Dark Messiah of Might and Magic: Elements begins with an ominous prophecy. This is fleshed out in a prerendered cutscene in which the Dark Messiah is empowered by an enemy that looks very much like the Balrog from Lord of the Rings, serving to set the game's tone. Other Tolkien references in the opening cutscene include elvish-looking text and narration that sounds like someone trying to impersonate Gandalf.
Assuming the role of Sareth, an apprentice working under the tutelage of the sorcerer Master Phenrig, you'll need to choose between four different classes before beginning the game. As our previous coverage has mentioned, you'll level up throughout the game and gain access to new abilities based on your chosen class.
The skills for each class are fairly standard. Warriors use sheer force and have increased strength and armor, as well as the ability to perform single-strike kills, whereas archers are lacking in hand-to-hand combat but make up for it in long-distance attacks. Mages rely on elements (that is, magic) to get the job done, and perform hand-to-hand combat using a staff. Lastly, assassins rely on stealth, can perform backstabs, and are equipped with daggers that are more effective in combat than one might think (but offer less defence).
The prologue introduces you to the basic gameplay, mechanics, and physics of the game. Valve's Source engine can be used to manipulate physical objects to your advantage, much like Half-Life (although sans the Gravity Gun, naturally). In the prologue, you'll be required to retrieve the Shantiri Crystal, a powerful gem that Phenrig requires to help a fellow sorcerer. Rather than the character working alongside you, his voice serves as a guide, and he will automatically heal Sareth while you get to grips with the game.
The crystal lies inside the Temple of Asha, an ancient relic filled with a number of enemies, including human guards and zombies (as well as another nod to LOTR, a giant Shelob-like spider at the end of the prequel) lurking around to stop you.
Although soldiers can be taken care of with a few slashes of your sword, the undead prove more difficult. The only way to defeat them seemed to be kicking them squarely into a nearby spiked wall. It seems a bit strange that impaling them with a sword does nothing, but the same thing, when affixed to a wall, is enough to finish them off.
Other uses for Source physics that we saw included breaking the support beams of a platform to crush guards, and using wooden crates to destroy a weakened bridge, after which you can jump across using a rope. There weren't a huge number of creative uses of the Source engine (at least compared to Half-Life 2) in the section of the game that we played, but a pregame trailer promises plenty of action later in the game.
After the prologue you'll finally meet Master Phenrig, who sends you on a second mission to the town of Stonehelm to deliver the Shantiri Crystal to another wizard, Lord Menelag. Before you set off on your next mission (The Gates of Stonehelm), Phenrig summons your companion, Xana, a spirit that inhabits your body and serves as a guide.
Throughout your quest you will acquire experience points, which will result in unlocking new skills and abilities. You'll also gain adrenaline when fighting enemies. A bar at the top-left of the screen also shows how much you've gained, and once it's full, you can use X to unleash a powerful, brief attack in slow motion.
There wasn't a lot of interaction with non-player characters from our experience, other than a few passing remarks. The soldiers that we did interact with had a vocabulary range on par with the commentary in a low-budget sports game. From what we've seen it seems that the game is mostly driven by the overall mission, rather than encouraging interaction with townsfolk and free exploration. Another point of contention with this preview build was the long load times between--and within--stages at several points. At least it gave us ample time to read the onscreen text.
The graphics in Elements are quite reasonable, with detailed textures. However, we did notice some slowdown during the introduction to the prologue when the camera swept down a valley to the starting location at the bottom.
Lighting is used to good effect; bright outdoor terrain contrasts with dark dungeons, canyons, and nighttime environments. An earlier spell gives Sareth night vision from the beginning of the game, which adds a bluish tinge and watery effect to your vision.
At several points we were forced back to the beginning of the chapter after dying, yet other times we restarted at the point where we saved. Hopefully the final release will follow the latter, rather than forcing us to replay entire chapters from the beginning.
From the time we spent with Dark Messiah of Might and Magic: Elements, it struggled to set itself apart from other fantasy games and lacked a deep, compelling storyline, a notion that was reinforced by some weak dialogue.
However, Elements looks and sounds quite good. If you can forgive some of the issues and are a fan of fantasy shooters, you might find it a worthwhile adventure.