Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Dark Messiah of Might And Magic

                                                                                                                                                                                    The Might and Magic universe dates all the way back to 1986. In those 20 years, we've seen plenty of different games on plenty of different platforms, but most of them have fallen squarely into the turn-based strategy or role-playing sectors. Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, from Ubisoft and Arkane Studios, doesn't really fall into either of those categories. Like Arkane's previous game, Arx Fatalis, this is a first-person game. But Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is extremely light on the role-playing, instead focusing its energy on sword-swinging, magic-fireball-shooting action. Unfortunately, the action gets repetitive quickly, and the game's often-transparent storyline doesn't pick up any of the slack.
Dark Messiah puts you in the boots of a guy named Sareth. Sareth's an orphan that's been working as an apprentice under a wizard named Phenrig, and the game opens with a tutorial, where the wizard tells you how to get around as you attempt to grab a large crystal with magical properties. After learning the fine arts of sword fighting, rope climbing, and crate kicking, the wizard sends you out into the world to bring the crystal to another wizard, who has some big plans for it. But you don't go alone. Before you leave, the boss sticks you with a lady named Xana, who is some kind of guardian creature who lives inside your head. This lets her act as the game's Cortana, speaking to you frequently and acting as the game's "what should I do next?" device. The difference between Xana and Cortana, though, is that Xana's quips are too frequent and immediately annoying. The storyline unfolds almost immediately thanks to some specific details that are revealed in the manual and opening pre-rendered video sequence about the prophecy that drives the entire story. It's odd that a game could slip what amount to spoilers into the first 45 minutes of gameplay, but it's really quite transparent, and it's very easy to see where this roughly 15-hour adventure is going. You're given a couple of different choices later on in the game that will dictate which ending you'll see, but they're all disappointingly unsatisfying.

At its core, Dark Messiah is an action game. There are enemies to deal with, and you can take them out with a few different weapon types. Swords do the most damage, though daggers can be powerful if you can sneak up behind enemies and backstab them. The staff isn't as powerful or as fast as the sword, but it knocks enemies over, making it well suited for crowds, in theory. When using a sword, you can also equip a shield, which lets you block arrows. If you want to reach out and kill someone, the game has bows for your use, as well. You can also learn magic spells over the course of the game, starting with the basics like telekinesis and flame arrow, which is a fire spell that does very little damage. The later spells are more damaging and useful, but they don't scale, so that useless flame arrow spell is always useless.
You learn spells and other skills by spending skill points, which are earned by completing objectives. Skill points can be spent in three different categories, and some skills branch off of other skills, so you'll have to increase your endurance before you can increase your attack power. There aren't very many choices for character customization here, but you can try to specialize in magic, stealth, strength, or some combination of the three. Considering that most of the spells in the game aren't all that useful (heal is easily your best bet for most-used spell) and that stealth is never a requirement, spending points to make your physical attacks stronger, while also spending points to increase your mana reserves for frequent healing, feels like the best way to go. The game tosses so many health and mana-restoring items at you that you probably don't have to go all out in that direction, either.
The combat in Dark Messiah is a little deeper than the average first-person shooter's melee attacks. When wielding a weapon, you can tap the mouse button for fast, weak swipes. But you can also execute power strikes by holding down the attack button and a movement direction. Each direction gives you a slightly different-looking attack, but the real bonus is that the power strikes do more damage and usually stagger blocking enemies. As you swing, an adrenaline meter charges up, and when it's full, a power strike will instantly kill an enemy, complete with a few unique and gory death animations, such as beheadings. But in many cases, attacking with your weapons or even your magic spells isn't the quickest way to take care of business. The soldiers, orcs, ghouls, and other creatures you'll face in the game really like to stand near large cliffs and spiked walls, or under rickety wooden lofts filled with heavy barrels. You have a kick attack that is a little too good at kicking guys off of cliffs or into those spiked walls, either of which is an instant kill. The lofts are usually held up by shaky wooden planks, so a swipe of any weapon will crush their supports, sending the barrels tumbling down onto your enemies and killing them. With all of these powerful options at your disposal, fighting enemies in Dark Messiah feels more like a minor annoyance. In some spots, it'll be more efficient to just run past groups of zombies, and since enemies don't drop useful items or give you any sort of experience or skill points, you usually won't miss anything by doing so. But you will occasionally stumble onto some larger enemies, like a big cyclops or a dragon. Those fights can be a little more involved, but the artificial intelligence makes even these guys relatively easy to best.
Sareth isn't the most acrobatic fellow, but you still have some moves that you can use to get around. The game throws a few jumping puzzles at you, and in true first-person jumping-puzzle fashion, they're pretty annoying. The game also gives you a rope bow, which lets you shoot arrows into wooden planks on any ceiling to cause a climbable rope to drop. The physics on the ropes looks ugly, and you can't swing on them, so the item is only useful in very specific situations, and Xana, the lady who lives in your head, is all too quick to tell you when such a situation arises. All told, the game's single-player has its moments but is often really repetitive. It's certainly not bad, but the story never ropes you in, the combat isn't very satisfying, and you never get the feeling that Sareth is growing more powerful as you play.
In addition to the single-player action, there's a multiplayer side to Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, and it's fairly different from the campaign. Here, you can choose from different character classes and go into battle via a few different modes. Deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture the flag all work as expected, though taking melee characters like warriors into game modes that are primarily associated with first-person shooters is a little weird. The crusade mode provides a bit more depth. This is a humans versus undead mode that uses respawn tickets and control points, similar to something like EA's Battlefield games. The game's five multiplayer maps are connected in crusade, so if you win a map, you move one map closer to the opposing team's home base. You also gain experience points and levels in this mode, and each time you level up, you can assign skill points to enhance your abilities. You can switch classes each time you spawn, so if you're tired of clanging swords as a warrior, you can switch to a more projectile-based character, like a mage or an archer. Priestesses can heal and resurrect players, and the assassin acts as a stealth character. Experience points carry over from one map to the next, provided you stay connected to the same server.
The big problem with the multiplayer is that you never get a good sense of impact when fighting. When two warriors are going at it, you often don't hear swords striking each other, and the best way to tell if you've scored a hit or been hit yourself is to look at a status box in the lower-left corner, which updates with how much damage you're taking or inflicting. There are some interesting ideas here, but multiplayer melee combat from a first-person perspective isn't much fun, and even the more projectile-based classes aren't very interesting to play. It may offer a different setting than the typical first-person multiplayer, but this game isn't likely to become your multiplayer game of choice any time soon.
Graphically, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic scales pretty well, looking good at lower resolutions and looking much better if you've got a stout machine that can handle the load of the Source engine. Much of the game is dark, and you're running through the same sorts of areas from start to finish, so there isn't really too much to look at along the way. That same Source engine provides plenty of realistic-seeming physics, though this often looks a little odd. Executing enemies with powerful sword slashes sends them hurtling to the ground with appropriate force. But then you'll bump into benches and see them move around or drop scrolls on the ground and hear them rattle around infinitely as they roll in place, and the effect is ruined. The game has a decent amount of blood in it, which will awkwardly turn your entire sword red after a few fights and stain spots on the ground. The soundtrack is typical for a fantasy game and does the job, and most of the sound effects are pretty good. The ambient sound is probably the best part of the game, as it always sounds appropriately creepy, whether you're running through a spider's lair or a sewer tunnel. The voices behind the game's characters aren't very good. The main-story characters often deliver lines a little too flatly, and Xana is, again, way overboard to the point of annoyance. Also, individual enemies repeat lines too frequently. Standard guards like to say "hey, paaaaal" when they spot you.
We tested Dark Messiah of Might and Magic on multiple machines and found it to have technical issues across the board. At one point in the game, you lose your entire inventory and have to use a specific new technique to fight a few enemies before getting your gear back. If you attempt to pick up a sword dropped by one of those foes, the game crashes. We also had it quit out to desktop without warning on numerous occasions. Thankfully, the game's autosave is frequent enough to never require much backtracking and manual saving is also present. On the multiplayer side, the game loads up as a separate executable, and uses Steam for key authentication and auto-updates, and all of that seems to work just fine. But we ran into numerous spots where the game would lock up when attempting to load the next map. Considering crusade mode is best when you stay connected to one server for a long period, this is especially frustrating.
Aside from its technical issues, there's nothing extremely wrong with Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. But beyond it being a fantasy-themed first-person action game (which is something of a rarity these days), the game doesn't really do much to make its campaign stand out. You could certainly do worse than Dark Messiah, but you could probably do a lot better, also.



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