch. The interface has a very console inspired feel but works really well on a keyboard and mouse. It has a very simple but effective design that essentially makes use of the two mouse buttons for attacks with the number keys and the scroll wheel allow for some quick action shifting.
The games uses a third person, behind perspective for movement and the mouse does not have a free roam feature. However the camera angle is easy to work from and once you enter combat the camera frees up. What I mean by that is once you are engaged you can move the camera around to get better angles on watching the combat and you WANT to watch the combat. If you think the game world is fun to look at then you will love watching combat take place. The easy flow of the combat with the broad weapon movements and great special effects makes combat mesmerizing. I found myself wanting to get into fights, not to gain experience or reach a goal but just because it was fun to do and watch. While still images might give you an idea to really see how amazing this looks I suggest looking on you tube at the numerous videos of in game action.
The backstory for Amalur was crated by R.A Salvatore, bringing his style into the creation of an entirely new gaming world. We have been told that he has already created a history that spans 10,000 years within the game world giving it a deep frame work and the work to flesh out this framework has only just begun. The storyline as it applies to Reckoning is classic RPG storytelling, this is good and bad. The bad of it is that it has a very generic feel to it, the story hooks are tried and true standards within the industry. The good is that this game has a very familiar feel out of the gate the story is one you can wrap yourself in like an old worn blanket. There are some great cut scenes and the voice acting is overall very well done. The base storyline can be followed and the game completed in 35 hours at a none rushing play rate, however there are a ton of side quests that draw you off the main storyline. The people at 38 Studios are claiming near 200 hours of game play, I would say closer to 170 but that is still a lot of game play packed into one game.
Now with releases over the last year like Witcher 2 and Skyrim, the Kingdoms of Amalur are facing some stiff competition out of the gate or are they? You see people make the mistake of thinking every RPG is the same and that is not the case. You have basically three RPG styles for what we call the Western RPG. The first is the story teller style, in this you are effectively taking part in an interactive book and the game guides you through the whole thing, Witcher 2 and various Bioware releases are good examples. The second is the exploration style, this game is wide open and you have to find your own way. The story is there but it is less important than the journey and so is not as implanted within the game play, Skyrim is a classic of this style. The third style is the action RPG, these are about fast moving, fast combat and lost of treasure, this style is best known for Diablo and Dungeon Siege.
Reckoning would seem to fit firmly in the action RPG style at first glance but as you play the game you find other elements. The action genre is represented by the quick combat and loot heavy system that involves the classic break boxes system. The storyline has a definite pull on the game and you feel a guiding hand as you move forward however the side quests pull you off in new directions and the size of this game world lends itself to exploration.
The release is a scare time for a game company but with Reckoning the people at 38 Studios had a lot more pressure on them than just an normal game release. This is the first release of a new studio and that brings a lot of pressure, this is also the first release of a new IP upping the pressure even more. To help with this pressure 38 Studios brought in Big Huge Games to do this solo play release they used a team with some experience. They then took in my opinion, a very conservative approach to the game falling back on some tried and true game play systems that we have seen over the years. They put some polish on them and tweaked them to give us this game.
The result is a game with a really familiar feel to it that is easy to jump right into. The combat system is fast and furious and has enough options to let the players get a play style they like while at the same time being simple enough to allow the more casual gamer to enjoy the game play. The back story has enough new in it to make you interested but the style has a very familiar feel to it as it too seems to draw off established sources.
The best testimony to this balanced style can be found in my home. My wife is a casual gamer that enjoys a simple RPG and I am a hard core RPG gamer that has been sucked into the gaming vortex of Skyrim. Yet walk around our house on a slow day and you will see both of us playing Reckoning. We both have elements of the game we really enjoy and the game has taken over our free time.
Kingdoms of Amalur is a great first release of a game and an IP, the people at 38 Studios should stand proud. Or to put it in Curt’s language, this release was a standup double, the runner has speed and is eying third. Not a bad place to be after the first pitch on opening day. Now is the time to see what 38 Studios has coming to the plate.
Seriously I am excited to see what 38 Studios has next for us, in the mean time Reckoning is a great game and worthy of being in any RPG enthusiasts collection.
Reckoning Interview, Review and Followup as aired live 18 February 2012
I deal with a lot of home users everyday, during these phone calls or even face to face discussions we often talk about how they make use of their PC. Without fail one of the first things out of their mouth is, “But I am not a gamer.” The tone used is similar to what you would expect to someone denying they had AIDs, I am not exaggerating. I can work on a PC and have met people proud of their adult material collection or the number of pirate movies or music they have but the term gamer sends them into fits of throwing out crosses and chanting prayers to ward off satan.
You really have to wonder why this stigma when it comes to being gamer. Some people look at me like I am a nut when I talk about gaming and make a point of stressing my age. News flash folks gamers come in all shapes, sizes and ages. In fact in a recant study by the Entertainment Software Associations, they have found that the average age of a video gamer is around 37 years of age. When you limit the games to just PC based that number jumps to 41. Does not sound like gaming is just for kids does it. In fact the same study found that 29% of Americans over the age of 50 regularly plays video games.
If age and being mature is not the issue, how about being a waste of time? There is a story I have told many times. I was back from the Navy and working part time for a pen and paper game company doing demos and playing testing games, I was also doing some beta testing for a number of video games. My mother was talking to me one day and spent about an hour lecturing me on how all my time spent involved with games was a waste and I needed to do something useful with my life. Those games BTW led to contacts within the computer world as well as drove my interest in making the hardware do more for less cost. The result off those games is a business I own that has been successful as well as a radio show that is growing every year not just locally but world wide. (Thank you to all of you out there that listen online BTW) About a year and a half ago I ask my mother if she remembered that conversation and still thought I was wasting my time?
Now do not get me wrong I am not saying all gamers are heading for a successful life because of gaming but it is hardly the waste people think and less of a waste than other people do every day and society does not look down on them. How useful is the person sitting in a bar 3 nights a week? What about the person that spends all their time looking for new sex partners? How about the person that even just has a weekly dining group that tries a new restaurant each week? Or the people that sit glued to their TV at least once a week for sporting events? Tell someone you do ANY of these activities and they would not look at you like the village idiot.
The most likely cause of this sigma was the behavior of the early geeks, particularly those that attended Star Trek or Star Wars conventions. You know the people I mean, the ones that would attend in full costume and actually act the role they had dressed for. However is that fair either? I mean I have seen people at sporting events dress and act in a manner that makes you wonder if they have a single functional brain cell or if the beer has floated them all away. Yet no one considers all sports fans losers? I have watched people get so drunk in bars that they have come out of the bathroom naked with TP trailing behind them on fire while they danced to Walk Like and Egyptian, and yet no one thinks all people in bars are morons? (BTW that is a true story)
Besides, what most of these people do not know is they likely are gamers at some level. Play solitaire often enough to keep saved game codes? How about Angry Birds? Video games are a part of the American and world culture whether we like it or not. Gaming is not small potatoes when it comes to economics either. Estimates place video gaming as an industry that generates $25 BILLION plus last year. Literally hundreds of thousands of jobs world wide exist in this industry.
While computer gaming is not something that will appeal to everyone, just as many of us do not like beer, there are some real reasons outside the fun of gaming to play. As a parent gaming can be a great teaching tool. Lisa and I have used an MMO to help our 7 year old learn to read better. He has to read what the game says if he wants to succeed and he really hates losing so his reading has improved. Some games like Civilization can even take a bit of educational material,. like history and sneak it in during play. Of course many games are great tools to teach critical thinking, make up for some of the lack of it in public schools today. Parents gaming with the kids can be a great way to develop a relationship with the kids, find a real common interest and share it.
Gaming for adults has benefits as well. Studies have shown that if the mind is kept active and engaged that Alzheimer risks are drastically reduced. Computer gaming can be a great way to relieve stress, create family time and socialize. Not to mention that as far as entertainment goes gaming can actually be a great low cost alternative to other options. Getting a free to play game like Champions, Tank World or even LOTRO can provide more entertainment than a ton of movie rentals and not cost a dime other than the cost of the Internet and PC which you have anyway.
Is there a downside to gaming, well of course there is. Like anything else it can be abused. I have seen people use video games as their way to tear up marriages and even lose jobs. To be honest thought I know of more marriages and jobs lost from booze, yet we accept that.
The next time you meet a gamer, do not roll your eyes at them. Instead talk with them, see what they have to say. Listen to what they like about the games they play and approach it with an open mind. You might find a whole new world to explore and a new way to have some fun.
When an office or family buys a PC they get it back, set it up and then marvel at all the things they can do. Of course shortly after that moment the truth sets in when they realize those neat programs that came with their PC are trials versions that expire shortly after we figure out how to use them. You see unlike our car or TV, when you buy a computer it does not come with everything we need except power, we need programs to make it do what we want it to do.
However do not despair because over the years more and more free software has appeared. Now free used to mean limited trial or just plain crappy, with a few exceptions. Today however there is a lot of high quality free software that can easily fill your family or small business needs. If I where to make a list of the various programs that are offered you would be here reading all day. Instead below you will find a list and a link to the various programs I consider the best in each category.
Computer Protection: When you get that new PC one of the first things you should do is make sure it has protection on it from the malware that seems to be all over the internet. Most new PCs come with some form of protection pre-installed, this si fine but it is a trail and gives the user a false sense of security, one of the first things you should do is remove it and get full protection on your PC. The good news is that there are some great free solutions for doing this, my persona favorite is Microsoft Security Essentials. Not only is it free, it is also simple to use and does a great job of staying out of the way when using your computer. I have used this program on my home PCs and helped a lot of people set it up, and no one has been disappointed.
Productivity: Did you know that Microsoft Office is one of the most pirated programs in the world? The reason is simple, everyone uses it at the office and at school. The problem is the cost, well at least that is the argument given. I have over the years shown people alternatives that are free, most prominently Open Office, however I hear the same argument all the time that they do not want to mess with the compatibility. Well Microsoft has decided that more people need access to Office and introduced Office WebApps. You need to create a Live account and the program works in conjunction with Live Mail and Skydrive.
You have available a toned down version of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote that is 100% free and can be used anywhere you can get internet access. The programs store your documents using the SkyDrive system making them available wherever you are and with no need to worry about your system crashing causing you to lose files. It is completely compatible with the full version of Office so compatibility issues do not crop up. While not as powerful as the full version of Office it is a great alternative to piracy and fills the needs of families with ease. It can even handle light business work as well from my experience.
Photo Editing: This is an area that keeps growing in use when it comes to family PCs but also for business. A lot of companies use photos to record various aspects of their companies and sometimes need to edit them down for size to use on social networking sites or for reports. While basic functionality can be reached using Live Photo Gallery, some people want more than to crop and remove red eye or give basic touchups. For a more full featured package I suggest Paint.Net. There are other great programs out there but most of them come loaded with various trail software and load slowly, Paint.Net is clean and fast yet with enough power to handle pretty much any photo editing need.
Movie Making: Another area that is growing in the realm of the home and small business user is making of home of movies or presentations. Being able to take pictures, short videos and music or even a narrative and put them all together is something a lot of people are doing these days. It can be a compilation of home movies, an anniversary presentation, wedding memories, the family vacation or even an office project. For this there is nothing I found for free that beats Live Movie Maker, a part of the Live Essentials Package. This powerful little program makes it easy to create simple films, complete with transitions, special effects and sound and then put them on a DVD to give out. The really nice part is that when you get the Live Essentials package you also get instant messaging, basic photo management, a blog writer (like the one I am using), a good email client and more. So while the Movie Maker might be what we are after we get a more full featured packaged.
Entertainment: Now you might not expect this to be a category but I feel there is a need here. A lot of families use their PC for someone to enjoy music or even watch TV on. Again this is an area that is rife with piracy, most especially in music. However if you are using your PC to play music there are great free and legal alternatives. Right now I am torn between two different systems, Pandora and Grooveshark. Bother offer the ability to play the music you want to hear without being forced to pay money for every song you play. For video we are currently blessed with a wealth of options as many networks have started airing full episodes of their prime series. However the most comprehensive list can be found at Hulu. While each of these offer pay features I have found their free features can easily meet most peoples needs.
Gaming: Surely you did not think I work through this list and leave out computer gaming? The number of GOOD free games has grown a lot over the last year. One game I have seen played in a lot of home and a few offices is various forms of golf. Lets face it sometimes weather or life just gets in the way of enjoying some time on the greens and while playing on the computer might not be the same, it sure beats working. EA Sports decided to experiment and they have given us the excellent Tiger Woods Golf franchise for free with Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online. Played fully online there is little in the way of installed software and this also means you can play your round at the office during slow times and finish at home later in the evening. Of course you can also gather your buddies together and all do a round of golf together, not bad for a free game.
Perhaps you are a more “traditional” gamer, the MMO world continues to expand, provide better games and many of them are free. If you want to grab a sword or fire off a spell then Lord of the Rings Online is my preferred choice. Set in the rich world of Tolkien the game lets you see the famous landmarks you only got to read about in your youth. Maybe you want a simpler game that can engage the kids, then look no further than Wizard 101. A simple game system with amazing efforts to protect kids in the game system has made this an award winning MMO that continues to rank higher on the charts every year.
My personal choice for free gaming right now has been influenced by the movie industry and this summer of super heroes, Champions Online. I go back with Champions a LONG time, first starting to play the pen and paper version in late 1981. During the following years I played it off and on a lot and have some great memories including weekly gaming sessions with my friends and the founding of the super team, The Round Table. My character back then was called Blue Knight (think Iron Man with Stark not being a playboy). This all came back like it was yesterday as I played Champions Online and today I now defend Millennium City as the Blue Knight once again. A solid game system, good graphics that remind you of the old comics and just the plain fun of being a super hero makes this an awesome free choice.
I could keep listing programs all day long but I think you begin to get the idea, there is a lot of great free software out there. This is a small list and does not come close to covering all the options and choices but these are the programs I have found that use and enjoy the most. If you have a great free program you fee deserves notice be sure to add it as a comment to this post. In the mean time enjoy the truth of an old saying that I will paraphrase, “Many great things in life are free.”