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PC Review - 'Dark Messiah of Might & Magic'

by Lee Berlik on Nov. 13, 2006 @ 3:01 a.m. PST

In Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, players will be introduced to the world of Ashan, the new setting for all future Might & Magic games. Ashan is a dark and unforgiving world, scarred by a bloody history and threatened by an apocalyptic prophecy: the Dark Messiah.

Genre: Action/RPG
Publisher: Ubisoft/Steam
Developer: Arkane Studios
Release Date: October 24, 2006

A sure-fire way to ensure no FPS fans take an interest in your game is to name it Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. Isn't that an obscure fantasy role-playing game from the '80s? Maybe I'm thinking of Might and Magic VI. Wasn't there a game called Heroes of Might and Magic? Or am I thinking of Legends of Might and Magic? Who knows, and who cares? All I know is that none of these titles is at the top of my purchase list. Dark Messiah of Might and Magic may be the worst title for a quality product since The Shawshank Redemption, but (like that movie, if you haven't seen it) the top of your purchase list is exactly where it belongs.

What kind of game is it? Hard to say. Dark Messiah deftly combines FPS, RPG, stealth, and action elements into an exciting genre-bending concoction that defies convention and categorization but is tons of fun to play. The game feels primarily like an FPS, but with swords instead of guns. Think of it as a first-person slasher. The RPG-style system of finding and equipping various inventory items and of acquiring various skills definitely plays second fiddle to the core gameplay, which involves slicing, dicing, burning, hacking, kicking, crushing, freezing, poisoning, and stabbing your enemies in a wide variety of ways.

The combat is mostly up-close-and-personal, and it is some of the best melee and hand-to-hand fighting I have experienced since Chronicles of Riddick. The well-designed camera angles and shaky camera help the player feel he is really bobbing, weaving, and striking. You will feel like a hero as you leap about a room, swinging from rope to rope as you take on hordes of orcs. The ability to kick (at the cost of some of your stamina) is very helpful and more fun than you might guess, thanks to an abundance of cliffs, fires, and wooden boards full of protruding spikes that adorn the scenery.

You can also knock down your opponent by throwing a large object at him, then – kids under 17 should stop reading this now – plunge your sword into his heart while he's down. If the bloody mess that results is not enough gore for you, you can sneak up on an unsuspecting victim and slice open his carotid artery with your dagger.

Due to the relatively high level of difficulty in confronting your enemies directly, particularly when they gang up on you, I found myself using stealth tactics much of the time. Stealth is an unlockable skill that quiets your footsteps, better enabling you to stab your enemies in the back before they hear or spot you. An advanced stealth skill lets you hide in the shadows, making backstabbing a touch easier. You can also lean left and right to peer around walls while minimizing your chances of being seen.

Another feature shared with Chronicles of Riddick is that if you don't hide the bodies of your victims, other enemies may discover them and come looking for you, with reinforcements. It's usually best to carefully plan the precise location and time to strike your enemy, rather than run into a room swinging your sword wildly. Stealthy tactics will also give you an opportunity to hear the often-amusing banter of the guards (like: "Get this! The Oracle told me I would die today! Ha ha!").

One of the game's strengths is that you can play it many different ways. Although you progress through the maps in mandatory linear fashion, you choose the manner in which you will dispense with your opposition. You can opt to slash your way through the game aided by a powerful sword, you can be a magician and cast a wide variety of spells, you can be an archer and strike from a distance, or you can mix it up and fight with an assortment of weapons and magic. The choice is yours.

I was hooked from the brilliant opening training level, in which your sinister-sounding master, Phenrig, guides his young apprentice (you) through a series of spooky corridors while teaching you the basics of swordplay, climbing, throwing, and kicking. Every game should have a training level like this. It's much more fun than figuring out how to play by reading a manual or studying the key mappings.

Dark Messiah has some of the best scripted scenes of any game I have ever played. Early on, you are perched on a horse conversing calmly with a castle guard. Suddenly, the ground starts to shake and the guards and townsfolk start freaking out. Your horse bucks you off and you land flat on your back. Screams of "Cyclops!" alert you to the cause of all the commotion. As the guards drag you to safety, you catch a brief glimpse of the beast entering the town, and it is fearsome! An excellent, dramatic musical score enhances the tension.

Once you are on your feet, you must run to safety. The cinematic sequence is well integrated into the gameplay, as are the numerous other cut scenes you will see later in the game. I was reminded of the early scene in Half-Life 2 when friendly NPCs helped you escape the combine soldiers in a dramatic chase through a series of buildings and rooftops. Most of the cut scenes remain in first-person perspective, so you feel as if you are playing and in control the whole time, even when you're not.

The voice acting is very good, with the exception of the vixen who gets inside your head to guide you through the game. She likes to make sexually suggestive remarks but isn't very good at it, coming across as corny rather than sexy most of the time. The other voices, however, are great. Orcs sound menacing, your mentor sounds wise, and goblins are delightfully delirious. I also enjoyed the Hulk-like orc grammar (e.g., "Me smell human! Killing human bring honor to family") and the way the goblins sometimes beg for their lives.

As one would expect with a game based on the Source engine, the physics and visuals are detailed and realistic. Textures (particularly those on wet objects) glimmer as they bask in high-dynamic-range lighting. Boxes and crates can be lifted and thrown at your enemies. The only time you are reminded you are playing a video game is when you are outdoors and viewing distant scenery. For whatever reason, mountains and buildings in the distance lack detail and realism. They look like they were painted in the background as an afterthought, using watercolors.

My only other complaint in the graphics department is that the color palette in many areas could use a little more contrast. Sometimes you'll find yourself in a brown room filled with brown boxes and brown bottles, with a brown staircase in the middle of it. A little more creativity with the color design would have been welcome, but this is a minor complaint. The game looks fantastic.

The boss creatures, in particular, are wondrous to behold. Giant dragons, massive one-eyed Cyclopes, and deadly spiders (to name a few) look so good you'll be tempted to just stare at them in awe rather than fight. Even the standard-issue enemies are rendered with excellent detail.

The sounds are wonderful, too. Aside from the fantastic soundtrack, you will hear thunder clapping in the distance, wind blowing gently outside the window, and wooden planks creaking under your feet. As with any game, the sound design is best appreciated using headphones.

Dark Messiah also includes a multiplayer component, which is always a nice way to prolong a title's longevity. I did not play the multiplayer much, because (1) so few servers are running the game, and (2) as much as I liked the idea of Battlefield 2-style capture-the-flag gameplay in a fantasy-world setting, I found the leveling system enormously frustrating. When you join a server, you are a "Level 1" player. Other players may be, say, Level 8. What's the difference? Lifespan, mostly. A Level 1 player can expect to last for about five seconds (i.e., the length of time it takes before another player sees you). As of this writing, I have yet to reach Level 8 and cannot comment on how gratifying it may or may not be to own all the Level 1 noobs. But it sucks to be Level 1.

Unfortunately, Dark Messiah is plagued by technical issues. Loading times are longer than those in Battlefield 2 (that's bad). I crashed to my desktop more times than I care to count. When it takes over three minutes to re-load your last saved game, crashing to your desktop gets old rather quickly. Still, none of the technical glitches ruined the experience for me, because I was able to get back up and running with a minimum of (additional) hassle. I would have preferred a more polished product, but as a PC gamer, I've learned to expect and accept a certain amount of technical imperfection.

Let it be known: Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, though unfortunately titled, is not a run-of-the-mill RPG, if it is an RPG at all! It is a graphically glorious, murderously marvelous first-person fantasy action game that no self-respecting FPS fan should overlook.

Score: 8.6/10

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