Dark Messiah of Might & Magic

Review by Steerpike
December 2006

On Absent Conjunctions

Officially, this game is called Dark Messiah Might & Magic, but the lack of an "of" in there freaks me out. So I, like most other reviewers, have retitled the game accordingly.

Dark Messiah, along with Nival's Heroes of Might & Magic V, represents a "reboot" of a beloved franchise that's been a mainstay of fantasy roleplaying for two decades. The universe of Might & Magic competes with Wizardry and Ultima in pure brand recognition and staying power. But the collapse of franchise creator New World Computing, along with several very poor development decisions in recent installments of both the Heroes and plain-Jane M&M games, seriously tarnished the Might & Magic rep even as new franchises like Gothic and The Elder Scrolls appeared to tantalize fantasy buffs. Legends of Might & Magic, a disastrous 2001 foray into action, was shredded by critics and gamers alike. 2002 saw both Might & Magic IX and Heroes IV endure similarly chilly receptions, and New World closed its doors shortly thereafter. Most assumed that M&M was no more.

Enter Ubisoft, which bought the rights and then promptly handed the brand off to a pair of European developers. These studios were told in no uncertain terms to take the franchise in a new direction. Russian developer Nival (Silent Storm) was pretty successful with Heroes V, a beautiful and fun game that probably deserves more positive press than it's gotten. It was the choice of French studio Arkane to helm Dark Messiah that raised a few eyebrows. Unlike Nival's proven turn-based strategy background, Arkane is only known for Arx Fatalis, a largely forgotten action-RPG, and an awfully mediocre one at that.

At the end of the day, though, the studio wasn't really a bad choice. Despite the failure of Legends, Arkane wisely decided to stick with what it knows: producing an action-RPG with heavy emphasis on the "action" part, plus unique—if somewhat overbearing—use of environmental physics to spice up the gameplay. Dark Messiah is buggy and hackneyed, but I had a good time playing it, and it's by no means bad. Though their game is mostly unoriginal, Arkane deserves credit for heroic attempts to innovate first-person melee combat—attempts that aren't a rousing success but don't exactly fail either. Dark Messiah is fun if you like this kind of game, but there's nothing unforgettable about it.

Horribly Contrived of Might & Magic

The rules of clichéd fantasy are few and simple:

1. Follow the X of Y nomenclature system (Forest of Fangorn, Mines of Moria, Den of Secrets, Age of Heroes, Sword of Sodan);

2. Stick to the standbys (orphans, dark prophecies, potent artifacts, busty women);

3. Abuse the apostrophe (the Demon Prince r'G'acb'bsxb'es).

I bring this up because, though Dark Messiah doesn't abuse the apostrophe, for which I am profoundly grateful because I hate that, it is otherwise the clichéd fantasy fiction's poster child. It could be the centerpiece of a college-level course on clichéd fantasy fiction. It is the example that clichéd fantasy fiction uses to describe itself to other genres. It's almost impossible not to laugh at the storyline, which hurls corny standbys so fast and so furious that at the outset I actually thought the game was trying to be funny.

Let's see ... you're Sareth, an orphan raised by the wizard Phenrig to be a sick-deadly warrior/mage/thief guy, who employs you to slink into haunted temples and grab important artifacts. One day Phenrig sends Sareth cross-country on a special assignment—help his wizard buddy Menelag find an object called the Skull of Shadows. Others have their eye on this Skull, which figures into a prophecy of doom that announces the advent of a world-damning villain called the Dark Messiah. Phenrig and Menelag want that skull.

Never mind that anyone who's got, you know, a cerebellum will have Phenrig pegged as a bad guy from the moment he walks into the frame; compared to some of the other camp nonsense in this story, he's positively subtle. Hell, another villain has a spider tattooed on his forehead. That's the kind of cliché we're talking about here. When I turn to evil, as I inevitably will, I'm going to have a bunny tattooed on my forehead. That way no one will suspect me until it's too late.

So we've got orphans with mysterious pasts, dark prophecies, obviously evil foster parents, powerful artifacts, skulls, and haunted ruins. Add in the other items not worth explaining: orcs, goblins, a conflict called "the Blood War," a chesty wizardess in improbable clothing who falls in love with the protag even though she's only known him for like an hour, a sword called "Souldrinker," enormous spiders, demon chicks, and evil cults. This, my friends, is the world of Dark Messiah.

Aiding you in your quest is Xana, an unbelievably bitchy voice in your head (she actually has a body of her own but left it behind on account of—seriously—"one travels easier than two"). Xana's job is to motivate the obviously virginal Sareth with overt promises of sexual gratification, to be delivered upon once she gets back into her own body. Unfortunately, Sareth is so dense that he doesn't recognize how obviously evil she is, and he's so milquetoast that he wouldn't do anything about it anyway. People hate playing stupid, wimpy characters, so this is annoying—but not nearly as annoying as Xana herself. The writing is bad, the actress is worse, and the situation leaves little margin for interpretation. She is so ridiculously over the top as to telegraph a "surprise" that takes place at the end from her very first moment with you, and she's so meanspiritedly sluttish that you'll hate her with a blind, all-consuming passion despite her promises to, ah, do stuff to you.

The story is ... bad. I mean real bad, like Robert Jordan bad or Heavy Metal magazine comics bad. But if you can look past that, and most gamers are so used to sucky writing that they can with no problem, there's a pretty fun game here.

One thing that's worth noting is that Nival and Arkane took their instructions about reinventing the series quite literally. While most previous Might & Magic games shared the same general sprawling universe and mythology, both Heroes V and Dark Messiah take place in a completely new world with its own backstory. While most of this is as badly written as the game's primary plot thread, some of the new content presumably offers potential for future M&M franchise titles. Maybe we'll find out what that Blood War thing was all about.

... But No Cigar

Arkane licensed Valve's Source engine—the power behind Half Life 2—for Dark Messiah, and they use its luscious graphics and outstanding if overenergetic physics to great effect. Source is still a fantastic codebase for making good games, and it'll remain one of the top dogs until Windows Vista ships and we see the first of the DirectX 10-powered renderers that will follow. The use of Source also means that you can purchase and download this game over Valve's Steam network, which is how I did it, but it's also available at retail for the same price if you prefer.

Theoretically, you can choose to play through the adventure in a number of ways—as a blades-swirling warrior, as a stand-back-and-hurl-fire wizard, as a stealthy knife from the darkness, or as some combination of the three. The level design, not to mention the prescience and ferocity of some enemies, strongly encourages the heavily armed approach, but you'll probably find yourself dabbling in magic and stealth as well, if only to experiment with some of the other skills that Sareth can learn. You gather skill points for completing tasks (the game is linear so progress is pretty much set; only the choice of how to fight your way through is up to you), and you can spend them on a variety of combat, magic, stealth or utilitarian skills, most of which do come in handy at some point or another.

The real star of Dark Messiah is the first-person melee combat, which almost proves that such a model can work. Thanks to the Havok physics integrated into Source, sword- and knife-play feel pretty visceral, and actions like blocking and power attacks come quite naturally. The best addition to the system is the ability to kick your opponents, to stagger them or knock them back. Unfortunately, Arkane got a little carried away with the kicking, and so there's almost always a bottomless chasm or a bonfire or a spiky thing to kick your enemies into—making it a gimmick rather than a natural extension of tooth-and-nail combat. You could actually kill nearly every enemy in the game by kicking them into, against, or off something; the enemies paper their walls with spike boards and love standing near yawning abyssal trenches. The other problem is perennial to Havok: kick someone and they go flying like forty feet.

It hasn't been done perfectly yet, first-person melee combat, but I think it will be. Though the kicking scheme comes off as comical rather than part of an orchestrated beatdown, it's a clever new addition to a melee combat system that is pretty well handled in other ways. It's fast and requires that you move and block a lot, weapon reach is a major factor, the landscape is part of the battleground and power attacks are imperative if you hope to win. I also like the ability to perform gruesome finishing moves when your blood is up. Next time, let's add more intuitive physicality to fights, things like shield bashing and bull-rushes, plus a handheld combat camera a la Gears of War, and we'll see something really special.

Another thing I'll give Arkane props for is that it includes the same "body awareness" we saw in Thief: Deadly Shadows. Sareth is not a floating camera like the protagonist of most first-person games; he's got hands and feet and everything, and you can see them. It really helps you immerse in the game world, to look down and see your feet. I frankly can't believe how rarely this is implemented in first-person games.

Dark Messiah also takes advantage of some of Source's newer technologies, including high dynamic range lighting, which realistically renders extremely complex lighting algorithms such as those predicated by sunlight or the effect of your eyes struggling to compensate for bursts of intense brightness followed by deep shadow. HDR is jaw-dropping when used correctly, and its implementation here is among the best instances yet. Play of light and shadow are exquisite, as are the water effects so well handled by Source. You'll need the mother of all video cards to run the game at top rez with all the candy on, but it's worth it.

The art direction, also, is mostly superb. Arkane did a great job with the gloomy subterranea of Arx Fatalis, and they do a great job with the world of Dark Messiah. Almost every surface in the game is very shiny, like it's coated in gelatin, but I guess developers are still excited about the technology that allows them to do that. And since you spend a lot of time in forsaken temples and necromancers' lairs in Dark Messiah—places where I imagine most things would have an evil glisten to them—I didn't really mind the excess.

Overall level design and gameplay, though, are somewhat uninspired. This is especially true beyond the halfway point, when you've pretty much kicked someone into everything you can possibly kick them into and realize to your dissatisfaction that there'll be nothing more to see. I am reminded of the design and play of Quake IV or Sin Episodes, games that are neither good nor bad, but simply and ultimately forgettable.

Or You Could Have Done this Before You Shipped It

Dark Messiah downloaded my patches automatically over Steam, and its stability has improved dramatically in recent days. At first, however, the game was so impossibly buggy that even reaching the main menu was a crapshoot. Level load times took minutes, crashes to the desktop were infuriatingly frequent and minor glitches like tearing and collision problems abounded.

Since Arkane was quick with the patches and said patches seem to have greatly improved the game's stability and performance, I'm not going to knock off points for this. However, boxed-version buyers should be aware that they're going to need to download some software updates in order to enjoy a stable gaming experience.

The multiplayer portion of the game is rich and involved, offering a number of game types and a variety of strategies for victory. Unlike the single-player game, where you can theoretically play as a mage or thief but in truth always wind up as a fighter with Rockette powers, in the multiplayer arena all classes are integral team members and kicking is a hell of a lot harder to do with finesse. Unfortunately, much of the instability I encountered while playing was in the multiplayer space, and I simply wasn't able to devote lots of time to this part of the game experience. I apologize for that; however, what I did sample tells me that Dark Messiah offers unique and fresh multiplayer options that are worth checking out.

Wrap-up of Might & Magic

I was set to give this game a Middlin' score when I started writing, but the truth is I'd mostly be doing that because the story is so absurd and Xana is so obnoxious. These are major issues, but they do not relegate the game to two-star doldrums. I had a good time playing Dark Messiah, I put a solid twenty hours into it before I finished, and there's a chance—somewhat remote—that I might one day go through again. I guess the best advice I can give is to wait until this game is $39 rather than $49, and you probably won't be disappointed.

Randy Smith consulted extensively with Arkane on Dark Messiah, and it shows in nearly every aspect of the experience. Randy came from Looking Glass, where he was a level designer and then senior designer on the Thief games. After that, he served as project lead on Thief: Deadly Shadows at Ion Storm, and he is now working on a secret project with Steven Spielberg and fellow Looking Glass alum Doug Church. He is one of the industry's most highly respected experts on stealth-based design and use of emergent play techniques to expand player freedoms.

In fact, I give Randy credit for everything I liked about this game. That's not to say that Arkane was somehow second fiddle in its development, just that there's a whole lot of Randy's fingerprints to be seen here. Arkane's previous offering, Arx Fatalis, shares many general similarities but lacks Dark Messiah's energetic, if somewhat ill-fated, attempts to bring physics, stealth and a variety of combat options into the mix of a game that may not live up to all of its potential but still delivers the goods where they count. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Arkane
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: October 25, 2006

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Windows XP (only)
AMD Athlon, Pentium 2.6 GHz (3.2GHz recommended)
512 MB RAM (1 GB recommended)
128 MB DirectX 9-compliant video card (256 MB recommended)
DirectX 9-compliant sound card (PC audio solution containing Dolby Digital Live required for Dolby Digital audio)
DirectX 9 or higher (included on disc)
4x or faster DVD-ROM drive
7 GB free hard disk space
Windows-compatible mouse and keyboard
Multiplayer: Broadband Internet connection with 64 Kbps upstream or faster. Installation of Steam software required for multiplay

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