Curt Schilling turns to video game design
The new epic fantasy video game "Amalur" is spearheaded by an undercover geek who also happens to be a jock.
The jock in question is former MLB All-Star pitcher Curt Schilling, who switched gears after retiring to pursue a little-known dream: to make video games.
Turns out the ex-Red Sox hurler has been hooked on fantasy and massively multiplayer online (MMO) games for years, which might help explain why it took a guy obsessed with quests and crystals to break the Curse of the Bambino.
He partnered with Electronic Arts, who poured gobs of money into an elves-and-magic universe nobody had heard of, and the design team’s combination of fantasy author R.A. Salvatore, Spawn creator Todd McFarlane and game designer Ken Rolston ("The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion") sounded more like a snowglobe shake of famous names than a fruitful, organic team.
But Schilling deserves credit for derailing the usual corporate gaming bloat story. His first video game is by no means perfect — and in some cases, not recommended — but his stance as both fantasy-genre fanboy and industry outsider has paid off.
Rather than stomp into gaming with big, empty promises, Schilling’s 38 Studios has combined a monstrous, 70-plus-hour quest with an emphasis on accessible, adaptable combat. The final product is guilty of overreaching, sure, but not of underdelivering.
The role of world-saving hero in "Amalur" falls to a stranger who ignores the hands of fate. This gimmick makes sense in a universe full of fateweavers, elves and “Niskaru,” but it also supports the game’s key conceit: Battle however you want.
Pick between sorcery, finesse and might — or mix all three — to create anything from a sneaky hammer wielder to a hybrid magician-archer. Even better, pay a small fee to switch your ability scores on a whim. These abilities come to life in combat that lands somewhere between "God of War" and "Zelda." Bob and weave while laying down destructive traps; pump points into stealth abilities to kill silently; or coat a longsword in poison and bully your way through foes.
Each of those tacks feels satisfying, so long as you pump points into the right abilities, and the game is at its best when players remix themselves repeatedly.
Long and winding road
The main quest is constantly interrupted by a stream of side tasks. The game advertises these as optional, but players really must grind through the errata to earn items and experience, or else they’ll suffer as the game toughens up.
The result is a main journey interrupted for two to four hours at a time to help lowly villagers, and they each babble on about "Amalur’s" history, meaning it’s easy to lose track of purpose.
Head writer Salvatore comes off as the egotist in this design dream team, slamming players with lore rather than giving them a focused plot or companions worth investing in.
McFarlane does his job by pumping color and variety into the game’s zillions of locales, not to mention some gnarly creatures, and the design team nails a lot of nitty-gritty stuff, from item management to “fast travel” to even how often overpowered weapons are doled out.
A few odd disconnects worth noting: The “crafting” system, an RPG mainstay, takes too long to prove valuable and countless villagers simply don’t feel alive, whether because their mouths move like robots or because they can be robbed by simply kneeling behind them for 15 seconds.
"Amalur’s" greatest foe isn’t fate or evil elves. It’s timing. A year ago, "Reckoning’s" scope and action-RPG success would’ve had no peer, but recent epics like "Skyrim" and "Dark Souls" have kept hardcore fans busy.
It’s not outstanding enough to demand that fantasy freaks play its entirety, but there’s enough here for at least one weekend of unforgettable combat.
"Lord of the Rings," "Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim," quitting your job to play 70-plus-hour quests