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Next big gaming thrill

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / February 7, 2012
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After Sunday’s fiasco in Indianapolis, we could all use some good news from the sporting world. And here it is, courtesy of Curt Schilling.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which is being released today, is the first product from 38 Studios LLC, Schilling’s video game company. The game, full of lavish imagery and lively adventure, will, I expect, earn back every dollar of the $30 million Schilling has invested to develop the game, and then some.

Of course, Schilling is the former Boston Red Sox pitcher whose 2004 mound heroics helped the team win its first World Series in 86 years. As a would-be video game mogul, he tapped his baseball earnings to launch 38 Studios, which was founded in Maynard but moved to Providence last year.

Schilling’s investment was an immense risk; the bargain bins at Walmart are full of flop video games. This won’t be one of them.

Unlike run-and-gun shooters like the Call of Duty hit series, Reckoning is a role-playing game, a slower-paced genre where you wander about a vast fictional landscape searching for treasures and battling monsters. Years ago, I fell in love with such a game: the classic Diablo II. Reckoning is good enough to rekindle the romance.

Reckoning sells for $59.95 and runs on Sony Corp’s. PlayStation 3 game console, Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox 360, and personal computers running the Windows operating system.

The game is set in a mock-medieval fantasy land created by best-selling novelist and Leominster native R.A. Salvatore and renowned comic book artist Todd McFarlane. It will look familiar to “Lord of the Rings’’ fans.

You play a corpse, or rather a former corpse. Somehow you have been magically restored to life. Everyone is glad to see you, except for the inevitable bands of ruthless villains who thought you looked better dead.

Since you’re newly resurrected, you get to choose your species, (basically, elf or human), and your “destiny,’’ which defines your character and its personality. You can be a sword-swinging mercenary, a cunning thief, or a powerful magician.

It’s the usual arrangement for this sort of game, but Reckoning has one feature that makes it very different from most: You’re not locked in to your character. Players can seek out the neighborhood “fateweaver,’’ and get an attitude adjustment. Bored with playing as a warrior? Try casting spells instead.

That’s a nice way of keeping the game fresh during long hours of play, a major challenge for an adventure title that doesn’t include an online multiplayer feature. Reckoning is something of a prequel to a future release from 38 Studios, a game that is supposed to take place 2,000 years later in the same fantasy world. That game will allow thousands of players from all over the Internet to participate in shared adventures, but in Reckoning, you’re on your own.

As a hardcore shooter fan, I chose the path of the warrior. The going was slow at first. It’s always that way in role-playing games, where you spend the first hour or so obtaining a few basic weapons and learning their proper use. You’ve also got to spend time talking to the computer-generated locals to get the lay of the land. Given half a chance, they’ll natter on about the brutal Rock Trolls and other assorted perils to life and limb.

Things get a lot more lively when the characters start sending you on quests. Those missions lead you to ever more dangerous enemies and constant opportunities to pick up loot, abandoned weapons, and armor. Use them to upgrade your own outfit and soon you’re armed to the teeth.

Success in a quest often brings financial rewards. Defeat an enemy here, deliver a message there, and pretty soon we’re talking about money, which you can use back in town to buy still more stuff: gold, weapons, powers.

All of this is familiar fare to role-playing buffs, and I wondered before I saw Reckoning whether it would be lost in a crowd of similar fantasy games. But now I don’t think so. The game is gorgeous to look at, and the game play is simple, yet challenging. Even getting killed is fun, as you riffle through your weapon inventory in search of more firepower, or devise a new way to sneak up on a foe. I never got around to rewriting my destiny, but I’m looking forward to being reborn as a magician one of these days.

Besides, the immense popularity of this genre guarantees an audience for Reckoning. The last major role-playing game, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, was released in November, and sold 10 million copies in a month. I suspect many Skyrim gamers are now ready for their next big thrill. And just like the glory days of 2004, Schilling’s ready to deliver.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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