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| Review: Dark Messiah of Might & Magic (single-player) (6 comments )|
by: suibhne (65) | Posted in cluster FiringSquad Editors Challenge Round 1 Prelim 1
Posted 76 months ago ( edited 76 months ago ) in category DEFAULT
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
|» MEDIA (10)|
The gates of Stonehelm
Typical Source Engine water effects
Leanna - not quite Alyx Vance...
Crypt, replete with bump-mapping and bloom
High-resolution textures and a nice heat-shimmer effect
Orcs - even worse when they talk too much
Yep, those are coffins - as far as the eye can see
Pao-Kai - not entirely friendly...
DM\'s cluttered inventory system
One of many environments in the ruined temple
Summary: When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid. (Longfellow)
(Note that I'm only reviewing Dark Messiah's single-player game. Its team-oriented, class-based multiplayer mode was created by a different developer, overlapping only partly with the single-player gameplay. If multiplayer is your priority, that mode deserves your separate consideration.)
Dark Messiah of Might and Magic arises from a curious lineage.
The most obvious antecedent is its own brand. The Might and Magic franchise is best known to contemporary gamers for Heroes of Might and Magic, a dominant turn-based strategy series since 1995 and now in its fifth installment - but the original Might and Magic hit the market almost two decades ago as a party-based RPG in the Wizardry vein. The series may not have matched the best Wizardry and Ultima titles, but it was vital in defining the early personal-computer RPG market. (It also spawned forgettable offshoots like Legends of Might and Magic, an unfortunate medieval Counterstrike clone.)
A second ancestry for Dark Messiah can be found in the developer, Arkane Studios, whose previous (and first) title was the Ultima Underworld-inspired Arx Fatalis for Windows and XBox. Arx offered an open-ended gameworld with multiple quest solutions, freeform exploration, and a flexible character system.
Given this background, it's notable that Dark Messiah has much more in common with Deus Ex than Wizardry 8 or even Arx Fatalis. This is a stat-based first-person action game, not an RPG. Furthermore, Might and Magic is not even really Might and Magic anymore. When Ubisoft acquired the brand in 2003 and subsequently released Heroes of Might and Magic V, they discarded the lore from all nine Might and Magic RPGs and began the task of creating an entirely new gameworld. Dark Messiah bears the burden of helping to inaugurate a renewed Might and Magic brand.
In this context, replete with history but rich with the potential of a fresh start, it's disappointing to find the game falter precisely where it should have been strong. Dark Messiah delivers first-person fantasy action with tactical flexibility and meaningful skill development, but the blandly-generic gameworld and threadbare narrative fail to merit the two-decade-old Might and Magic name.
One of the first things you'll notice, after the short tutorial, is that Dark Messiah's (pre-rendered but in-engine) cutscenes are well-crafted. This remains true throughout the game. Their content is another matter, as several of the early-game sequences commit two unpardonable sins: they telegraph much of the narrative for the next 15 hours of gameplay, and they indulge the most puerile male fantasies of bad-girl goth bondage. No, I'm really not kidding.
Supporting characters are weak at best. Powered by the Source Engine, their facial animation is a cut above most recent games like Prey and F.E.A.R., but don't expect a medieval equivalent to Alyx Vance. Most of Dark Messiah is essentially a solo outing, and you'll be grateful; no matter how kindhearted you imagine yourself, it's difficult to feel attached to characters this shallow. Voice-acting ranges from average to good, but the actual dialog is frequently cringe-worthy. Major characters drift through the story with little apparent motivation.
This lack of care extends to your alter ego, Sareth, whom Arkane neither effectively develops nor leaves as a blank slate for the player's imagination. You'll occasionally engage in dialog with companions, but you're never given a choice of responses. You're offered no freedom in your reaction to a pivotal mid-game event. Even limited dialog trees with limited consequences could have positively transformed Dark Messiah's interactivity, but the player is consigned to the frustrating role of mere spectator throughout most of the game's lurching narrative.
The rare exceptions offer no meaningful impact on gameplay, underscoring the game's inflexibility. Note to game designers: you can't redeem a total lack of narrative interactivity with one or two late-game choices, no matter how fervently you promise they'll determine the destiny of the entire world.
All of this is a pity not just because it weakens the game, but also because Ubisoft's new setting of Might and Magic actually has potential. Sure, at first glance it's just another generic post-Tolkien fantasy world - the Orc designs even seem cribbed from Weta's sketchbooks - but the (sadly minimal) lore hints at a rich history and geopolitics. The game's storyline obliquely involves elements ranging from political corruption to necromancy and demon worship, and the aforementioned Orcs occupy an intriguing position of moral ambiguity - but all of this potential is squandered, as if the developers never believed in their own world as more than a feeble setting for exploration and lots of killing.
LEVEL AND WORLD DESIGN
Levels in Dark Messiah are generally linear affairs, with only a few obvious alternate paths throughout the entire game. This sounds more constrained than it ends up feeling in practice, however; taking a cue from the better parts of games like Half-Life 2 and F.E.A.R., Arkane designed a handful of complex, immersive levels in which individual areas or "wings" relate convincingly to the larger architecture. By orienting the player around large-scale architecture and landscapes, Dark Messiah's central chapters often feel expansive rather than strictly linear. It's difficult to remain fixated on the game's narrative faults when there's an entire Spider Temple to explore.
Even in the more constricted earlier and later levels, it's occasionally possible to uncover alternate paths which circumvent unnecessary challenges and lead you more directly to your objective. This can be as simple as picking a locked door, or it may require Lara Croft maneuvers like creeping along a dark, narrow ledge above an essentially bottomless pit.
Due to the limitations of the first-person perspective, such platforming can be more difficult than it ought to be. Take the example of climbing a rope to a precarious wooden beam, then painstakingly mantling (lifting) yourself onto the beam: if you miss the right orientation, you can plummet to serious damage or death (or a not-so-quick Quick Load). Campfires and larger conflagrations are also annoyances when you can't see your own character model; it's hard not to get singed on occasion. Nevertheless, Dark Messiah borrows third-person platforming elements more effectively than any other first-person game I can recall - which may be damning with faint praise, but is praise nonetheless. I was often glad of the freedom to perch on a high ledge and rain fiery death on my hapless foes.
It's hard to discuss core gameplay without mentioning the Rope Bow gained a few hours into your quest. (It's already been outed by every other review site on the planet, so who am I to argue?) Despite occasionally producing uncomfortable physics glitches, the Bow introduces new elements of problem-solving and the potential discovery of secret areas off the beaten path. The novelty may wear thin as you realize these secrets are seldom more than item stashes - only rarely do you uncover a different route or an alternative solution to a challenge - but the Rope Bow is a welcome addition to gameplay.
In any case, the problem with items in secret areas can't be blamed on the Rope Bow. One of the game's most frustrating design decisions is that the same "special" items (magic swords, quivers, shields, etc.) appear over and over - and I do mean the same special items, over and over. This eventually negates any sense of achievement in finding such items (other than "OMG I got teh Elv3n B0w in Chapter 2 instead of Chapter 3 LOLOLOLOL"). For example, I spent 10 minutes navigating an optional platforming puzzle to secure an item which turned out to be valuable and perfectly-tailored to my chosen skills - but the same "unique" item spawned again only a level or two later, on an ordinary table, right in the middle of my path. I can't imagine a defense for this insulting system. Even if Arkane wanted to guarantee that all players (no matter how timid or inexperienced) could eventually collect all special items (no matter how secret and powerful), a much better approach would be to spawn those items only if they haven't already been discovered. When ph4t l3wtz become a universal right, replayability is compromised and gameworld consistency goes right out the window.
The character system is another matter entirely. Dark Messiah was advertised as offering several disparate character paths, and this turns out to be one of the game's strengths. Arkane made each character path both satisfying and useful: Melee offers a very different experience from Stealth or Archery, and Magic is equally distinctive. And your character development choices are important, as you'll be able to fully master only one or two of the skill categories by the game's conclusion.
In another nod to antecedents like Deus Ex, skill points are earned for accomplishing objectives rather than killing individual enemies. The system could be abused in that earlier game, but Dark Messiah has the formula well in hand; skill points are awarded whether you furtively sneak past thirty Orcs or toss each of their flaming corpses, one by one, from a lofty precipice. A few optional sidequests pop up throughout the game, offering more diverse objectives and additional skill points, but they're disappointingly rare.
It's understandable that players generally cite weapons combat as the game's greatest offering. The fighting system isn't deep, but it's effective and flexible, with different weapon types useful in different situations. Swords work well for rapid strafing, staves are slower but effective at handling crowds, and daggers are deadly with fast, close-range strikes. Archery also deserves mention, as it works the way it should: arrows arc realistically, and headshots are often single-arrow kills. I can't quite explain how arrows pin bodies to the wall with a killing blow, but I won't gripe too much with a system that works this well.
At the highest level of Stealth, you become almost supernaturally effective at vanishing into the merest shread of half-shadow. This ends up feeling overpowered, but Arkane deserves praise for enemy AI that (usually) reacts believably to stealth kills: if they hear their companion's death or notice a corpse, they'll run over and investigate, and it pays to slink back into the shadows. They may even run for help. Enemies don't always notice a companion's death, and Stealth should be much riskier when an enemy character is mere feet away (and should certainly require more skill points at its highest level), but this is still the best implementation I've seen in a non-stealth game.
Magic requires a much more significant investment of skill points to be effective as a primary character focus, which makes this a more challenging initial path. Once your magic skills are reasonably developed, however, it's easily the equal of the other skill trees. Archers can set their arrows aflame by using fixed fire sources (torches or campfires), but Magic is unique in its ability to create environmental challenges - e.g. conjuring an ice patch in front of a charging Orc, then setting him alight after tossing a jar of oil. The Magic skill tree rewards entirely different tactics from either combat or Stealth, and the spells' visual effects are impressive.
The Magic skill tree also exposes a key shortcoming of the game's interface. The inventory (your "backpack") mixes everything into a confused mess of weapons, armor, potions, scrolls, and so on, and the sole sorting option is painstakingly manual drag-and-drop. This was bad enough in Neverwinter Nights, almost five years ago, and Arkane should have known better. Adding insult to injury is the game's baffling implementation of magic skills: once a new spell is learned, it's added to your inventory as a separate item like any weapon or potion. Your magic skills apparently jostle around in your backpack with bottles of wine, legs of cured ham, poison antidotes, full suits of armor, and whatever else you pick up on your way. Nor is the messy inventory a merely cosmetic gripe: finding the desired weapon or book in that jumble is a frustrating chore that Arkane should never have required, and losing your backpack means (bafflingly) losing all of your magical abilities.
The interface is otherwise clean and easy to parse, with a single screen presenting character information, current equipment, skill trees, and inventory. All keys are remappable, including the inventory quickslots.
COMBAT AND PHYSICS
Game balance is impressive throughout the first six or seven chapters. I'm partial to character systems with small numbers, similar to low-level adventuring in Dungeons & Dragons, and Arkane really nailed this: your armor improves only marginally over the course of the game, your health may not improve at all, and an extra +1 of weapon damage can be significant. The downside is that some skills (like Stealth or Strength) make the game too easy in later levels, even on Hard. I wished for larger groups of opponents to test my skills.
Another much-touted feature of Dark Messiah is its environmental interactivity, and this is a mixed bag. Yes, there's an embarrassment of riches when it comes to exploitable options: you can kill enemies with large boulders, boxes, massive statues, sarcophagi, fire, and even (rarely) siege engines. You can pick up and hurl crates, rocks, and mundane objects like pails, and they often (sometimes bizarrely) cause more damage than your sword. For that matter, you can frequently cut to the chase and kick enemies right off the edge of thousand-foot cliffs. There's no denying the fun behind all of this, but the sad fact is that spiked walls are even more ridiculously common than air ducts in Deus Ex; many of these hazards simply don't make sense. And once you learn to take advantage of this environmental weaponry, the combat can feel shallow.
Even at the hardest difficulty level, the stoutest (non-boss) enemies in the game are dispatched with a single kick into a spiked wall - and spiked walls, nonsensically, appear to be a perfectly ubiquitous architectural feature in Ashan. Your kick is limited by stamina, but it's still a powerful tactic. Also disappointing is that enemies don't use the environment as you do; they'll kick you in combat, but they never seem to kick you toward anything (like a firepit or spiked wall) or take advantage of environmental options like collapsible scaffoldings.
Although the game's physics are relatively sophisticated, Dark Messiah is a reminder that the industry still has work to do in this regard. Enemy bodies (alive and dead) usually behave convincingly, but small items (e.g. pots) sometimes feel too massive when thrown - and some very large items (e.g. massive stone sarcophagi) can be kicked around with abandon. The physics system is much more realistic than in Oblivion, and it's integral to gameplay without being overly ridiculous or exploitable, but you'll still notice silly inconsistencies with the mass and mobility of some items.
Art, Graphics, and Sound
Dark Messiah's art design is frequently memorable, especially throughout the centerpiece levels in and around the Spider Temple, and the Source Engine translates that design into (mostly) excellent graphics. High-quality textures are crisp and lighting deserves particular praise - realistic, even atmospheric, but never gimmicky. Spell effects are compelling but not excessive. Low-resolution textures still pop up, and Arkane tends to overuse next-gen chicanery like shiny bump mapping, but at their best the graphics and art design are unquestionably top-notch.
Character animation is believable and ragdolls are unobtrusive (unlike in, say, F.E.A.R.). Animation of human models is occasionally stiff, matching poorly with stairs and when moving diagonally, but such glitches are unusual.
Music is rare but effective. Sound effects are appropriately responsive, though melee combat doesn't always sound as visceral as it feels. Audio sourcing is accurate - not as subtle as in the Thief series, where the entire audio subsystem was designed for realism in a stealth setting, but more than good enough for even stealth-based characters.
Unfortunately, Arkane's implementation of sound levels in cutscenes is downright frustrating. If you allow me to set the in-game volume, you should use the same setting for all cutscenes and intro/outro videos - but Dark Messiah, like too many other games, relies upon the Windows volume setting for cutscenes rather than respecting your in-game preferences. This may seem a minor gripe, but it's an irritant for players who may need to crank up their OS volume due to other applications.
Your mileage may vary. At first, mine was zero - which is to say, the car wouldn't even start without some serious tinkering.
I'll give Arkane a pass on the most egregious problem I encountered, only because I've run afoul of this classic Half-Life 2 audio stuttering bug in almost every Source Engine game. It's unfortunate but hardly surprising that Dark Messiah turned out to be the worst offender to date, incapable of even the tutorial's first few frames - while using settings identified by the game as "recommended" for my system. Once I lowered resolution and texture quality, the game was extremely stable with the exception of momentary hiccups during autosaves (which can be disabled). Dark Messiah scales well, however, and high-end computers will not encounter this difficulty.
Arkane gets a pass on this not solely because it's a larger Source Engine bug, but also because Arkane developers have been responsive in the official forums and have already delivered several patches. They've made progress on this major bug, retuning their texture quality and memory usage while retaining high-end options for high-end rigs; they've also contended with cutscene crashes, "indestructible" magic items which could be destroyed, and a frustrating inventory glitch whereby skill points could be lost without gaining new spells. The game's official forums and other reviews mention a handful of bugs which didn't occur for me, but that's how it goes on the rugged frontier of PC gaming. On the whole, Arkane polished the game nicely in the months following its release.
After all of that griping, it may seem disingenuous that I award the game 3 stars. Arkane drops you into a generic fantasy setting populated by paper-thin characters with hollow voice-acting and a non-interactive storyline that fails to coalesce. You'll contend with waves of typical fantasy bad-guys and technical glitches, emerging victorious only through canny exploitation of the ubiquitous spiked walls. What's not to love?
This uncharitable description misses the game's successful core elements. Dark Messiah's art and level design are occasionally superb, and even at their most mundane offer a breadth of tactical possibilities. The game provides satisfying combat, stealth, and magic, supported by a character skill system with meaningful choices and tradeoffs. I'm not ashamed to admit that, after completing the "Epilogue", I immediately restarted just to try a different character build.
In the end, Dark Messiah fails to advance the new Might and Magic setting beyond generic cliche, and in the process falls far short of that precious 4th star. Despite the game's faults, however, Arkane has delivered the most flexible and engaging fantasy FPS in years.
|15 User Comment(s) • 11 root comment(s)|
| DeathBooger (172) Feb 14, 2007 - 05:03 pm|
|Suibhne is the hell spawn of a cockeyed cat. That's why our gaming clan wuvs him. He uses big words, that's why the review it incredibly delicious.|
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