I’m late to the Skyrim party – people have been playing it since November, and that’s practically a lifetime in video game history. I had planned on sitting Skyrim out and waiting for a GOTY edition, but then someone randomly gifted it to me. How could I say no?
Skyrim and KoA have been compared a few times, and it’s clear why – both purport to be open-world RPG games with significant amounts of content to explore and enjoy. I think Gabe over at Penny Arcade sums up the “pro-Amalur” argument pretty well, so I’ll just leave that link there for you to peruse at your leisure.
As you may have guessed by my lukewarm reception of it, I was not as enamored with KoA as Gabe was. I don’t think KoA is a terrible game by any stretch of the imagination, and I played it start to finish, in fact. I wouldn’t have invested those 30-40 hours if I didn’t think the game was worthy of it.
However, after spending considerable time with Skyrim, I don’t think KOA is anywhere close to the level Skyrim is on. Skyrim is an excellent game, and it’s destined to be a classic. It’s clear that Bethesda has taken the years since Fallout 3 and Oblivion and used it to tune their mechanics to almost watchmaker-grade perfection.
Having said that, I feel the need to dig a bit deeper and find out why Amalur falls short, and why Skyrim almost immediately struck me as the superior game.
Setting and Story
Amalur does very little from the outset to draw you into the story. The intro video is pretty generic fantasy that seems like it belongs in a knockoff Baldur’s Gate clone from 10 years ago. The story proper feels contrived – you’re supposed to be someone who can rewrite destiny, yet mostly you use this power to finish off enemies with a God of War style flourish. The settings and scenery don’t stray far from fantasy tropes, and the way they’re organized and laid out feels very cookie cutter. Dungeon exploration is mainly a simplistic process, as almost all dungeons are simple U shapes from start to boss.
Skyrim, by comparison, feels alive. You’re dropped into the middle of the story from the start, and within 10 minutes you’re fleeing from a massive, majestic yet deadly dragon. The story runs at your pace, but it has gravity to it. The constant threat of dragon attacks and the implication that the fate of the world is riding on you is visceral. The entire world feels alive, as if it would continue to tick and hum even if you weren’t playing. The scenery is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, from water foaming over rocks in river rapids and clouds circling mountaintops in the distance to the tiny trails of ants crawling over an old tree stump. Exploring in dungeons is a treat, and oftentimes there are multiple paths and hidden loot to uncover.
Gabe maligns Skyrim’s combat system as clunky, but I find it intriguing and challenging. Hacking repeatedly in melee combat isn’t the system’s strong point, I’ll admit, but it more than makes up for it with a wide variety of strategic damage dealing options. Magic is an utter pleasure, with beautiful effects that make it feel both powerful and dangerous to behold. Stealth is a viable option, and being sneaky yields satisfying one-shot kills in many cases, both ranged and in close quarters.
Amalur does okay in this department, but it’s not particularly remarkable. Having some simple button-mashing combos doesn’t make the system deep, in my opinion, and I found the controls to be frequently clunky and unresponsive. Stealth is practically useless, and while magic is occasionally formidable, casting it can be a pain. Battles usually drag on and on, not because there’s ever really a risk to your character, but just so that you can finish whittling down the enemy life bars.
Amalur has some serious problems with its leveling system. Upgrades to skills and abilities are generally underwhelming, and there’s whole branches of the skill tree that are effectively useless due to how underpowered they are. Respec’ing your character is mainly just a tool for removing points from the many useless skills/abilities that you might be tempted to try before you realize they’re pretty useless.
Skyrim contains what I would consider one of the best leveling strategies in any open-world RPG I’ve ever played. The entire system is designed to just let you play the way you want to play, and reward and incent you to try new things while powering up your core skills. Practicing any skill can give you XP towards your next level, and each level grants you a “perk” point. Each skill has milestones where you can take a special bonuses in the form of perks, using these points. Essentially this means you can choose almost any number of skills to master, and as you gain in mastery, you’ll not only level up the skills and your character levels, but you’ll unlock these unique bonuses. It’s worlds improved from the Oblivion/Morrowind system, where it was pretty easy to screw up your character by leveling improperly.
Amalur pours quests on you at a pretty crazy rate. It plays more like WoW in this regard, with each functional “unit” of world map containing a certain set of enemies at a certain level, plus a town area and dozens of questgivers to satisfy. The quests don’t vary much from the formula of “go to dungeon, clear dungeon” or “go over to this area, kill boss monster” varieties. Mostly you just run at full speed into the next group of enemies, smash them to bits in the fastest way possible, and then continue your sprint to the objective.
Skyrim’s quest system features more “cookie cutter” quests (in the form of the Radiant Quest System) than previous iterations, but you can choose to ignore them for the most part. The real meat of the questing is contained in a wide array of custom quests, and they run the gamut. You never quite know what you’re getting into when you sign up for a quest – is everything going to go according to plan? Is someone setting you up? Is there more here than meets the eye? You have to go in prepared for the worst, and hoping for as much loot as possible!
Skyrim has an impressively deep crafting system, which can produce interesting results if you have the right skills and perks. It’s easy on the surface to compare it to Amalur’s system, but the difference is night and day. The Amalur crafting system is clunky, silly and shallow. With Skyrim’s system, equipment crafting is simple and straightforward.
Amalur’s biggest weakness is it’s terrible interface. Quest and inventory management is such a chore. Skyrim, though, makes it easy to switch between the map and journal. Inventory, skill progress, and magic menus are all contained within a simple, but powerful system in a single menu that only requires a single set of keys to move around in. It manages to communicate a variety of information in a very easy to consume fashion.
If I had to summarize the difference between KoA and Skyrim in just one word, that word would be “polish.” Skyrim is carefully polished and balanced. It shows a level of expertise with these sorts of games that’s only gained after years of experimentation and previous releases. KoA takes a pretty simplistic and unbalanced action RPG engine and bolts it to a bland world with too many cookie cutter quests.