I must admit that I was pretty excited when Ubisoft invited me to the company's HQ to get a hands-on preview of the upcoming Dark Messiah game. After our Dark Messiah demo preview from a couple of weeks ago, we already knew this project was shaping up nicely. I described it then as Elder Scrolls meets Tomb Raider meets Half-Life; like a love child of Tarantino and Tolkien.
Dark Messiah is probably best defined as an RPG/FPS (that's first person 'sworder' in case you're wondering), and is anticipated to be one of the best games of 2006.
So what to look forward to in this preview? We got our hands dirty with the skill system, played through some of the coolest levels, met some of the crucial in-game characters and enemies (and some awesome in-game bosses), and tried out some of the weapons. We'll give you all that and a few tasty screenshots, along with our opinion on how this game is really shaping up.
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Certainly dark and very messy
In Dark Messiah you take on the role of Sareth, an apprentice to a powerful wizard who has been raised since birth to be a kind of assassin, spy and generally awesome magical warrior. The setting is the Might & Magic world, which is already a popular fantasy gaming series. This particular game explors darker avenues than is typical of other titles in the Might & Magic series, though. Through entirely first person gameplay, Sareth wields bows, swords, staves and magic in his quest to complete his masters bidding. You will fight against everything from human soldiers, to giant spiders and fearsome orcs.
The game uses a slightly modified version of Valve's Source engine (made famous by Half Life 2) to great effect. Not only does the game look absolutely luscious in a dark and dank medieval kind of way, but it also makes great use of the physics engine. The result-is brilliant looking environments that are made to look even nicer by some glorious HDR effects, which come alive as you move through the game. I got to take a look at a few examples of the cool things Arkane Studios has done with the in-game physics, and was very impressed.
Firstly, as I mentioned in the demo preview, in addition to the expected slashing and chopping, you can kick enemies away from you, sending them stumbling. This is great if you fancy impaling them on a pike, or want to see them fall off the edge of a cliff or building. The combination of this move with the dynamic in-game environments is nothing short of fantastic. In one instance, as you are batting your way through the rafters of a castle, you come across a number of guards. After some grueling sword fighting in the restricted area, I decided to throw out a kick. The guard fell backwards, arms and legs sprawling, before hitting the floorboards below. Due to the momentum, he then proceeded to crash through two sets of floor boards before finally coming to a rest twenty or so meters below. Whilst looking at his twisted and contorted body, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt.
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Kicking people isn't the only fun they've had with the engine. In one scene, a courtyard is filled with a huddle of guards surrounding a fire. After embarrassing myself a few times by trying the head-on approach and dying, I decided to see if anything in the environment could help me. I found a pulley system which swung a crane into action, knocking the gaggle of guards over and into the nearby fire. The game is full of situations like this - chopping a wire to send a massive statue tumbling onto a group of goblins, or sending a fireball at an unstable wall to send it toppling onto a gang of orcs. These kills are made all the more satisfying when performed upon groups of enemies, which at times can be extremely difficult to kill.
One thing that is really nice about Dark Messiah is the use of the vertical axis. A lot of the time the gameplay focus is not just what's directly in front of you, but also what is above and below you. There is a lot of fighting that takes place near pits, cliffs, building ledges, up stairs and down in dungeons. The levels are probably not as well designed as those in Half Life, but they are certainly very close, and the difference between this and your average first person game is massive. At times it felt a little bit like another Ubisoft title, Prince of Persia, especially when tasked with moving across rooftops, in hot pursuit of a little demon who has stolen an important artifact. Don't get me wrong, this game is not a platformer, nor is it meant to be, but it is certainly more than your average action game.
One trivial thing that definitely deserves a mention is the number of barrels in the game. Every area has at least one barrel and generally a few. These can be useful for throwing at enemies to knock them down; but come on, no medieval society could really justify spending that much money on hiring coopers. This would probably be more believable if they mixed it up - perhaps a few bricks, discarded weapons or other miscellaneous items could make up the in-game environment. The game also sports a more-than-healthy number of crates, inside which are some rather nice goodies such as health and mana power ups. What the hell are mana power-ups? Read on to find out all about magic, the skill system and the powerful spells you can perform on your enemies.