Dark Messiah of Might & Magic Review
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Have you ever played a high fantasy RPG and wondered what it'd be like to take those cool weapons and awesome spells into a true action game? Sure, this has been done before by quite a few game developers, but the idea of a first-person, fantasy action game is still a pretty untapped idea. Arkane Studios and Ubisoft have delivered a new entry in this rather exclusive subgenre of a genre of games, and what I've found is that their efforts have made for a fun, but not classic, experience.
Dark Messiah of Might & Magic takes place in medieval times as necromancers threaten the world with their power over the dead. You play as Sareth, a young student taught by a powerful man named Master Phenric. Sareth can wield many weapons with near mastery, jump, climb, cast powerful spells, fire a bow with impeccable accuracy, and sneak through the shadows and backstab any foe, killing him in one powerful move. Well, Sareth eventually will be able to do any of these things with deadly precision once you make some progress in the game, but at the beginning you get to try out all of his great abilities and decide how you want to build your skills.
During the introduction which serves as a tutorial, Sareth is sent to retrieve a magical artifact that will unlock an ancient power that could decide the fate of the world. The plot here is pretty basic, but you'll soon realize that this game's best features have little to do with the story. You see, Dark Messiah of Might & Magic is powered by the Source engine, the same engine that Half-Life 2 runs on. And just like Valve's masterpiece, the guys at Arkane Studios have integrated physics into the game in a pretty big way.
The fighting in Dark Messiah is fast, brutal, and visceral. Everything is in a first person view, and you'll be doing plenty of killing while up close to your enemies. With quite a few attacks at your disposal, you can really put the hurt on and the environment's only there to help. Like the classic Duke Nukem 3D you've got a "quick kick" key which you can use to send an enemy reeling back or flying right off of an edge. The developers have also placed traps around many of the environments so a well-timed boot can impale an enemy on spikes or even send him back into a campfire, causing him to burn while you finish him off.
As you progress throughout Dark Messiah, completing the game's rather linear set of goals will net you skill points that you can put into one of several tree-structured skill sets. Jack up your Melee combat skill and you can perform new attacks and wield deadlier weapons. More Strength allows those attacks to do more damage and opens up even more weapon opportunities. Likewise, there are spells you can cast, bows you can fire, and ways to sneak around opponents and there are plenty of skill points so that you can specialize in at least a couple of areas. The game includes at least some form of replay value in that you can go a couple of different ways in the plot and and build a different character, say one that specializes in ranged attacks over one that fights up close.
Unfortunately, not every build is that great. Those who go strong melee with the game's single heal spell to back themselves up with will find they have a much easier time than someone who plays as a thief, caster, or archer. Thieves have to spend far too long setting up single instant kills and still wind up stuck in fights with multiple opponents in their face anyway. Spellcasters will find that damage spells drain their mana very quickly and usually have to be augmented with additional melee attacks as well as mana potions (sure, there is a skill that allows mana regeneration to increase by a massive amount, but you won't get access to this until somewhere around halfway through the game at the very least - and that's if you didn't spend skill points on any actual damage spells). Bow users will find that the skills you can increase to make bows work better just don't do much, and since even those skills don't cost many points, you'll likely just dump them into the game's excellent melee abilities anyway.
And the skill points only come by accomplishing things in the game - there are no experience points in the single player mode at all, and while there are a few optional things you can do for extra points, it's still mostly linear. The idea behind this was to allow the player to run or sneak past some enemies and still get the same amount of skill points as players who kill every enemy, but if you're skipping combat in this game then you're missing out on the best part of it.
Dark Messiah is still very much a fun game as long as you stick with using melee weapons. In melee combat you can mash your attack button for some impressive-looking fast combos, which usually work well on any enemy that doesn't have a shield. If they're defending themselves, though, you'll need to hold the attack button and then release it to unleash a more powerful swing which can punch through the enemy's block. This creates an interesting style of combat where placement is key, because you don't want them hitting you while you're powering up your own attack.
Adrenaline mode further adds to the fun of Dark Messiah's combat. Fire off enough damage spells or do several power attacks in a row and your screen will start to glow. The next major attack you get off will usually wind up in an instant kill, often with some satisfying side effects (like taking limbs or even a head off) as well as a small amount of slow motion right at the end to make it look that much more impressive. The only downside to this is that Adrenaline mode doesn't really happen that often, and while almost every attack that you can spend points on includes some sort of unique additional perk when you use it in Adrenaline mode, you still won't get to use them much.
You'll travel with a couple of partners through a portion of the game, and the whole thing is made a little bit more interesting by the fact that Phenric has placed some sort of mysterious woman inside your head to guide you and, in some cases, taunt and annoy you. Xana winds up being similar to the Cortana character from Halo, but make no mistake: Xana is much more annoying. She's constantly jealous of the other woman in the game, Leanna, who you'll be actually partnering up with from time to time (as opposed to Xana, who really doesn't contribute anything - she's there mostly to just talk trash). I think the "rivalry" between these two women and Sareth was an idea that probably looked interesting on paper, but the quality of the voice acting and game's writing just isn't good enough to make it work.
The game doesn't really last all that long, either. I made it through in about eight hours, and even though I got stumped for about ten minutes each on a couple of puzzles (there's a Rope Bow in the game that allows you to shoot wooden structures, causing a rope to drop down - the light puzzle elements here usually revolve around using this bow) and wound up reloading my game a few times for various boss fights and other tough encounters, it still didn't last as long as I had hoped. Sometimes I have found myself comparing this game to fantasy RPGs like Oblivion and Knights of the Old Republic and feeling very disappointed at how short Dark Messiah is, but it really must be considered to be something more like a first person shooter that just happens to be in a fantasy setting. And even then I don't think the fun melee combat can make up for this game's lackluster atmosphere, simple story, or boring characters. The developers even spoil the game's plot twist about an hour in, long before its true reveal near the end of the game - that certainly doesn't help, either.
The fighting can sometimes feel repetitive, especially when the developers occasionally run out of ideas on how to make a first-person fantasy action game more interesting. You'll find a lot of racks with spikes on them so that you can often circle around your opponents, positioning them for a nice kick right into the spikes. The ability to pick up various objects in the world to throw at the enemy (including using a Telekinesis spell that acts a little like Half-Life 2's gravity gun) sounds kind of fun at first until you realize that killing an enemy with a flying crate isn't really very fun compared to impaling him with your sword. Telekinesis is just too clumsy for this game, unlike the gravity gun from HL2.
And crates are only the first of many first person shooter stereotypes that Dark Messiah employs. Aside from the several jokes I could come up with regarding how they managed to still put crates into this medieval action game, there are sewer levels, spider levels (complete with spider queen - what a novel concept!), and lots of goofy traps that your enemies seem to have set up but have no idea how to use. Seriously, the goblins and orcs in the game set up all kinds of wacky, elaborate things to drop on intruders, but never during my time playing this game did they even make an effort to cut a rope and actually use them.
The multiplayer modes in Dark Messiah are actually developed by a different team entirely from the single player game. Kuju Entertainment has put together an online mode that borrows from both the single player game's style, and from the Battlefield series of games with its structure. You'll get to pick from several classes like Warrior, Archer, Assassin, Mage, and Priestess, all of which have totally different looks, weapons, abilities, and roles in the game. There are deathmatch and team deathmatch modes, as well as Warfare (which is similar to Conquest in the Battlefield series) and Crusade (where your kills will gain you levels, which allow for new abilities, and these carry on over several maps in a "campaign" on any single game server).
Unfortunately, I had enough connection issues to make online play a pretty jarring, annoying experience. Because players level up in the multiplayer game by killing others, those who are better at it will almost immediately get some major advantages right at the start by powering up their characters. Getting booted from the game and coming back (which happens often) starts you over again at level 1, and you will quickly find that if everyone else is level 7 or 8, you will not be having much fun at level 1 as you will have plenty of trouble killing your enemies.
I've also got to mention that there are at least a few bugs with this game that are causing major problems for some players, whether they bought the boxed version in a store or the download-only version on Valve's Steam service. Not only can some people not even get into the game due to some mystery problems, but others have gotten stuck with load times that last seven or even ten minutes. I didn't see any of these problems myself, but they should be noted - if you don't know how to troubleshoot games or your PC, then go with the Steam version because they will likely give you a refund if you can't get the game running. Most stores will refuse a refund entirely if you bring them an open package.
Between the bugs and lack of originality during the single player campaign, Dark Messiah is a great idea for a game that was executed only somewhat well. I still enjoyed the spike-kicking, physics-based combat and would recommend this game to anyone who usually enjoys what few fantasy-based action games there are out there, but steer clear if you're looking for a really compelling online experience or an RPG-style experience. It may be folly to expect anything truly epic out of Dark Messiah, but this still feels like a series of missed opportunities by a development studio that seems like they're not really ready yet to make AAA games.