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.
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