Games 2/7/12: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, SoulCalibur V, Niko

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Big Huge Games/38 Studios/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, suggestive themes)
Price: $60

Role-playing games aren’t expected to play as crisply as pure action games do, and action games need not run as deep in the storytelling and character-building departments as role-playing games do. These are the compromises we’ve come to accept and expect.

So when something like “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning” comes along and shoots for the moon in both areas, it’s hard not to pay attention.

And when it hits the moon flush, it’s impossible.

It doesn’t hurt that, while doing this, “Reckoning” also inspires hope that it’s capable of putting a similar charge in the stagnant art of fantasy storytelling.

Whether it actually succeeds may come down to how you play. “Reckoning’s” massive world easily holds more than 100 hours’ worth of main and side quests awaiting completion, and each has a story to tell or character/land/race/legend to introduce. But as often happens with a story that sprawling, tales have a tendency to get weighed down and spread thin amid a gargantuan list of names to remember and quest objectives that, at least structurally, are more formulaic than not.

At the same time, there’s plenty to love about the colorful world in which “Reckoning’s” legend unfolds, and your role in it — as a mortal human who returns from death to shatter an immortal race’s sacred (and comforting) belief that everyone’s fate is set in stone and documented in full — is a terrific catalyst around which to assemble it. That storyline can’t help but occasionally disperse in the sea of characters, quests and everything else “Reckoning” offers outside the main road, but if you tend to it regularly and stay abreast of the mythology, the story makes good on the possibilities.

For its part, “Reckoning’s” interfaces make it pretty painless to manage not only your quest log, but the usual host of traditional role-playing elements. Though combat is as real-time here as it is in a game like “God of War,” classic role-playing underpinnings — hit points, experience points, dropped spoils from defeated enemies — still apply.

Most of what “Reckoning” does is borrowed, but it’s borrowed from the best. Dialogue trees and moral barometers are Bioware game staples. The chance to find (and craft) rare armor and weapons is heavily reminiscent of “Diablo,” right down to the color-coded system for increasingly rare tiers of loot. Lockpicking, extracting plants for potions, joining factions, committing crimes and warping to locations you’ve previously discovered are “Elder Scrolls” hallmarks. And while the system for leveling up your character is smartly designed around your fateless blank slate, it’s assembled using timeless role-playing pieces.

Where “Reckoning” surprises is with how it puts those pieces into play. The aforementioned “God of War” comparison wasn’t an oversell, because “Reckoning’s” polished action plays markedly in that vein — fast, violent, and with equal importance placed on your skills as a player and the choices you make for your character’s abilities and arsenal.

Initially, when your skills are limited and your inventory light, it’s fun but simple. But as you level up, unlock new abilities and tap into the surprisingly wide array of weapon classes, the doors blow off the barn. Streamlined controls make it possible to transition between melee, ranged, and magic attacks without pausing the combo, much less the game, and as tougher enemies appear, “Reckoning” places a premium on blocking, evasion and (to a wholly optional degree) stealth tactics as well.

Before long, “Reckoning’s” combat is dishing out a kitchen sink’s worth of ways to play, and doing so at the same fast pace at which it began. It’s always been fun to find a rare, absurdly powerful weapon in a role-playing game, but being able to wield it with abandon — as “Reckoning” gleefully allows — takes that fun to a whole different plane.

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SoulCalibur V
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $60

Call it a shame, call it wonderful or call it inevitable and/or overdue. But if you’ve traditionally counted on “SoulCalibur” to give you a comprehensive single-player fighting game experience that’s accessible to all, your calls to “SoulCalibur V” may go unanswered.

It’s a sign of the times. Since “Street Fighter IV” revitalized the genre, fighting games have become kings of the mountain with regard to attracting high-level players and packing ballroom arenas and online lobbies with those bent on challenging or even simply watching them play. It’s a serious business, and “SCV” feels like Namco’s attempt to reposition the series as one to be coveted rather than mocked by that crowd.

Whether “SCV” succeeds at that is a question only that crowd can definitely answer in time. But the strides it makes toward that end at least give it a chance, even if they feel like me-too mechanics instead of innovations.

To wit, the most plate-shifting change to the fighting system, the Critical Edge, is “SCV’s” answer to “SFIV’s” Ultra Combo: You fill up a Critical Gauge meter, pull off nearly the same stick/button combo, and unleash an attack that’s visually spectacular and devastating to your opponent’s health. (Also customary: If you’re bad at these games, executing a Critical Edge is, let’s say, trying.)

Fortunately, the Critical Gauge feeds into other, easier maneuvers as well, including Brave Edge attacks (slightly more powerful versions of regular moves) and parrying. The inability to parry at will without cost means you’ll have to time your blocks and pick your spots to fight defensively — no curling into a ball allowed.

Along with the need to manage the Critical Gauge for maximum effectiveness, “SCV” places a premium on fighting smart instead of mashing buttons. That’s a pillar of any respectable fighting game. But if you’re accustomed to playing “SoulCalibur” with your button-wailing hat on, take heed: Unless you’re playing against like-minded friends or the A.I. on its easiest setting, you will be punished.

(Disappointingly, while “SCV” offers a training mode in which to practice at will, there’s no in-game tutorial that effectively lays it all out. If you need lessons, look to Youtube.)

As should be expected with the shifting mindset, “SCV” is plenty capable with regard to competitive play. The lag that tarnished “SoulCalibur IV’s” online component isn’t present here, and the new offerings — spectator mode, the ability to watch other players’ replays — are obvious concessions to those who want to study how others play.

Most fun is the Global Colosseo mode, which turns the online lobby into a 100-person virtual meeting place where players can chat, size each other up and set up matches as if in an arcade. With the Fighter Creator mode back and considerably more robust than before, there’s no telling whom you’ll end up fighting against once you dip into these waters.

If, however, you flock to “SoulCalibur” precisely to get away from the competitive scene to which “SCV” caters, you might be dismayed to discover just how costly that groveling was to its single-player offerings.

In particular, the abundance of match variants and challenge missions that made the series a must-play even when its only multiplayer offering was two players on the same couch? Nowhere to be found in “SCV,” which includes a standard arcade mode, an even more standard quick battle mode and a completely substandard story mode (roughly two hours long, no branches, one ending and most between-fight “cutscenes” comprised of little more than static storyboards and spoken dialogue) as its prime single-player offerings. Unless you’re willing to bite the bullet, make like Namco and join the competitive fray, that’s not a lot of return on your $60 investment.

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Niko
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Sulake Corporation Oy
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: Free for first six levels/$2 to unlock full game

There’s a big gap between the kind of platformers you can play with a fully-stocked controller and the stuff we typically get on buttonless mobile devices, and “Niko’s” attempt to close that gap just a bit is most welcome. Instead of automatically running forward, Niko (a cute little creature of unknown classification) waits for you to control him directly with standard virtual left and right arrow buttons. And instead of tapping the screen to make him jump and hoping you timed it right, an “Angry Birds”-style slingshot mechanic allows you to control the distance and angle of the jump to almost foolproof effect. (Fortunately, if you miscalculate or need to change tactics, you can adjust Niko’s trajectory while he’s airborne.) Control touches like that are, of course, nothing new in the land of buttons and joysticks. But they’re an order of magnitude more sophisticated than what is typically found in mobile games, and “Niko” makes all the right moves — precise controls, a clean interface and elaborate, wide-open levels that exploration as well as survival — to make them work in this space. Like any good platformer these days, it’s also as easy or tough as you want it to be. A generous checkpoint system means anyone can feasibly reach a level’s finish line, but if you want to do it right — a three-star performance, no lives lost, all collectibles found and an enviable high score on the online leaderboards — your work is cut out for you.