Ubisoft continues its resurrection of the classic 3DO series with this first-person role-playing release. Dark Messiah: Might and Magic features a campaign that begins 18 years after Heroes of Might and Magic V. Single players take the role of Sareth, to wield both might and magic against orcs, goblins, trolls, dragons, an undead horde, and other minions of the Dark Messiah who threatens the world of Ashan. Built on Valve's Half-Life 2 "Source" game engine, Dark Messiah: Might and Magic aims to offer smooth action in a game world rich with detail.
The game's multiplayer modes support up to 32 players. Along with the obligatory "Deathmatch" and "Team Deathmatch" modes, the multiplayer arena includes a "Crusade" mode that emphasizes teamwork in multi-match competition. In "Crusade," players choose one of five character classes, such as warrior or mage. Throughout the game, there are opportunities to increase characters' skills as they complete battles. After each round, a "dynamic campaign" feature determines the next map's location, as well as the items and skills you can gain between rounds, by analyzing completion statistics from the previous conflict.
"Crusade" mode creates a tug-of-war battle style by moving the next skirmish closer to the stronghold of the last skirmish's loser. When one team wins, the battle is moved away from its stronghold, but if the team loses the next conflict, the following battle moves back to the middle. The game ends when one stronghold is destroyed, or when a team loses all of its tickets. Tickets are a type of death card, and every time a player is killed or loses control of a spawn point, a ticket is taken away. After a campaign is completed, all experience for each character is set back to zero.
Had Dark Messiah of Might and Magic focused on what it so clearly does best, it could have been one of the most memorable games of the year. During its shining moments, the game transforms the typically bumbling exercise that is first-person melee combat into a sublime experience. Rare indeed is a game that gives you such a diverse tool set with which to wreak havoc that produces results so satisfying. Unfortunately, things like shaky enemy AI, meandering and unintuitive level designs and a paper-thin plot whose pivotal twist is evident 10 minutes into the tutorial make these brilliant moments seem way too infrequent. Plainly speaking, Dark Messiah is a 12-hour game that should have been shaved down to six because the truly worthwhile game sequences are buried by all the fluff in-between.
You play as Sareth, a young warrior with a mysterious past whose mentor happens to be a learned and tenacious wizard. He sends you on a mission to retrieve a couple of ancient artifacts, and from the first cutscene onward, you start to learn that you have something of a grand destiny. To help you in your mission, your master has you host the spirit of a being called Xana, who effectively plays the role that Navi serves in Ocarina of Time or Cortana does in Halo. She provides gameplay tips and color commentary (though she's roughly 10,000 times more libidinous). Along the way, you'll have a couple of opportunities to alter the story and ultimately change your destiny, but the results are largely cosmetic. Apart from slightly differing endings and a couple of in-game cutscenes that change based on your decisions, the game plays out identically regardless of what you do.
True choice comes into play when you decide what sort of fighter Sareth will become. As you fulfill objectives in the game's linear missions, you'll acquire skill points that you can use to advance in a series of ability trees. You can choose to specialize in melee combat, archery, or various types of magic. There are also auxiliary abilities that you can select, including passive ones that increase your health and mana reserves, or active ones that, for example, allow you to pick locks. Regardless of which way you choose to go in the end, you'll have points left over to dabble in other areas.
It does bear mentioning, however, that Dark Messiah is at its best during nitty-gritty melee combat and had the game embraced truly embraced this core competency, it would have been a whole lot better for it. The designers made great use of the Source engine; most sequences designed around melee are veritable playgrounds of carnage. You can kick enemies into various types of hazards or off ledges entirely, drop heavy objects on their heads, telekinetically hurl them into pits of fire and much more. All the typical FPS conventions apply: headshots with your bow are instant kills and stealth melee attacks (while using daggers) are an instagib.
Straightforward melee combat becomes much more effective as you start to invest in it. Late in the game you can wade into a room full of enemies and utterly brutalize them with relative ease. The game's adrenaline system (essentially a "super" meter that grants a single instant kill when filled) is a bit of a letdown, since you can't control it -- once it's full, you automatically blow it. The enemy AI also leaves a lot to be desired. All too often, enemies will stand around with glazed expressions as you dispatch their comrades with ranged attacks. Obstruction and cover may account for some of this, but in many situations it couldn't be more obvious where the arrows are coming from.
The biggest letdown by far is the level design. Though there's no question that the environments in Dark Messiah are majestically vast and intricately built, the problem is that trudging through their often unintuitive floor plans makes enjoying their grandeur kind of difficult. Worse yet, the stretches between the action (which is what Dark Messiah is all about) are way too long. In many scenarios, you're simply never quite sure where you have to go. Sometimes it's because of unclear mission objectives, while in others it's because of confusing layouts. The designers also saw fit to include a handful of environmental puzzles in the game, usually designed around a magic bow that you find early on that shoots ropes. These puzzles range from relatively obvious to downright torturous. Ultimately, all this pointless knocking about seems anathema to what the game should be. You'll wish you were being propelled through Dark Messiah's dynamic, violent experience instead of plodding through empty, static environments for extended periods of time.
Though it may ultimately redeem the game in time, Dark Messiah's multiplayer experience is also a case of squandered potential. "Crusade" is the multiplayer game's premier play-mode, and it's a decent take on capture-and-hold. It spans multiple maps and your character's progress is persistent through the entire extended campaign. You can choose from five different classes: Warrior, Assassin, Mage, Priestess and Archer. Each of these has its own skill tree, and while a good portion of the abilities garnered from your progression mirror the sorts of things that Sareth can do in the single-player game, many are unique to the multiplayer game.
The biggest inherent problem with Dark Messiah's multiplayer is that all the cool Source physics elements have been gutted from it. You can't kick enemies off of cliffs or crush their skulls with rocks. You'll take to the air like a sack of potatoes when you get blasted by an enemy's fireball, yes, but only after you're dead. It's sad that the element that the single-player most meaningfully hinges on couldn't be exploited for the multiplayer. At this writing, however, Dark Messiah's multiplayer faces a much more serious problem -- balance issues. Depending on whom you ask, priestesses are indestructible, assassins are over-reliant on poison bombs, mages render archers obsolete, and ranged classes render warriors completely impotent. Regardless of who you think is right, it's hard to deny that there sure are a lot of priestesses out there on the battlefield.
It's easy to be disappointed with Dark Messiah, given that it had so much potential. There is absolutely some compelling content in here, though you'll frequently have to exhibit a good deal of patience if you want to enjoy it. Still, it's hard to deny that the game has some immensely enjoyable moments. It's just too bad that they're too often surrounded by so much clutter.
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Crusaders of Might and Magic, Dungeon Siege II, Chosen, The: Well of Souls, Might and Magic 9, Heroes of Might and Magic V, Diablo, Fable: The Lost Chapters, Diablo 2
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