I was happy to shift gears to an action RPG because to tell the truth, Oblivion was getting a bit boring for me. Having played Oblivion for months, it started to become a bit too much like real life with many mundane tasks like picking up the list of those who are supposed to be assassinated for the brotherhood and hosting planning meetings about the direction of the fighters guild taking up most of my time.
So along comes Dark Messiah, the latest game in the diverse Heroes of Might and Magic series. Billed as an action RPG, the emphasis is really more on combat than role-playing. Which again, was good for a change of pace.
Dark Messiah is best described as role-playing on a rail. You are given a situation and a mission like "meet the lord of the town" or "sneak onto the galleon" and then are deposited at the beginning of the level. The level itself is finite, so there is no wandering the length of New Jersey and back or anything like that. But the levels are also packed with a lot of action and opportunities. Because the developers are working with a smaller area, they can jam in a ton of cool stuff, which I will get into in a moment. Those of you who can remember back to a game called Blade of Darkness by Codemasters will know basically how Dark Messiah is setup.
The game is played in first person and in many ways is a bit like a shooter. The role-playing elements come in the fact that you can change your character class to suit your needs and playing style, and there are many choices. You can buff up your physical attributes for example and tear into battle doing more damage than most people, or you can become a mage and spend your skill points learning powerful spells like fireball or lighting, or more universal ones like telekinesis. You can also put points into stealth, which lets you move silently, assassinate people from behind and hide in shadows, though of the three main options, this one is the least developed and least rewarding.
The overall plot is pretty good, although you will guess the surprise twists and turns several levels before they are actually revealed. In general there are these demons who are trying to break out of their prison dimension and then several factions of people trying to stop them. Some of the factions aligned against the demons are not exactly good themselves, so you end up with a lot of enemies to fight. Your job is to recover the artifact that keeps the demons imprisoned, and since nobody knows what you intend to do with it, everyone is pretty much against you.
There is some comic relief as you take someone else’s soul into yours. The woman who inhabits your body has her own motivations, and although she is a little annoying at times, you will probably grow to like her.
The graphics in the game are gorgeous, though we had a ton of trouble getting it to run properly on our Dell XPS gaming test system. The XPS crushes most every other game, but this one gave it a mound of trouble. The sound, which is atmospheric and quite good, seemed to stutter a lot and give the system trouble. Turning the graphics down to medium helped, although there were still a few crashes here and there. Anyway, the world even on medium level graphics looks great, with some elements like water and fire approaching the realm of photorealism. And there are a ton of nice touches like having your clean blade get splattered by blood the more you use it.
Dark Messiah is all about action, so it’s good that the game rarely gives players a chance to catch their breath. The inventory system is kept extremely simple. You are only limited by the amount of space you have in your bag, which is pretty huge. There are no weight or even size restrictions. A heavy staff takes up one block, the same as a dagger or potion. If you find a duplicate weapon that you already have and pick it up, it simply disappears since you are already holding one, though potions and scrolls stack. There are no shops or money to keep track of, just a big bag of stuff you can carry and wield how you choose. Your spells are even considered objects, and take up one box of space in your bag, so again, we are talking about a very simplistic inventory system.
Getting all the inventory issues out of the way, what is left? Pure violent action with a good dose of tactical strategy. Let’s go through a typical level and you will get a feel for how things in the game work.
You start one level late in the game by riding on a mining cart that leads to a rickety station on the side of a cliff. As soon as you get off the cart and start walking up a narrow walkway, you see a huge orc up ahead dragging a struggling goblin over to the side of a cliff. He tosses the goblin and laughs as it screams during its long fall downward. But the orc stays at the edge, listening for the goblin to hit the ground. If you are quick, you can simply walk up and give the orc a good kick, which sends him spiraling over the edge screaming in a bout of poetic justice.
Then you can either head down some steps or use your rope arrow (an item liberally borrowed from the Thief franchise) to shimmy in a window to a warehouse manned by orcs. Here there are many ways to attack your opponents. You can set magical traps in corridors. Or you can fire an arrow into a weak shelf, which dumps its contents to the ground and probably crushes anyone below it. Or you can cut a rope, which sends a huge netted bundle of crates swinging across the warehouse, knocking down and likely killing anyone it hits.
Or you can just charge in, blocking the orcs blows with your shield and counterattacking with your weapon of choice. If your adrenaline gets up to maximum level, which is done while fighting, then one shot can kill an opponent, normally in a very gruesome way like removing their head or chopping them in half.
Later on you will face an Indiana Smith-style boulder trap and a long chase scene where a monster bigger than a house is right on your tail. So the action never stops, though it pauses a bit. Given the many ways you can complete a level, I found myself going back to some previous auto-saves and trying things again even after I completed them, just to see if one of my alternative plans would have worked.
I completed the single player game in about eight hours. There are some side quests, but they mostly take place on the same mini-level where you get the quest, so solving them does not take much extra time and can often be done as a matter of fact just as you are working on advancing the main storyline.
Depending on the path you choose, there are multiple endings. I found four of them. I kind of thought the endings should be more flushed out. They are all quite similar and even steal graphics from one another. I would have liked to know what happened to the various characters you interacted with based on your choices in the game (at least the ones that were still alive) or to see you and your chosen partner (trying not make this a spoiler) living happily or not so happily in the world you created. Come on Arkane, if someone fights their way all the way to the end of your adventure, you owe them just a bit more pizzazz than what you gave. Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed the single player campaign.
Owing to its shooter-like nature, Dark Messiah also comes with a huge multiplayer component. This is set up a lot Team Fortress from Half-life, with different character classes that can act as spies, frontline troops or sniper archers. It’s pretty fun to play a game like that in a medieval setting, and adds a nice touch to a pretty good single player experience, upping the value score by a significant amount. My guess is that most people will buy Dark Messiah for the single player fun, and then stumble into quite a good multiplayer arena that is worth the price of admission.
If you prefer action in your RPGs, then Dark Messiah is your ticket. It could have been billed as a medieval shooter with role-playing elements just as easily, and unlike most hybrid type titles, does well with a foot in both places.