Dark Messiah of Might & Magic Exclusive Hands-On - The Dead Man's Trail

This intense fantasy action game will have you not only engaging in the most realistic swordplay to date, but also leaping over rooftops in a desperate chase.

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First-person action games usually rely on you having a gun, but that's not going to be the case with Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, a promising action game from Ubisoft and France's Arkane Studios that will equip you with sword and sorcery and give you plenty of ways to use both. Set in the popular Might and Magic fantasy universe, the game puts you in the role of Sareth, a jack-of-all-trades character caught up in epic events. In earlier previews, we've covered the tactical nature of the combat in Dark Messiah, like how you can approach the game in any number of ways, from being a sword-wielding fighter to a shadow-skulking assassin. Combat is intense and visceral, and instead of simply pointing and shooting like you do in so many other first-person shooters, you'll be caught up in deadly tactical melees that require you to think quickly, as well as rely on your reflexes. You'll hack apart enemies, stab them in the back, kick them onto spikes or off ledges, and much, much more. Please note: this preview story contains minor spoilers of some of the story elements in Dark Messiah.

You'll also encounter fast-paced action sequences such as the Dead Man's Trail, a level that we got to play in a recent work-in-progress version of the game. The Dead Man's Trail takes place relatively early in the game, and it puts you in a desperate chase over the rooftops of Stonehelm, the main human town in Dark Messiah. In the tutorial of Dark Messiah, you're tasked with recovering a special artifact for your master and tutor, the wizard Phenrig. It turns out that you'll need that object, because your first goal in the game is to deliver it to the wizard Menelag, the ruler of Stonehelm. Of course, that's going to be a lot harder said than done. After delivering the crystal, you check yourself into an inn, only to be woken up shortly after thanks to an attack by an evil necromancer's army. You've got to quickly grab your sword, because the invaders waste no time in rushing your room and attacking you. This begins a lengthy battle as you fight your way across the city of Stonehelm.

The Dead Man's Trail is a desperate chase over the rooftops of Stonehelm.
The Dead Man's Trail is a desperate chase over the rooftops of Stonehelm.

The opponents that you'll battle are all human soldiers armed with sword and shield, as well as bow and arrow. This will serve as good practice with the sword-fighting mechanic in the game, as you can get in plenty of one-and-one, or even two- and three-on-one duels. It's important to think tactically and to not just jam the mouse button to attack, as the soldiers' armor makes that tactic worthless. Instead, you'll have to parry attacks, wait for an opening, and then execute a power attack by holding down the left mouse button and moving the mouse in a certain direction. Moving the mouse up, for example, prepares a vicious downward stroke. The longer you can stay in the fight, the better the strike, as your adrenaline meter will slowly fill up. Once it's topped off, you can execute a killing blow that can instantly decapitate or dismember a foe.

Many of the fights that you'll encounter will be fought indoors, though there will be outdoor sequences, as well, where you have enough room to exercise some tactics. For instance, a plaza full of soldiers can be tackled head-on or by skulking about and using the bow to snipe guards. In another instance, you can hide in the bushes of a garden and sneak up behind unsuspecting guards or take them all on at once. Other battles will take place in a large palace, with plenty of room to fight. You can also use the environment to your advantage. For instance, knock down a wooden support truss and bring down part of the ceiling on your foes. (Be careful, you can be caught in the debris, as well.) It's also worth taking some time to explore, as you can recover various objects from cabinets and crates, such as healing and mana potions to restore your health and magical ability, as well as food, which can also restore lost health.

The Dead Man's Trail portion of the level kicks in after you've reached Menelag. It turns out that the bad guys got there first, and you arrive in time to see him take a mortal blow. Even worse, a ghoul grabs the crystal and jumps out of a window, and the chase is on. The Dead Man's Trail isn't a proper trail; rather, it's the pursuit of the ghoul across the rooftops of Stonehelm. The goal is simple: Catch the ghoul before he can escape. However, this isn't quite so easy, as the nimble ghoul leaps from rooftop to rooftop, forcing you to do the same. Sometimes you'll have to quickly analyze the environment to figure out where to go next.

Warning: the ghoul's ability to scamper up walls will probably make you really, really want to stab him.
Warning: the ghoul's ability to scamper up walls will probably make you really, really want to stab him.

Every time you get close to the ghoul, he pulls another trick. The ghoul can scale walls, so just when you think you have him cornered he'll scamper up a sheer face and force you to figure out how to catch up. Or the ghoul will knock over objects to place obstacles in your way, slowing you down. Still, if you're persistent you can keep up, though there are plenty of scary moments, like when scaffolding collapses out from under you, or you have to leap for a distant dangling chain.

We played through the Dead Man's Trail a couple of times, and it is possible to catch up with the ghoul quickly if you know what you're doing. However, the first time is going to be a lot more fun and challenging, as you don't quite know where the ghoul is going to go next. There's a sense of pressure to catch up to the ghoul if you fall behind, and you'll have to rely a bit more on instinct as you navigate a level. Don't bother trying to gauge a jump--just run and leap for it. After hacking or sneaking your way through a level full of formidable opponents, the Dead Man's Trail is all about throwing caution to the wind. It certainly makes for a refreshing change of pace, and hopefully we can expect other sequences in the game like it. Dark Messiah is in the final stages of development, and we can expect the game to ship later this month.

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