Reckoning the value of innovation and ambition in today’s games

My quest log shows 72 quests completed, 75 more still unfinished. The credits have rolled, the world is saved, but there's still so much to do. No, I'm not talking about Skyrim. I'm talking about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and that's the problem, because I've questioned every single hour lost to this gigantic action RPG.

I really liked Reckoning at times. Liked, not loved; love is a strong word. Despite devoting 45 hours to the game, I wouldn't call it a committed relationship. No matter how much fun I've had with it, that fun comes with a caveat that's been eating at me: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning doesn't do anything new or innovative of note. Its fantasy world is woefully generic, its systems are distilled versions of things you do in The Elder Scrolls, and the quests follow the same basic errand-running concepts popularized by MMORPGs.

Is it enough for a game to just be a pleasant, enjoyable, light experience? In the RPG genre, I'm not sure it is. The quality of writing and story-telling has been improving dramatically, the way you interact with the worlds and characters has become more complex, and the games that do it best are still a blast to play. Reckoning does not set its ambitions so high.

There's certainly some kind of ambition—my 147 quests prove that–but the effort seems misguided. There's so much stuff to do, so much loot to find, and so many enemies to defeat, but none of it is terribly interesting. After a dozen instances of "Hey traveler, I need you to kill X things, find X things, or travel to X," I simply started skipping through the dialogue. I didn't stop playing, though, because I was still making progress and the experience was pleasantly enjoyable, if not entirely fulfilling.

I got addicted to Reckoning because it is a briskly designed game that tries desperately to stay out of your way. Even bumping up the difficulty, I only ever died once. Quests pile up so that you can simply run to one of a handful all around you at any given time. The context for them is so basic that you never worry that you're doing something wrong. Every single character in the game has at least a half dozen things to say about the world, so you always have a reference. Even obstacles like locked treasure chests are so effortless that I never bothered to level up my lock-picking skill—even the most difficult locks only take a couple tries.

Reckoning is afraid to challenge the player in any respect, whether it's difficult moral choices, story depth, or complex gameplay mechanics. There just isn't anything to chew on. To continue the food metaphor, Reckoning is like eating a giant bag of marshmallows—it's easy to do, it's fun while you're doing it, but once the bag is empty you feel bad for devouring so many empty calories.

In the most basic respect, Reckoning is still a success story. I bought the game, I played for 45 hours, and I saw it through to its end. There are things to like about it, like the fluid combat, the colorful world, and the loot system.

But if you asked me if Reckoning is worth buying, I'd probably say no. There are an untold number of more worthwhile RPGs that have come out in the last year alone. It's a tough thing to reconcile, because I like the game, and I had fun, but I'd never tell anyone to seek it out. In five years, I may forget it ever existed.

It used to be hip to lament flashy ambitious games—the true metric of a good game was how much fun it is. But now we can have our cake and eat it too (again with the food metaphors…). Why play a game that's just fun when you can play one that's innovative, ambitious, and fun? Reckoning is pretty fun, but that isn't enough anymore. The bar has been raised too high for that.