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Dark Messiah Might & Magic PC Review

by Michael J. Anderson, 2007-08-19

Dark Messiah Might & Magic is an action game released last October to a massively mixed response. Since playing and reviewing Dark Messiah initially several months have past, and I have played bits and pieces during that time - now I have replayed the entire game twice in succession and take another look to see if my opinion of the overall game has improved or changed in any way.

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together

My basic description of Dark Messiah Might and Magic is "Half Life 2 meets Arx Fatalis meets Blade of Darkness." The game is powered by the Half-Life 2 Engine, developed by the same folks who brought us Arx Fatalis and based in the storied Might & Magic universe, and features a visceral melee combat style reminiscent of the brutal action game Blade of Darkness (Severence to some). The game has already angered fans of both role-playing games, because this effort took Arkane studios away from making Arx Fatalis 2 and also because this game has very little to do with the Might & Magic franchise, other than using the name.

Unfortunately that is only the tip of the iceberg of what is wrong. Let me get one thing out of the way for those who have played the demo or some of the game and are outraged at the score - this game can be loads of fun. I finished it, went back and played more using a different skill-tree approach and keep loading old saves just to play through some of the areas. It is fun - but that doesn't mean it's very good. Look at it this way - when my kids were toddlers they would often like the box more than the toy that came in the box; but that doesn't make the box a great toy.

One of the best things that has happened in the months since release is that the developers have cleaned up the technical messes that plagued the game on release and for some time afterwards. Gone are the huge game-breaking bugs that plagued early adopter, as is the need for most players to disable some of the high-quality graphics options just to get to the next stage. (The screen to the right shows one game-breaker familiar to early adopters - you couldn't climb a critical ladder very early in the game). However, not all is well - there are installer issues, performance issues and minor bugs galore, and the developers have announced that no further patches are coming for the game. So what you see is what you get - and what I got was pretty good in terms of performance and stability. There are long load-times that occasionally come in the middle of staircases, and there is stuttering in the audio and graphics on occasion, but both of those are products of being developed using the Source engine as they persist in Half Life 2 to this day.

At first glance the graphics in the game looks great and most of it is very good looking - but it is largely generic. Some areas are breathtaking, but most of it is standard high fantasy stuff that loses further appeal because of the level design. All of the graphics are detailed and high quality - from textures to characters to the environments - it's a matter of how they are put together that causes problems. One of the most useful general skills - seeing in the dark - often illuminates missing textures or poorly joined areas. Also, spellcasters who like tossing Fireballs will be treated to a massive set of hands conjuring and caressing a ball of flame and will often be unable to see much of anything else as shown in the accompanying screen. Those little details wouldn't be an issue if the story and characters were more interesting. The same is true for the music and voice acting - they are very well done but limited by the characters. There are some highlights - the final battle music is very exciting and moving, keeping you charging ahead during a very difficult fight. There are also lowlights, such as when my wooden staff hitting spiders in a web-filled tunnel sounded like steel-on-steel. The rest of it just falls into place as background, as you charge through the tale.

I can't get her out of my head

Well, except for Xana, that it. Xana is a character you meet early in the game and who is integral throughout. Her dialogue is dripping with not-so-subtle sexual overtones, which are juvenile at first, but later on have you wishing there was a check box in the options for 'silence Xana'! She is also involved in the game's semblance of romance, which also involves a 'good' female character named Leanna. Finding her is an early objective and it isn't very hard, since against the backdrop of plainly clothed average women she is pretty, young, scantily clad and has large breasts. I was rolling my eyes at that point, thinking "please tell me they aren't rolling out this many stereotypes this early in the game." The rest of the story doesn't get much better - it isn't that I'm expecting a storyline worthy of the classic Might & Magic games, but it seems like an episode of 'short attention span theater' where you have large hints about the plot pounded into your skull every thirty seconds or so.

In an action game it is easy enough to toss aside a lousy story when the levels and combat system are well thought out and implemented. Or perhaps to forgive bad level design if the story and combat are well done. But you really need two sides of the triangle. Anyone who has played the demo knows that the combat is pretty solid, but unfortunately the level design doesn't hold up to any decent standard. There are some obvious things - areas are littered with fires, perilous drops and spiked gratings (spiked always facing out) in a way that screams of being set up for the combat. But beyond those, most areas feel like constructs that would make no sense outside of the context of the current battle - places with ridiculous cliffs and narrow walkways, with barrels stacked on frail platforms with large empty areas beneath and huts on cliffs with randomly placed wood beams overhead are just a few examples. These are things that in the excitement of the action don't stand out unless you are stuck, but reflect a design scope out of sync with building a compelling game. You are not immersed in a world, you are wandering through a combat training simulator - and that becomes very obvious if you replay any significant section.

Having just completed a second replay in a row in order to try an archer / stealth build for the first time (my initial replay this time was as my traditional Battlemage archetype), I feel more strongly about my comments on the level design than ever. Questions pelted me as I played: how did Leanna get here, why would someone have a reserve water supply to raise the water level ~500 meters in a 30 meter radius tower, how did Leanna get here, did these guys consult on the walkway design for making the Death Star, and how did Leanna get here?

So the story is lousy and clichéd, the characters are vacuous and the level design is trite. The game can still be salvaged with a solid and flexible combat system - so how does that hold up? Fortunately the overall combat system is pretty good - and is the reason for heated debate on various forums over this game. It is clear from playing that the developers saw the combat and skills systems as the core features and the good news is that these are indeed the best part. Of course, there is bad news - there is a significant flaw there as well. The skill system rewards points for accomplishing objectives (required and a couple of optional), which you can allocate towards new skills. The skill points awarded allow you to progress completely in one specialty, with a number of points to allocate into miscellaneous skills. You can't become a generalist - if you plan to become a mage you will not get very far in sword skills before you compromise your mage abilities. This allows a bit of flexibility but forces you to choose an archetype - stealth, melee, archery or magic. The equipment you find helps enhance your choice - as a melee character your equipment is best suited for close combat, whereas a mage gets equipment that enhances his magical traits. Choosing the stealth or archer options are really a pretty lousy choice - battles tend to set you in the midst of enemies, making archery a tough option (except one very late game battle that was made trivial through the use of a special bow). And the stealth skill is fairly useless - enemies ignore you until you're close enough anyway, then they charge straight at you ... and the masses of zombies and spiders that do so much poison damage don't seem to notice that they can't see you! Since it is a first-person game you never see what your character looks like and as a result you are never choosing based on appearance.

Welcome to the First Church of Kickology!

The combat system is fun enough that many people fail to notice any of the other flaws of the game - and that is understandable, since everything else is designed to enhance enjoyment of the combat. The controls will be immediately familiar to shooter fans - WASD and mouse. There's a set of quick-slots that allow you to change your weapon or magic or chug a potion on the fly and you cannot cast spells while holding a weapon, which helps to better balance the different classes. Just as important as your ability to cast the right spell or use the right attack is your tactical assessment of the environment. The game assumes that you will make use of the various piles of junk, spikes and ropes to take out your enemies. This can be loads of fun - dropping a jar of oil near a fire and then knocking out a board that causes barrels to tumble over your enemies and then catch them all on fire is an absolute blast. That is, until those tactics become required to advance through the game.

So what's the problem with the combat system? Let me present a sermon from the First Church of Kickology as my reply. He who lives by the ledge will die by the boot; and beware the temptations of boot and spike - they will be your undoing. Seriously, while using the kick tactic was fun in the demo, it becomes tiresome in the full game. Later on there are a number of instances where it won't help you - certain enemies are strong enough to resist your kicks and there are a number of pitched battles that don't happen near ledges or fires. But for most of the game you will find yourself thinning crowds by positioning them for a good kick into a spike or off a cliff. And why not? When you have a high level weapon or spell that takes multiple hits to kill an enemy that you can easily send sprawling into the abyss, what should you do?

So there is the single player game in a nutshell - hackneyed story, lousy level design and a combat system dominated by kick-spamming. That brings us to multiplayer - given the amount of testing time that should be pretty solid, right? Well, yes and no. On the one hand the stability and performance are excellent - I was able to join and play through various maps and game types quickly and easily. Load times are much better than the single player campaign, so if you like the single player game and are looking for some quick fun, you'll find it. But too much has been changed from the single player; much of the tactics and environmental interactivity from the single player has been removed and what is left is window-dressing. There is also much debate over balance; it isn't clear how well the innate skills work compared to each other and whether or not that depends on how much a player used the environment and kicked enemies around through the main game. The Crusade mode is solid fun and definitely the highlight of the multiplayer game while Team Deathmatch, on the other end of the spectrum, is reminiscent of some of the worst FPS free-for-alls in recent years, with players spawn-camping, spamming and more.

Once more into the breach...

I am very disappointed with Dark Messiah Might and Magic, yet I will leave it installed on my system for some time. It is a deeply flawed game and one of the worst launches in recent history - certainly the worst Steam launch to date. Yet it is a blast; the visual effects and combat system and, yes, kicking Orcs off ledges and ghouls into spikes are all a lot of fun, if not particularly satisfying beyond the short term. So will you like this game? Take this test - download the demo, play it six times in rapid succession and if you still are loving every second of it then you can safely buy the game and know that your money will be buying you hours of fun combat. Just don't expect anything nearly so deep as the chasm you just kicked that necromancer into…

 

Box Art

Information about

Dark Messiah of Might & Magic

Developer: Arkane Studios

SP/MP: Single + MP
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: Action-RPG
Combat: Real-time
Play-time: 10-20 hours
Voice-acting: Full

Regions & platforms
World
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2006-10-26
· Publisher: Ubisoft

More information

Summary

Pros

  • Combat can be lots of fun
  • Well developed skill tree
  • Challenging
  • Good length
  • Loads of fun despite flaws

Cons

  • Lousy & obvious story
  • One dimensional combat
  • Led-by-the-nose linearity
  • Ridiculous level design
  • Annoying character you just can't shake.

Rating

Review version

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