The man with the blood-soaked “red sock,” Curt Schilling, is a hero to many a Boston sports fan. Under the mentoring and friendship of Terry Francona, Schilling went on to set records and helped to win two World Series championships within his four years with the team. What most people don’t know about Curt, however, is that he’s an avid gamer. While he was on the road, he would constantly obsess over a 1980’s board game entitled Advanced Squad Leader. He also became addicted to Massive Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) including the likes of “Everquest,” “World of Warcraft” (WoW), and “Warhammer Online.” His appreciation for gaming is all the more apparent when you consider his next endeavor: heading up a new game development studio to create a massive single-player role playing game that will precede an even more massive online multiplayer game. Most studios start out small, creating games for the iPhone or downloadable content; conversely, 38 Studios appear to be swinging for the fences right off the bat (sorry).

Schilling founded Green Monster Games in 2006, which was subsequently renamed to 38 Studios, with the aim to create the next WoW-killer MMO. Schilling and company reached out, rather ambitiously, to rope in some highly regarded talent to flesh out their fantasy offering. For the story, R. A. Salvatore helped to craft the fiction of Amular. Salvatore is a widely known fantasy author, penning The DemonWars Saga and Star War: The New Jedi Order. For crafting the world aesthetic and character design, Todd McFarlane was brought in. Any comic book fan knows that name, with McFarlane’s work ranging from Spawn to The Amazing Spiderman to his countless other works under both DC and Marvel comics. These are some pretty big names in the geek universe, and a overtly ambitious start to a brand new game development studio (which was founded in Maynard, Massachusetts; however, the studio absorbed form THQ developer “Big Huge Games” and moved to a larger studio space in Providence, Rhode Island).

For game design, 38 Studios nabbed beloved developer, Ken Rolston (“The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion”) to work his coding magic, thus bringing even more proven talent and prestige to the project. All told, the world crafted through “Kingdoms of Amular: Reckoning” provides for a vast and expansive fantasy fiction, which delves into interesting philosophical/spiritual quandaries such as fate and reincarnation. Such a glut of literature provides for some interesting opportunities via story-telling and creating a multitude of projects. The Achilles heal, of course, is that “Reckoning” has a lot of pressure riding on it. This game must be successful in gathering an audience of paying consumers to support another effort and flesh out the popularity of this brand new intellectual property. I asked our fellow Popblerd gaming expert, Stephen, to share his personal opinion on the forthcoming game and the atmosphere surrounding 38 Studio’s new franchise according to the gaming community…

It wasn’t until about two weeks ago that I began to take notice of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. I’d seen the ads on Steam and heard the name bandied about, but had no idea what it was or who was behind it (in truth it just seemed like another generic fantasy RPG). But as I learned it was the long awaited project from Curt Schilling’s studio, that it had some big names behind it (Ken Rolston from Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, McFarlane, and Salvatore), and most of all that the gaming media was loving it, I became increasingly intrigued. So earlier this week, I finally spent the 3 GB in bandwidith and hard drive space to install the demo.

In truth, the demo seems to have done as much good for 38 Studios as bad. A lot of people have picked it up for the free Mass Effect 3 tie-in armor and been surprised by the fresh, action-packed combat and free-form character templates. But just as many have been turned off by the litany of bugs in the demo. I fall a bit into both categories. (Do note that Schilling has said the bugs are thanks to the early code used in the demo, and reviewers have confirmed the final build is a lot more stable. Keep in mind too that other games have overcome early demo bugs to be strong final products, i.e. Battlefield 3).

After installing the game on my PC, I was greeted by a black screen despite hearing the game’s sound. Reloading the game didn’t seem to fix it, and only after a Google search did I learn that enabling post-processing (a video effect) in the demo essentially broke the graphics. Not off to a good start. Once I corrected this, I was into the game proper. The controls were clearly made with a controller in mind, and I found my hands pretty awkwardly spread to control my character. If you are a PC gamer, I really recommend jumping off your keyboard and mouse high horse and plugging in a 360 controller.

Let’s get one thing out of the way from the get go also: if you’re coming to Amalur from Skyrim or the Old Republic, you need to get ready for a drop in presentation quality. Compared to those massive, expensive blockbusters, the cut scenes and voice acting are decidedly quaint and lack the same polish. Granted this is also a demo (and therefore more gameplay focused), but I quickly found myself mashing the space bar to skip dialogue and really didn’t get much of a taste for Salvatore’s story. Maybe I am just impatient. Either way, the presentation didn’t really grab me.

What did hook me, however, was the gameplay. In a genre dominated by semi-real time battles and spreadsheet dominated combat, Amalur stands out by offering a really kinetic, action-oriented battle system. Fights are in realtime, with characters able to roll, block, strafe, cast spells, and chain attacks in a surprisingly smooth manner. It’s a bit like Fable in that regard, except far more fluid and not reliant on mashing a single button. Even in low levels, I found myself seamlessly switching between spells, staffs, bows, and swords, rolling in and out of attacks and looking for openings to pull off combos. Throw in an impressively deep customization system, tailor made for hybrid classes that mix stealth, magic, swords, and bows, and you have one of the more impressive combat systems to grace an RPG in recent memory. I would even go so far as to compare the combat to Sony’s flagship God of War series (though a bit looser). But even coming close, for an RPG, is amazing. I am already salivating at what kind of damage a higher level character can do, and how I’ll be mixing the three trees of Might. Finesse, and Sorcery.

I didn’t dabble much in the crafting system, but early reviews say it’s similarly engaging. And with a promised 50+ hours of gameplay (including side quests), Amalur certainly can’t be accused of being short or shallow. I imagine Salvatore’s writing and McFarlane’s characters will shine a lot more with the 45 minute limit removed. Even with the bugs, the game shows a lot of heart and promise. Will it be a AAA-level title? I rather doubt it. But like THQ’s Darksiders, another surprising new IP from a few winters ago, it seems to be a solid, enjoyable, and still well-made title.

There’s a lot of hope from gamers that 38 Studios might successfully challenge the big two western RPG makers: Bethesda and Bioware. “A new RPG developer needs to hit the scene. I’m very hopeful for Kingdoms of Amalur,” writes Kotaku commenter SW0RDof1Ktruths. “I want to support ANYTHING that takes power and control of the RPG genre away from Bethesda and BioWare,” adds commenter Archaotic. Both companies have grown too arrogant and complacent to be allowed to control the genre any longer. The fact Schilling’s team is actually making a worthwhile game is just the icing on the cake.”

Indeed, whether it’s the action-focused gameplay, the involvement of Salvatore, the fame of Schilling, or the hope of helping an underdog, gamers seem to be rallying behind the new title. Will the game establish a new IP? Can 38 Studios break into the scene in a world dominated by a few big developers and established franchises? We’ll find out in a few weeks. But I, for one, will be cheering for them. And if my fondness for the demo keeps growing at its current rate, I’ll be one of the first in line for the game when it hits this coming Tuesday.

It appears that there is an underdog enthusiasm for this new studio and their fantasy outing; however, it takes the kind of ridiculous Call of Duty sales number to make a video game product somewhat viable in this tumultuous market of sequels upon sequels. Early rumblings amongst game journalists is pointing to very positive reviews, which will hopefully spread positive word of mouth. Regardless, an ambiguous RPG released in early February has an uphill battle ahead of it. Here’s hoping Schilling and company see some fruits from their efforts and that new intellectual properties are rewarded for their originality, juxtaposed to purchasing a Call of Duty 18 or a Final Fantasy XVIII.

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