E3 06: Dark Messiah of Might and Magic

This here's the real red steel. One of the surprise hits of E3 2006, Dark Messiah is a brutal first-person action game set in a fantasy world. We were thrilled to take it for a spin.

LOS ANGELES--You might associate the Might and Magic brand with colorful strategy games or long-lasting role-playing games. But you've never seen a Might and Magic like this. Developed by the team behind the excellent-but-underappreciated first-person RPG Arx Fatalis, Dark Messiah is a brutal game of hack-and-slash first-person combat. Featuring impressive context-sensitive moves and animations, viscerally satisfying hand-to-hand combat, and an open-ended approach to murdering orcs and goblins, Dark Messiah looks to fill a long-absent void of brutal melee battle in a fantasy setting. We had a chance to get our hands on this game for the first time at E3 2006 and had a fantastic time clashing swords with all kinds of ugly opponents.

Though you could mistake this game for a first-person shooter based on a cursory glance, it quickly becomes clear that Dark Messiah goes to greater-than-average lengths to make you truly feel like you're an extremely skilled fantasy warrior. The demo level at E3 seems to especially emphasize the character's swordsmanship, although he can also use a pair of assassins' daggers, a fighting staff, and a bow, as well as magic spells ranging from fire to ice to telekinesis. With the sword equipped, it's possible to use a variety of context-sensitive attacks. Pressing and holding the left mouse button readies a swing, which depends on the momentum you're moving in at the time. The character's different sword stances, and the look of the sword itself, make him seem like some sort of master samurai, rather than the medieval slugger you might expect.

At any rate, it's possible to perform some exceptionally gory and satisfying moves--kick a goblin to the ground and plunge your sword into its chest; impale an orc and shove it off of your sword; stab a massive Cyclops straight through the eye and wipe the blood from your blade as the horrible thing stumbles around, gushing gore. Or you could try disarming your foe...literally or figuratively. Better yet, score enough solid hits, and you'll gain an adrenaline rush, letting you decapitate a foe, ending the fight in one shocking maneuver. Admittedly, the combat still looks like it needs polish, but most of it is looking great, and the momentum-based character movement gives Dark Messiah a more fluid, realistic feel than most other first-person games. All the great attack animations certainly help.

That's just the swordplay. And you don't even have to go all-out fighting toe to toe, either. It's possible to sneak up and assassinate foes while they aren't looking, for instance. The vicious-looking assassins' daggers can be drawn back for a killing stroke, and we were pleased to see the character raise them up for the deathblow as we approached, intuitively letting us know when to release the button to attack. So yeah, we plunged the knives into a goblin's neck and kicked it off the side of a castle parapet. Good stuff. The game looks very impressive, by the way, and uses a modified version of Half-Life 2's highly acclaimed Source engine. Dramatic lighting, shadow effects, and realistic physics make the world of the game seem alive, and there are next to no interface elements on the screen to take you out of the experience.

Much like the enemies in Arx Fatalis, the enemies in Dark Messiah seem rather intelligent and will interact with each other, as well as with you, in some surprising ways. It's possible to get in a sword lock with an orc, then to overpower the creature into leaving itself vulnerable. Or you can lure the foes into a trap. Ropes holding down heavy objects can be cut, causing the contents to crash down on your unsuspecting enemies, taking them out instantly and with considerable flair. Magic seems like a viable option, as well. Freezing foes and shattering them in place is clearly a powerful tactic, while telekinesis can be used to hurl barrels and things into foes, which in turn get sent flying back, perhaps onto a bed of spikes.

Two different environments were on display. One was the castle setting filled with goblin and orc guards, in which we experimented with all the different weapons and play mechanics and gleefully fell to our death a couple of times. The other is an underground tunnel leading to a close encounter with a very surly Cyclops. In an amazing moment, the thing can actually grab you, roar in your face, and literally throw you into a wall...a near-death experience. Naturally, we ran like a bunch of crybabies, looking for cover. We found it underneath a wooden set of stairs, or so we thought until the Cyclops started demolishing the structure, sending dangerous debris flying everywhere. This event seemed totally unscripted--it's possible to take on the creature head to head, trick it into a trap, shoot in the eye with a bow, and more. This boss encounter got us all the more excited for what other kinds of battles Dark Messiah might have in store.

Depending on your preferred style of play, you can develop your character as a generalist or a specialist in the various proficiencies mentioned previously. Skill points won't be earned just from killing stuff, but rather from completing objectives. Primarily an action game, Dark Messiah is expected to be of standard length for single-player games of a similar form, say around 10 to 12 hours. In addition to that, though, Dark Messiah will offer what sounds like a pretty compelling multiplayer mode. We didn't actually see it at E3 but learned that the multiplayer will be going for something like a cross between Battlefield and Lord of the Rings, in terms of its style and scope. It'll be a class-based game promoting teamwork, requiring players to conquer territories to overwhelm their opponents. Honestly, though, just the thought of this type of combat in a multiplayer environment seems exciting on its own.

Dark Messiah is coming to the PC this fall. Though Ubisoft has a widely talked about sword-fighting game on display here at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Red Steel for the Wii console, Dark Messiah is not to be discounted. We haven't seen first-person combat this good since Condemned: Criminal Origins, and Dark Messiah seems to have a lot more going for it than its brutal good looks. Look to GameSpot for further coverage on this one.

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