Where was Dark Messiah of Might and Magic when we had the summertime blues? Barging through this fast-action fantasy story was as good as it gets - perhaps just shy of an Indiana Jones flick on full volume.
Sure, Dark Messiah could be billed as a fantasy action role-playing game, played from the first-person perspective - but it'll sucker punch you in the kidneys if you think it's an Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion clone. Dark Messiah is about as far from the lonely, ponderous, soul-searcher Oblivion as you could imagine.
Thanks to your mysterious guide, Xana, you'll never want for company or action. You play as Sareth, and although the wizard's-apprentice-saves-the-world story is a little stale, the objective-based plot stayed just far enough away from tight scripting to keep us riveted. And better still, you can rock the storyline any way you choose: stealth, heavy-duty magic, or sword and shield.
In fact, experimentation with different approaches was exactly how we had to make our way -and live. The superb AI and random effects from excellent physics effects made each attempt wickedly unpredictable - and very fun.
The rollicking action favors novices by letting them jam through the high points of the story, but there are enough optional missions and secret areas to be discovered that the break-open-every-crate set will be satisfied as well.
Dark Messiah is built around the same game engine that powers Half-Life 2 - called Source - and while the visuals don't quite live up to the resplendent details of HL2, Dark Messiah borrows liberally from its visual palette. Thanks to Source, DM offers plenty of realistic effects like light bloom and High Dynamic Range (HDR) lighting. HDR lighting approximates the blinding effect when your iris closes as you look at very bright areas. These special effects layered on thick drama when we slipped out of shadowy areas and crossed into bright ones too quickly. Springing out of a cargo ship's gloomy hold had us stumbling blindly about on the deck and straight into the arms of four necromancer guards - and scrambling for the reload key.
Once the bodies and limbs start flying about (and they do, with exaggerated effect), Half-Life veterans will smile inwardly with fond familiarity for the grim game mechanics - despite the fantasy setting. Spells and weapons feel uncannily similar to projectile-based ones, making the fantasy transition intuitive and fun. We also had a devilishly good time creating workplace accidents for guards and creepy enemies. DM is absolutely lousy with rickety platforms, unstable overhead storage, loose chandeliers - you get the idea.
As for role-playing, Dark Messiah has a skill tree that is well-developed and full of divergent paths. You'll receive 'skill points' that can be applied to one of three areas: magic spells, fighting abilities and overall stat boosts like increased stamina and trap detection. However, new skills and spells arrived a little too quickly once the middle arc of the story really got rolling. Just when we thought we’d gotten the hang of a new ability or spell, we needed to manage two or three more. Leapfrogging through the skill tree was a nice counterpoint to the grind-y plod through Oblivion, but the quick progression made the short story feel even more crammed.
All in all, this was a fun romp that we wish was longer. However, the short single player game may turn into a silver lining if players try and extend their Dark Messiah experience and fill up the multiplayer servers. Multiplayer Messiah is literally an entirely different experience - complete with a separate developer - layered on top of the single player adventure. Matches are made over Valve's Steam network, and this fantasy multiplayer component will push your preconceptions of what class-based team multiplayer can be.
The full lowdown can be found here, but we'll give you the basics. Players begin by choosing one of five character classes: Archer, Mage, Priestess, Knight, or Assassin (no multi-classes here like in the single-player game). Then, you head log onto the Steam network and enter 32-player medieval deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, Crusade, or Coliseum matches.
Crusade pits two teams against one another in a campaign made up of multiple battles for key control points on the map. When one team wins, it advances deeper into the opposing team's territory. The winner is the team that pushes through the map and takes over the opponent's castle. These matches can take a good chunk of time to complete, especially when two teams of roughly equal skill start seesawing back and forth over possession of a couple of areas.
Matches of Coliseum, the second atypical mode, hearken back to the days of the arcade, with players taking each other on in one-on-one combat while an audience of standby players cheers on the action from the cheap seats in the area. Okay, yeah: it's basically a fighting game, but that's pretty rare in the online PC space.
Regardless of the match you choose, performance is smooth. The only real beef we have is that the XP system means it's never long before a few veteran players have pumped up their characters and become virtually untouchable, clubbing everyone else like baby seals. But it's empowering if you're one of the vets, to be sure. At the end of the day, for action, role-playing and shooter fans alike, neither of these components should be missed. Highly recommended.