Dark Messiah: Might and Magic

7_1Dark Messiah Might and Magic doesn’t have much in common with the Might and Magic games of old. It tries to do its own thing, but boy is it messy during that whole process. It’s full of glitches and prone to random crashes, and has a surprisingly banal storyline. Its levels are a mix of awesome and awful, with most falling somewhere in between. It’s so schizophrenic that it almost feels as if two developers of wildly different skill levels worked on the game at the same time, and everything was sort of thrown together at the last second. The game is screaming for extra polish and some judicious level editing.

Still, Dark Messiah’s combination of first-person action role-playing sometimes make it a glorious mess. It provides you with tons of violent, entertaining ways to dispatch your foes. It’s a kind of linear sandbox game in that, while you always have to go from point A to B to C, you have a number of options along the way. You can sneak past some combat, or directly engage the enemy. You can cast spells to dispatch your foes or snipe them with arrows from afar. Or you can just rush headlong into violent melee combat armed with the mightiest right foot in gaming history.

The plot is a terrible mixture of fantasy clichés and bad voice acting, and the “Might and Magic†portion of the game’s name is nowhere to be found (except, perhaps, in the excess of cheese). You control a guy named Sareth, an apprentice under some magician who is sent into the world to recover a crystal before someone else gets it and takes over the world. You’re stuck with a nice woman sidekick and a slightly more evil one who runs around topless and who lives in your head or something. Eventually you choose one woman or the other, with each choice giving you a different version of the equally lame end-movie. The story jumps around so much that you rarely have any idea what’s going on, beyond “I need to get to the end of the level.†That’s generally enough.

Developer Arkane Studios’ previous game Arx Fatalis was considered a well-intentioned but somewhat kludgey modern update of Ultima Underworld. This time Arkane took its inspiration from another Looking Glass Software game: Thief: The Dark Project. The early levels are incredibly Thief-like, with some sneaking around, crawling on rooftops, and amazing set pieces. The game is unable to sustain that level of quality, however, and its second half manages to screw up the promise and considerable good will generated by the first.

16Even in the dullest arenas and levels, there’s something to be said for having a lot of options in combat. Dark Messiah includes some minor role-playing elements that let you tailor your character for melee, stealth, or magic. You can choose to power your way through the game, figuring out optimal ways to kick people into the absurdly common “spike rocks sitting against a wall†or launch people over the ledges of the equally goofy “Orc village set into a cliff†level. (Seriously, who designs games this way? You half expect lava and snow worlds to pop up at some point.)

Or you can creep around the dark spots, stabbing people in the back. Or you can shoot or chop wooden poles and ropes that hold up roofs, thus causing boxes and other things to fall on people. Or you can play sniper with your bow and take people out from a distance. Or you can cast spells and hope you cast those Orcs away before they stab you to death. Or you can just avoid a lot of the combat in the first place. (You can’t avoid the terrible boss fights, however; they’re bad mostly because you don’t get to use any of the nifty tricks you learn elsewhere. And the less said about the couple of levels that feature lots of spiders, the better.)

9Unlike most games, Dark Messiah offers legitimate options for players to engage in the type of combat they find most appealing. It’s easy to ruin the game by using one style throughout, because Dark Messiah arguably does a poor job of forcing you to apply different techniques to different enemies. They can all be dealt with by kicking them into spikes, for example, but that doesn’t mean you need to play it like this. Creating enemies with certain types of armor or magic that automatically blocked kicks would be an obvious way to circumvent such “kick abuseâ€â€”but that’s an extremely game-y convention.

Those who rely on the “Foot of Doom†to power through the single-player portion of the game will be ill equipped to handle the surprisingly well-developed multiplayer. Despite the tendency of its combat to devolve into button mashing, the game rewards players who have multiple skills. There are class-based Deathmatch and Capture the Flag modes, and one called Crusade that’s like playing a fantasy version of Assault from Unreal Tournament.

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Combat takes place over multiple maps, and you earn experience that you can spend on improving your character. The system’s a bit crude, and the load times are eternal (this is true of the single-player game, as well), but there’s something incredibly visceral and exciting about one-on-one multiplayer melee.

It’s hard to call Dark Messiah a great game, at times even hard to call it a good one. For all its terrible level design and storytelling, it does deliver in one area. It’s at least memorable, though not always for the good reasons (“damnit game, stop crashing on me”). But you’ll remember doing in the various Orcs, Undead, and possibly Orcish Undead in as many humorously violent ways as possible. The visuals are bright and colorful, and the adventure is at least amusing when it’s not merely tolerable.

System Requirements: Pentium IV 2 GHz, 512 MB RAM, 7.2 GB HDD, 128 MB Video, WinXP

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