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