My dad, while (justifiably) griping about the excessively negative attitude found in my previous article, showed me something a bit more positive for a change of pace.
Curt Schilling is a former baseball star, a field I would normally care little about. I never appreciated watching giant steroid guys get paid untold amounts of money for standing around for ten hours straight. Baseball is boring and most other spectator sports aren’t far behind. The only interesting thing about the whole sport is how the government apparently keeps trying to imprison the players for lying about the origins of their gigantic biceps. But yes, the video game. I’ve seen decent reviews for his game, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, though, and this whole business caught my attention.
When that article said he grew up with video games my first thought was “Pffffft, everyone played Space Invaders or whatever. Probably just another opportunist who wants to get validation from gamers because nostalgia.” But then he said his favorite games were Wizardry, Ultima, and The Bard’s Tale. That impressed me because only very, very patient nerds have played these cumbersome games. It would be like if someone told you they were a music fan and you rolled your eyes but they added that their favorite musician was something insane like Sun Ra. That’s attention-grabbing whether they’re telling the truth or not.
I have only played a few hours of the game. This would normally be considered insufficient time to accurately judge a game if it weren’t so shallow. The aesthetics are generic fantasy fare complete with the elf/dwarf/orc nonsense copied from Tolkien. (Or maybe copied from one of the unlimited fantasy properties copied from Tolkien. Who knows. Actually, come to think of it, the whole elvish subspecies thing is definitely ripped from Lord of the Rings.) Four races and three classes is not a lot for a fantasy RPG and Schilling should know better considering his history with the genre. 1987’s NetHack gave the player many more options than that with 5 races and 13 classes. Then again, NetHack didn’t require a budget of millions to craft each detailed polygonal model, so I’ll cut Amalur some slack in that regard.
Amalur opens with the choose-your-own-face menu that seems standard for every Western RPG. It doesn’t give you half the options that most games of its sort would, but your character’s face will inevitably be hidden behind a helmet anyway (Though the game does give you the option to hide the helmet model so you can see every scar and tattoo on your bland Norse warrior’s face). Such customization that is purely aesthetic and has no bearing on the game mechanics is not necessary. Unfortunately, it lacks customization in the things that do actually matter.
Combat is essentially the same as The Witcher, which is a halfway good thing. Third-person running around and pressing the first mouse button in proper timing is better than mere button mashing and hoping your numbers are higher than the enemy’s. But I mistake—the amount of options available to you is meaningless because button mashing does win your battles. Also, combat relies excessively on the shameful practice of quick-time events (The player pressing buttons as they appear on the screen like a trained chimpanzee trying to get a banana) but is otherwise more involved than other RPGs of its ilk. The enemies in Amalur will wait patiently to attack you one by one like goons from American Ninja instead of attacking you all at once like enemies in Ninja Gaiden. This artificial stupidity makes combat far too easy.
The skill trees of the three classes are basically the same as Diablo 2 or Oblivion (Not Skyrim, though, as Skyrim and Amalur were in production at the same time) or any other number of fantasy number-crunchers with skill trees, except pointlessly simpler. There is only the illusion of customization because the game is so effortless that you can put your skill/ability points into anything and still come out ahead of any situation. There are some interesting abilities like Bulwark, which causes enemy attacks to bounce off and stun themselves, or Mysterious Toxins, which allows you to spread poison attacks from one enemy to another. You get all these selections for complex battle strategies but all you have to do is mash buttons and the enemies fall. Sometimes imposing sensible limitations on the player can make it more fun than simply bulldozing everything.
I mentioned before that the combat involves running around and dodging and stuff, but the game has no jump button. Like the 3D Zelda games, the player is only allowed to jump where and when prompted to do so. This along with invisible walls, unbreakable boxes, unkillable NPCs handing out dopey fetch quests through bland dialogue trees, and other irritating standbys of the genre are all present. If you’re hoping for something truly open-ended, you are in the wrong place.
To help create his magnum opus, Schilling hired D&D fantasy pulp writer R.A. Salvatore and cheesy comic book gazillionaire Todd McFarlane to help with the script and art. The state of video game writing is so laughable that a mediocre pulp writer like Salvatore is capable of elevating Amalur’s writing to stratospheric levels by gaming standards. The intro alone is worth a few laughs. Evil elves? Crystal towers? Huge evil armies? Sound familiar to anyone else? Yet Salvatore’s tepid self-plagiarism still makes for a more interesting plot than that of whatever generic first/third-person shooter the kids are playing these days. The plot contains enough middling surprises to make it slightly more noteworthy than Tetris’. Not to mention the protagonist dying in the opening and being revived by some mysterious power. Tired clichés abound in Amalur’s writing.
So why do I like Schilling if his game isn’t that great? Because his personal involvement in Kingdoms of Amalur proves that it’s not some soulless cash-grab. Even if the game were utter trash, I would respect Schilling for actually caring about his product. Yes, it’s true that Schilling needed $15 million to start and still required a $75 million loan to keep his project going, putting the possibility of repeating the task far out of the reach of the huge majority of humanity. And the final result is hopelessly average at best. But I still consider this a success story and Schilling should still be commended. He did what he wanted and got paid for it. That’s living the American dream right there.
That article linked at the beginning also mentioned that Schilling wants to make his own MMO. I doubt he has the ability to compete with the 800-pound gorilla that is the unimaginably successful and highly overrated World of Warcraft. Not even Richard Garriot could, and he practically invented western RPGs with the Ultima series.
According to the dorkily-named vgchartz.com, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has sold around 930,000 copies worldwide on all three platforms. Schilling has a hard battle ahead of him. He can begin to set Predator-like traps to prepare for his success for his next game by putting down his D&D manuals, hiring better writers, and getting artists who don’t glue hilarious oversized weaponry on everything.