A first person view of an Orcish throat lift.
WHAT?: Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. (Single Player Only Review).
WHO?: Dark Messiah was published by French publishing giantUbisoft, which recently acquired the Might & Magic brand name after 3D0 & New World Computing finally finished running the series into the ground, and developed by Arkane Studios, which previously released 2002’s critically acclaimed Arx Fatalis. The multiplayer portion of the game was developed by an entirely different studio, called Kuju Entertainment. A review of its gameplay may well follow in a seperate update.
GENRE: First person action RPG.
GIST: You play as Sareth, a powerful wizard’s apprentice sent on a quest to retrieve the Skull of Shadows and perform some kind of act that will either release or imprison the demonic hordes that have been held back from destroying this world. Along the way, you meet two hot babes, fight a necromancer and a bunch of boss monsters, and perform horrific acts of violence.
ESRB: A well-deserved Mature for “Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language, & Partial Nudity”.
SIGHT & SOUND: Before delving into this category, let’s just go ahead and get this out in the open: you need a serious computer to run this game well. While I had almost no lag whatsoever and was even able to alt+tab out of the game with ease, my girlfriend’s computer, which is just marginally slower, had a difficult time running the game. If you’re thinking about dropping $50 on this game, do yourself a huge favor and make sure the demo runs on your computer first.
That being said, if you can run Dark Messiah, it’s absolutely beautiful. Sophisticated bloom effects give outdoor settings a particular majesty, and the architecture of the interior levels is always interesting. Models are particularly detailed and well-done, although they are distressingly cookie-cutter. Boasting some of the best water effects I have ever seen and some particularly dazzling pyrotechnics, it’s evident that Arkane didn’t pull any stops when they put this game together. As a first person fantasy game, it bears much comparison to Oblivion, a comparison that Dark Messiah holds up well to — the game is easily as pretty or prettier than Oblivion. The world certainly isn’t as large or as varied, but Arkane seems to have put more attention to a smaller world, with great results.
The ambient sound is absolutely top-tier. Combat noises, destruction, fire, screams — all these are very realistic and cinema-quality. Depending upon what surface you’re walking over, your footsteps make different noises — notable among them, the clunky-clunk-clunk of wooden platforms and the sickening squish of piles of rotting flesh. They probably could have invested in a few more voice actors. The various character types, in addition to looking identical to every other character type, also have exactly the same voice, which is even weirder when they’re talking to each other.
But it’s great that they’re talking to each other. Often times, if you approach enemies cautiously, you can hear them chattering to each other about various things, Easter Eggs and game references included – it might not be quite as great as the little snippets hidden in Max Payne, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless.
STYLE & PRESENTATION: This game absolutely oozes style. It’s really the Kill Bill of video games for 2006. Not only is it packed with scenes ripped straight out of movies (a castle siege filled with destruction, zombies rising out of the ground, massive boulders crushing things, monster-truck sized spiders, a rooftop chase), it puts the exquisite graphics to great use. Most “cutscenes” are in game and you still have complete control of your character — in fact, the entire game is from a first person perspective, even as above, when your character is being picked up off his feet and thrown across a room. The game is also genuinely scary — not only is combat absolutely heart-pounding, there’s this one part where you have to raid a necromancer’s lair that’s filled with half-completed experiments and a dank pit filled with blood and zombies that come out of nowhere.
And the boss fights. So, so big. The first time I had to fight a monster that was at least twice my size, I couldn’t get over how real it felt. In Dark Messiah, if you get by an arm the size of a tree trunk, you don’t just take a little damage. You go flying through the air and smash anything that you run into.
Then there’s the plot. Pulpy, B-movie, standard high fantasy savior story — but I’m not going to knock it. Maybe it’s even a little cheesy, but I don’t think Arkane was exactly trying to rewrite Lord of the Rings. SPOILER WARNING: YOU ARE THE DARK MESSIAH. Don’t worry, you probably would have figured that out upon either seeing the box art or within the first thirty seconds of the game — it’s not exactly a plot twist, and it happens early.
Probably one of the most stylistically interesting things about this game that really sets it apart is its blatant sex appeal. At the beginning of the game, you have a Cortana-like figure named Xana to guide you along your way. At first she seems innocent enough, and then after the first level a cutscene reveals her to be a totally hot demon lady that must be fresh out of clothes (interestingly enough, her hair carefully covers her top, but I sure didn’t see any panties). From that point on, it’s pretty much one sexual innuendo after another. Similarly, your character runs into a female apprentice named Leanna who develops the hots from you almost instantly and was clearly modeled to make nerd-dudes have wet dreams. Of course, Xana is totally jealous of her, but this sadly never devolves into a catfight.
GAMEPLAY: A pretty game don’t mean nothing if it isn’t fun to play. But Dark Messiah is a lot of fun to play. The game offers three main gameplay options — sneaky rogue-like skills such as archery and backstabbing, brute force abilities like strength and endurance, and a line of spells and mana-improving skills for would-be mages. Your character can develop any of these skills, mixing and matching as much as you please, with ability points gained from completing objectives.
Combat is a lot more than just hack and slash. With one of the most detailed melee’ systems since the Jedi Knight series. While combat in the last two Elder Scrolls games offered first-person melee, it was generally just charging up and slapping the enemy over and over again with your blade. In Dark Messiah, that’s a great way to get you killed — enemies will block every single one of your shots, throw you on the ground and stab you to death if you just run up to them.
Probably the best skill in the game is kicking. Drawing back to the olden days of such venerable first person games as Duke Nukem, you can always give an enemy a good kick when they get too close. The difference being, that since Dark Messiah uses such a powerful physics engine, enemies are much more like soccer balls than brick walls. Kicking enemies into spikes, into abysses, on the ground, into other enemies, and generally just kicking enemies is probably the most satisfying aspect of the game. Not that you’re immune to getting kicked, of course — there are a number of creeps in the game big enough to punt you like a football. Based around an adrenaline system, your character slowly builds up power, until he can perform a melee attack, at which point the game goes into slow motion and you unleash some kind of obscene attack that will likely hack an enemy in half or decapitate him in a bloody shower of gore.
Of course, the environment is also an important part of gameplay. Not only can you kick people into spiked walls and set off traps, you can also pick up barrels and fling them at people, which is highly amusing if not stunningly effective. Going Donkey Kong on a dude in first person is an amazing experience. Dropping boulders and stone crypts on people never gets old. And sometimes, the gameplay has a few surprises — a house once fell out from under me, for example.
The magic in the game is very impressive. Although some of the spells are kind of lackluster, especially since there are only about a dozen of them, others are particularly fearsome. Since fire often causes things to burst into flames (especially your enemies, who often run screaming and flailing after being set ablaze), the fire school is probably the showiest, although enemies also twitch and jerk when they’re being electrocuted, and freeze in place with cold attacks.
I didn’t do much sneaking around, but there were plenty of opportunities to. The sneaking system seemed to be pretty robust, and I managed to catch a number of enemies unawares without any special abilities. I did use daggers, the classic sneak weapon, a couple of times, which can be thrown as a power attack to kill fleeing enemies, which is impeccably cool.
There are also a few gimmicks in the game. The rope bow is a weapon you get early on that allows you to fire a rope up at any piece of wood in the game and then climb on it. A few jumping puzzles are based around this, and its fairly enjoyable. Later in the game, you have an alternate form that you use once that is basically absolutely worthless.
Gameplay is basically a distilled version of an action movie. Plot points are advanced, and then it’s time for ultraviolence that’s incredibly fun to watch and play. The game almost exudes an aura of confidence — with its powerful physics engine, it lets you do whatever you want to do on the path it sets for you, and it feels good. Chances are, if it looks like you can do something cool, it’s completely possible. Compare this to some of the zones in Oblivion that aren’t reachable because the developers decided to limit the physics engine and remove ladders and ropes.
QUIBBLES, QUIRKS, GRIPES: Dark Messiah didn’t have any problems that wrecked the game for me. There were a few things that I’ll cover, but the overall experience was extremely positive.
First of all, the gimmicks have problems. The rope bow is a really cool idea, and it’s a lot of fun to use, but it’s flawed. It frequently leads to clipping problems, and I had to restart because my character was lodged in a wall. Furthermore, since you can’t swing back and forth on it, some areas are needlessly difficult to get around and require tons of ropes covering basically every piece of available wood. Secondly, the extra form given to you as part of the “evil” quest line sucks. It’s basically cosmetic. It’s useful for the tiny part of the plot where you must use it, but is otherwise a waste of time.
Second, sometimes the developer makes gameplay decisions that are just unreal. Every single creature in the game dies if you jump on it and impale it with your sword, except this one orc boss. The developers apparently gave him an ungodly amount of hit points, and I had to knock him on the ground and impale him upwards of a dozen times before he finally died. The amount of violence I had to inflict on this poor bastard was almost comical. Similarly, at the end of the game, one of the final boss fights have you trying to kill an airborne opponent who cannot be kiled with melee weapons, which totally sucks if you never put any points into spells or bows.
Also, the audience for this game seems pretty clear to me, and that means this game is pretty much catered to dudes. I’m not saying that girls can’t like violence and fighting, but getting hit on by scantily clad demonesses and apprentices with sexy deep-throated voices might get a little uncomfortable for some people and is obviously targeted at guys.
The game is supposed to have two endings and paths that you can go down — to embrace your life as the Dark Messiah or to imprison the demons and do the right thing. Unfortunately, the “do the right thing” option feels awfully tacked on. It doesn’t show up until relatively late in the game, and if you choose it, it doesn’t have much of an effect on the rest of the game, except you get a slightly different cutscene that recycles a lot of the footage. The conflict between the two women vying for your affection is much more pronounced than the conflict between good and evil, which is okay, it just doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the game. In addition, the two sides are awfully unbalanced — if you decide to go good, you get a set of weapons that are absolutely amazing. Even though I had played a pretty evil bastard for most of the game, the lure of those weapons was just too much, and I switched sides. Ultimately, it just doesn’t matter what side you’re on.
FINAL GRADE: A-
Dark Messiah is a fun game with a couple of technical issues. People might come into it with the wrong ideas, but if they play it with an open-mind and the right set of genitals, they’re guaranteed to have a good time.