Genre: Action RPG
Developer: Arkane Studios
Release Date: September 2006
It says a lot about the reputation of the Heroes of Might and Magic series that Ubisoft had a sequel to the recently released Heroes of Might and Magic V already mostly finished and ready to show off in time for E3. Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is the work of a different development studio, but picks up directly where the last game left off and takes place in the world of Ashan. It tries to shake up the gameplay a little for the series and introduce some action gameplay elements, with emphasis on problem-solving and finding ways to fight giant bosses. Based on Valve's Half-Life Source engine, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic offers an immensely detailed visual experience, classic RPG-style character building, and intense first-person action.
The plot it offers in the single-player campaign is so simple that it can barely be discussed. An evil overlord called the Dark Messiah has arrived in the world, as prophesied by ancient seers, and you play as a character trained in the arts of combat, magic, and stealth for the sole purpose of defeating the Dark Messiah. In keeping with this background, you can develop your protagonist in Dark Messiah to use a mixture of warrior, wizard, and assassin skills. There are no formal classes in Dark Messiah's single-player game, just gameplay to be experienced as you see fit. Each obstacle is designed to have multiple ways of being overcome, so there's no way of building your character that will penalize you and make it hard to progress in the game. The only real limit on what you can create in Dark Messiah is your own ingenuity.
The emphasis of character development in Dark Messiah is what your character can do, rather than what your character can't do. Each skill you acquire as you level up becomes a tool that can be used for overcoming challenges. Even abilities that might seem totally straightforward, like the warrior skills, can actually be used cleverly. Warrior skills include different sword stances that target different parts of the body, so acquiring the right sword stance can let you give your character an advantage against a given kind of foe. What they don't do is give you arbitrarily more powerful sword slashes. Instead, you have to focus on hitting vital spots more quickly and efficiently, which results in the massive damage and spurts of gore that you'd naturally expect to happen in such a situation.
So, unlike most pure RPGs, you can't simply power-level your characters and then use brute force to sail through the game. The inadvisability of this approach is made painfully clear from very early in the game, when simply hacking at the orc-like enemies has demonstrably little effect. Instead, the goal is to try and find objects in the level that can be used to kill your enemies with relatively minimal effort. One simple example was a spiked iron gate being held back by a rope; you could kill enemies by slamming them into the spikes, or by severing the rope so that the spikes fell down on enemies. A slam would suit a character that favored melee and warrior skills, while a magic-user might use a spell to sever the rope. In fact, a magic-user could possibly opt to kill enemies with an explosive spell, and then use the explosion to drive enemies back onto the spikes. Levels are designed to have multiple paths through them, too, so if you hit a challenge that doesn't suit any of your character's skills, you can simply backtrack and try to find another way to reach your goal.
When the player has so many potentially different techniques in his or her arsenal, it necessitates enemies that can offer players a different kind of challenge than your average, mindlessly attacking enemy AI. The AI in Dark Messiah is instead designed to be able to improvise to hone in on a player's weaknesses, and even use the environment in much the same way a player should. You see a bit of this early in the game, with enemies who'll duck and dodge a player's attacks should they become too predictable, but it really comes to the forefront with Dark Messiah's immense bosses.
The demo boss fight was a battle against an immense cyclops who could only be defeated by stabbing out his eye. In order to be in stabbing range of the giant's eye, he had to somehow be made to stagger down to one knee. There were multiple ways to achieve this goal, but they all involved injuring one of his legs so that he could no longer stand up. It says a lot about the level of Nintendo Logic most gamers have grown used to when a game where you exercise basic common sense in the battles seems absolutely exceptional.
Interestingly, Dark Messiah is promising an immense multiplayer component to complement the single-player, RPG-like gameplay. The multiplayer game is a totally different experience than the single-player campaign, with five character classes and two different factions, humans and undead, for players to control. Your character for multiplayer levels up and can be customized like your single-player character, but you are no longer allowed to combine abilities associated with the different classes. Instead, you have to create a build of each class, and then make sure you form a team with members of other classes in order to succeed.
There are two modes revealed to date: a Warfare mode, where two teams of 16 characters vie to seize control of their opponent's castle, and a Crusade mode, where characters battle to seize control of every bit of land between their stronghold and the enemy's. In Crusade mode, your characters can level up between rounds and grow more powerful, but the closer you get to an enemy stronghold, the more advantages the defenders have to help them win the battle.
Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is set for September 2006, a mere four months after the release of Heroes of Might and Magic V. Still, Dark Messiah is so unlike its companion game that there's little chance that players will feel overwhelmed by the sudden rush of Might and Magic titles. Dark Messiah's new AI seems to offer a legitimately richer experience than most other games can, though the real test will be seeing how it fares against a barrage of aggressive players once it's released. Between that and the multiplayer, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic should keep players occupied for a long time to come.
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