First-person action games have evolved quite a bit from the mindless shooters of yesterday, which usually put you in some kind of dark corridor and required you to dash about from a first-person perspective, shooting everything that wasn't you. But Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, the upcoming action game from Ubisoft and developers Arkane Studios, will let you engage in varied and intense fantasy combat, using longbows, swords, and magic spells. We've been impressed with what we've seen of Dark Messiah to date, as the game continually surprises us with the depth of the action and the gameplay. Please note that this story may contain minor spoilers.
In our earlier preview, we covered the opening levels of the game and explained how you, as the main character Sareth, can play as a warrior, an assassin, an archer, a magic user, or a combination of all of these professions. The cool thing about Dark Messiah is that both the combat system, as well as how the world has generally been designed, seem flexible enough to let you approach the game from many different angles. So, if you want to be a muscle-bound fighter in steel armor who cuts through his enemies with his sword, you can, but if you want to skulk in the shadows like a thief, that tactic works as well.
We were able to play through a level that comes around midway through the game. At this point, you're far enough into the story to discover the truth behind the prophecy of the titular dark messiah, and your adventure takes you to the mysterious Temple of the Spider. In fact, you've picked up a couple of companions along the way. The first is Xana, the jealous guardian spirit who is fused to Sareth's spirit by his mentor, the mage Phenrig, to help protect him. The other is Leanna, the lovely young wizard of Stonehelm, and as you can probably guess, someone whom Xana takes an instant dislike to. Though Xana exists only as a voice in your head, Leanna is a comrade who can fight alongside you, using her magical powers to help in battle. At the same time, she must be protected, and a health meter on the screen lets you know her status at all times.
The opening parts of this level require you to battle a horde of orcs defending the temple, though thankfully you can use the ancient ruins to tackle them a handful at a time. You're up against archers as well as swordsmen, though engaging an archer can often force them to drop bows and draw swords. Orcs are tough opponents. Not only are they large and protected by armor, they're also incredibly brutal in a fight. They can use their superior strength to grapple with you, lift you up off your feet, and then toss you to the ground, leaving you vulnerable while you get back up. And these brutes can perform many of the same maneuvers that you can, including kicking you to gain some tactical room or open you up to an attack. But at this point in the game, you'll have battled plenty of these types of foes, so it's only a matter of time and effort before you hack and/or slash (or maybe do some backstabbing) your way past these foes.
But things get really interesting after you dispatch the orcs, because that's when the pao-kai shows up. What's a pao-kai? The creature is essentially a flying dragon, and figuring out how to kill it is going to require some work, though there are ways of using the dynamic environment to your favor. Fortunately, you don't have to tangle with this new threat until later in the level--after fighting through the orcs, you must run into the temple to accomplish your objective, and it's here where you'll do some exploring and rudimentary puzzle-solving.
Of course, navigating the temple isn't easy. There are locked gates aplenty, and you have to figure out how to get around them. This means paying careful attention to your environment, as well as recovering a key piece of equipment, the rope bow. When fired at a wooden structure such as a roof beam, this bow will dangle a rope that you can use to climb up to a previously inaccessible perch, and it will come in handy throughout this level. Exploration seems to pay off, since it got us a fancy elven bow capable of temporarily freezing enemies. We also found that we could use it to shoot surfaces and freeze them over, causing enemies to slip and fall when they made contact with the ice. At other points, we were able to use the rope bow to evade a deadly trap, and also to navigate through one of the game's trickier jumping puzzles.
Swords Against Wizardry
The interior of the temple is infested with many different enemies, such as packs of goblins, giant spiders, and facehuggers, which look like floating octopi. Oh yeah, and there's a cyclops and the aforementioned pao-kai dragon, as well. Again, one of the themes of the game is that there are many ways to deal with your foes. You can use your sword to kill most of them, but it can be rewarding (and satisfying) to get creative with the options available to you. You can kick enemies into a bed of spikes, collapse a wall onto them, or use the aforementioned elven bow (or the freeze spell) to create a patch of ice upon which they slip, and then you can finish them off by plunging your sword into their chests. A good way to dispatch goblins, for instance, is to use the leaping attack, which causes you to jump toward them and bring the sword down in a powerful downward stroke, resulting in an instant kill.
The flexibility of combat in the game is boosted by Dark Messiah's skill system, which allows for a certain amount of character customization. You're rewarded throughout the game with points that you can dump into your character's abilities. By the time you reach the temple, you'll have collected enough points to customize your skill tree toward your particular play style. Fighters have a whole host of combat skills to choose from, including being able to improve melee combat to allow for even more-powerful attacks, boosting strength and critical hit chances, and becoming an incredibly accurate archer. If you want to be a stealth character, you can instead dump your points into improving your stealth skills. A higher level in stealth skills lets you hide in shadows when walking, and it can also decrease the sound of your footsteps. (Not wearing clunky armor also helps you stay silent.) Also, a burglar skill can help you pick locked doors and detect traps. If you prefer to focus on the game's magic system, you'll want to increase your magic affinity, which lets you cast more spells before having to recharge your mana meter, and you can also opt to increase your overall magic-regeneration rate. There are 12 spells in the game, and some of the ones we haven't covered yet include inferno, which throws flames in front of you and sets enemies on fire; fire trap, which sets a magical trap enemies can't detect until it's too late; and sanctuary, which creates a very temporary magical shield around your character.
Dark Messiah's controls seem fairly intuitive, especially if you've played any kind of first-person game on the PC before. The keyboard, specifically the W, A, S, and D keys, are used to control movement, while the mouse is used to aim and control your view. The left mouse button is used to attack (swinging a sword, casting a spell, or loosing an arrow), while the right mouse button can be used to parry or deflect an incoming blow. You can quickly and easily switch between weapons and spells by using the belt system at the bottom of the screen. Simply drag and drop a weapon or a spell into each slot, then press the corresponding number key on the keyboard. In this manner, we were able to quickly switch to the bow to engage long-distance enemies, and then to the sword when they charged at us.
Playing through the Temple of the Spider level reinforced our sense that Dark Messiah is providing an immersive, gritty take on both fantasy combat and the first-person action genre. There's nothing quite like it on the market, and the intense, visceral melee combat is refreshing in a genre that relies all too much on shooting at enemies with guns. The good news is that the game is in the final stages of production, and we can expect to see Dark Messiah of Might and Magic ship in October.