In the world of computer and video games, tales of high fantasy are usually told in drawn-out role-playing games with things like dice rolls and experience points. If you're looking for exciting sword duels or other fast-paced action, you usually have to use your imagination as you watch tiny characters throw little numbers at each other until someone, you know, gains a level or something. That won't be the case for Dark Messiah of Might and Magic from developer Arkane Studios and publisher Ubisoft. This upcoming game will combine the fantasy lore of Ubisoft's revised Might and Magic universe with quick, brutal battles where highly interactive environments and physics will let you send those ugly, angry orcs and goblins to a very nasty fate. Then again, if you're not careful, they can do the same to you.
We played through a brief single-player demonstration in which we had a chance to try out the abilities of Sareth, the very talented and formidable warrior you'll play as in the game. Sareth has command of four major classes of weapons: close-range melee weapons; bows that can fire arrows from a distance; assassin's daggers (which can be used to instantly and viciously end the life of an unsuspecting enemy from behind); and various classes of powerful magic spells. You'll have access to all these tools over the course of the game, and you'll be using the same control setup as a typical PC first-person shooter: your W, A, S, and D keys to move, your mouse to aim, your left mouse button to attack (with a weapon or a magic spell), and your right mouse button to either defend or zoom in on an enemy with your bow.
Since the game's environments and physics engine will also have a big effect on gameplay, Arkane is attempting to make the game highly open-ended. If you want to play through the game as some kind of homicidal berserker who must kill everything, you can. Or, if you wish, you can also opt to use stealth and not kill anything at all. The idea is simply that you need to complete your objectives...but exactly how you do it doesn't really matter as long as you get the job done.
If you do like to do things the hard way, then you'll start to fill up an adrenaline meter as you defeat your foes. When your meter is full, you'll be able to execute instantly lethal melee attacks on your enemies, such as lopping off limbs and heads, and even impaling them on your sword. And perhaps as a tribute to the classic first-person shooter Duke Nukem 3D, you'll also be able to execute a quick front kick at any time, such as when you've just impaled some orc on your sword (and wish to kick them off).
The demonstration level began in the depths of a huge, high-ceilinged cavern in which we made our way past a squat and completely oblivious goblin guard to hitch a ride on a gondola across the chasm. We took several tries at this first part of the game, opting first to sneak up behind him with our daggers drawn to assassinate him. By clicking and holding the left mouse button, you cause Sareth to raise his daggers to strike. He automatically changes to an overhand grip when you're in position to deliver the killing blow.
We also tried shooting the goblin in the back with Sareth's bow, which proved to be slightly more challenging than we figured, since the Source engine actually models weight and momentum for arrows, which means that you need to correct your aim for long-distance shots by aiming extra-high...but it also means you'll have a considerable advantage on high ground. After restarting a few times, we decided to get on with the game, and so we just ran up behind the goblin and kicked it off the ledge, sending it screaming to its death.
Handing Them Their HeadsWe then hopped into the gondola and ended up just outside of a storeroom where orcs guarded barrels and deadly traps for some reason. By entering from the side, we were just able to catch a glimpse of a platform supporting several rows of barrels propped up by a flimsy wooden strut. From a distance, we were able to shoot out the strut with an arrow, or with a magical fire spell (which actually lets you launch a bolt of fire from your fingertips, and you can then direct its path by continuing to hold down the left mouse button while moving your mouse). On a few occasions, prowling orcs were caught underneath the tumbling barrels and crushed; another time, an orc was patrolling the platform when the floor dropped out from under it.
Once the barrels started rolling, the orcs became aware of our presence (which made stealth kills impossible in the middle of the storeroom), but it also made magic and swordplay much more deadly. As it turned out, the orcs proved to be smarter than just dumb grunts, since they not only charged us, but also blocked our attacks with their buckler shields, called for help (or turned and ran) when outclassed, attempted to flank us, and even grappled with us, lifting us up from the ground and hurling us onto our backs.
On more than one occasion, we found ourselves hastily opening our inventories to quickly use healing potions, but in general, we gave as good as we got with some fancy swordplay. Moving in different directions while attacking causes Sareth to swing his weapon around. You'll swing your sword from side to side when strafing left and right, while backpedaling will ready your sword for a thrust. You can also cut ropes supporting environmental traps, like a bundle of logs we cut free from a wall mounting to pummel the orcs. In addition, the kick attack not only quickly stuns enemies, but also pushes them into environmental hazards, such as bottomless pits or jagged beds of spikes that orcs like to keep lying around in their storerooms for some reason.
Once we started to get familiar with Sareth's different abilities, we also began using his magic spells, including a damaging lightning spell, an oversized exploding fireball, a telekinetic spell that can lift objects and corpses, an ice spell, and even a shrink spell. These enchantments seemed powerful enough on their own, but were devastating once we started experimenting with creative ways to send our enemies to wherever it is that orcs go after being massacred.
For instance, we found that the telekinetic spell can be used to hurl objects at enemies (similar to Half-Life 2's gravity gun), which can either stun them or push them into environmental hazards (or off of cliffs). The ice spell can be used to freeze enemies solid, which then lets Sareth shatter them with a single kick. It can also be used to freeze the floor, causing any charging enemies to slip and fall on their backs, so that Sareth can use his sword to deliver a finishing blow. And perhaps again in appreciation of Duke Nukem 3D, you can shrink enemies with the shrink spell, and then use the kick attack to squash your temporarily tiny foes into bloody puddles.
After fighting past the orcs, we dropped down through a ruined tower, which was partially flooded by an underground river, to emerge on a craggy riverbank occupied by a very angry and very tough Cyclops. This huge monster's hide was completely impervious to our weapons and magic. Shooting it with arrows just seemed to make it angrier. And because this huge boss monster seemed fully aware that it was starring in a game powered by the Source engine, it also broke up a pile of standing stones, which we tried to use as cover, by simply tearing them out of the ground and throwing them at us. We managed to survive only by luring it near a spring-loaded trap that bludgeoned the beast. And by carefully aiming a thrust attack at its only vulnerable body part, its eye, we managed to dispose of it.
This demonstration, though brief, gave us a good idea of the exciting and diverse gameplay that Arkane Studios has designed. If Arkane and Ubisoft can make good on this intriguing game's potential, Dark Messiah will offer fast, brutal, and varied gameplay powered by highly interactive physics and environments in a lush fantasy world. The game is scheduled for release this September.