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.

 

Gameplay

 

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.

 

Bottom line

 

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.

 

Rating

 

8/10

 

RIYL

 

“Lord of the Rings,” “Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” quitting your
job to play 70-plus-hour quests

 

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