Editor’s note: Ryan Smith is a longtime gamer and freelance writer who lives in Raleigh, NC. A graduate of East Carolina University with a degree in business and marketing, he has written in the past for WRAL Tech Wire and GameArgus.com. He currently plays Xbox 360 and PC as well as Nintendo DS. For story ideas, tips and feedback, he can be reached via e–mail (ryannicksmith@gmail.com)

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — 38 Studios is hard at work developing its debut game, “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning”, alongside veteran subsidiary Big Huge Games. The game is written by fantasy author extraordinaire R.A. Salvatore and has art designed by world-famous Todd McFarlane, and the company’s founder is World Series MVP Curt Schilling, so Reckoning is already being masterminded by some heavy hitters. With all this talent behind the game, I can only imagine how awesome it will truly be.

“Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning” is an open-world RPG, meaning you can expect a lot of nonlinear exploration and questing while having a long character-development path and plenty of dungeons to explore and items to find. “The Elder Scrolls” series sets the bar for this kind of game, and the genre is truly one of my favorite kinds of games to play. They can pull you in and not let go for days or weeks. “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” is on its way, but 38 Studios will be fierce competition in this genre, especially considering that on its staff is Ken Rolston, former lead designer of both “The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind” and “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.”

The trick with these kind of games is finding a way to wave an intricate narrative into open-ended pathways. It’s hard to tell the story you want to tell when a character can literally go anywhere and do anything. But that’s why they have world-renowned fantasy author Salvatore on the case. He plays video games and knows what it takes to bring the story to life.

Luckily, IGN was able to sit down with “Reckoning” lead designer Ian Frazier and lead combat designer Joe Quadara and get a 20-plus-minute rundown on the game, so we might get a better taste of what Feb. 7 will bring us.

The first thing we get to see in the game is a glimpse at the art design for the opening stage of the game, the “Well of Souls,” where you awaken to find out you have become the first-ever resurrected person. In the level design of the “Well of Souls,” along with the upcoming character-creation process, we already see McFarlane’s brilliant touches, and there is little doubt how beautiful this game will be once completed.

The character-creation system allows you to pick from four race options while also letting you design him or her down to tattoos and skin tone. I found the level-up process even more intriguing because your character begins as a “blank slate,” and as you level-up you can pick between the Might, Finesse, or Sorcery trees, with over 60 passive and active abilities from which to choose. Ultimately, as you level-up and obtain more of these abilities, you unlock what are called “destinies,” which are “dynamic character classes” that you can equip and take on, thereby never being confined into a singular “class.”

“’Reckoning’ features a truly massive open world to explore, with five different geographic regions each with its own look and feel” says Frazier, while the video says more than words ever could about how gorgeous these locales really are. After selecting some presets, the player delves into “Brigand’s Hall,” seeking out the Niskaru on behalf of the Warsworn, one of the factions we encounter in Amalur. “Reckoning features a number of faction lines, in fact six different factions you can join, each with their own extensive stories to pursue and to enjoy,” Frazier explains. The Warsworn, it turns out, were founded as a semi-religious sect with the purpose of hunting down and destroying the Niskaru, a dangerous and ravenous creature.

The first thing I noticed about this cave was the beautiful, luminescent foliage that reacts to your presence, as it immediately makes a simple cave look far more interesting. Another interesting bit we come across during the following dialogue sequence is that 38 Studios realizes that even though they are playing an RPG, a game genre that typically features heavy dialogue and story, some players simply enjoy the combat and don’t care much for the speech. They have taken quest-critical dialogue options and highlighted them in blue while shoving them to the top of the list. It proves to be a “dialogue-easy button” for those who get bored during these kinds of scenes. That is something of which I won’t be taking advantage, at least on my first play-through, but I definitely give them creative points for seeing the attractiveness of that feature for some more casual players.

Once combat starts, what strikes me most is the incredible mobility. Most RPGs, or even action RPGs, feature fairly limited mobility, but in “Reckoning” you have the ability to leap and dodge around more like a “Devil May Cry” game, with hack and slash to match it. Melee combat is quick and brutal, with follow-through attacks and combos more reminiscent of an action game, but this is very attractive – and to me it gives the game a more distinctive appeal than other RPGs. However, Frazier does go on to explain “This is an RPG, not an action game,” and 38 is not “forcing us to memorize any button combinations,” which I hadn’t really thought about, but does come as a relief to me. That’s tedious.

Like any true RPG, “Reckoning” also features non-combat challenges such as traps. We get to see a bit of this in the demo, where Frazier also emphasizes the non-combat skill-ups you can obtain as you level-up, such as “detect hidden,” which allows you to see traps on your mini-map so you might better avoid them. With enough points in detect hidden, you can even disarm these traps, which pulls up the loot screen, which reminds me very much of “Dragon Age: Origins.” The twist in “Reckoning,” however, is that you can examine and even equip items straight from the loot screen without having to sort through the inventory screen, though you can still do that if you wish.

At the end of the dungeon, we find the obligatory boss creature: the Niskaru Tyrant, who is dealt with via another action game standard: power-up mode. In “Reckoning,” it is known as “Reckoning Mode” – who knew? – and sends you into a magical fury, where you gain additional damage dealing abilities while becoming hardier at the same time, complete with nifty spell effects. I’m not sure something like this is necessary in the game, not that it looks bad, but I won’t know for sure until I get my hands on it.

Finally we fade out to a montage of the main storyline, complete with sweeping mountain ranges, massive castles besieged by equally massive creatures in what promises to be a spectacular boss fight. We also see some high-level armor sets, massive bladed pendulum obstacles, armies clashing and plenty of action to ensure the main quest chain keeps you on the edge of your seat.

My overall impression from this demo is that the game is going to be very strong. Every aspect of the game seems well designed. For instance, all of the menus and interactions look intuitive without the cost of being plain-looking. The obligatory mini-games for unlocking chests appears fun, while the animations for opening doors is for some reason very cool. Todd McFarlane strikes again. Crafting, which I usually find highly tedious in games, looks simple and, even more important, useful. In blacksmithing, for instance, rather than having to harvest ingredients and smith items from scratch, you can break down unwanted equipment to make it into something actually useful.

Just about everything in “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning” seems very promising. Between Nov. 11’s “Skyrim” debut and Feb. 7’s “Reckoning,” I’ll be in RPG heaven.

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