New World Computing’s Might and Magic have long been a part of the RPG lineage that PCs have enjoyed, spawning no less than nine major chapters along with its Heroes series of strategic fantasy placing players into the boots of generals as they take to the fields of battle with armies and cities to conquer. Towards the end of its long march from its humble beginnings, however, the flood of stories would slowly begin to trickle, ending with the ninth chapter which was plagued with many serious issues outside of its gameplay leading fans to wonder what had gone wrong with the series. With its creator no longer at the helm and with the franchise sold to Ubisoft, the publisher would reinvigorate both halves of the legendary franchise.
One would be a new chapter in the Heroes series. Another would be to create a personal experience for players with a first person action RPG that would bring the new world of Ashan to life. Tapping Arkane Studios, devs known for their work with the unique and atmospheric action RPG, Arx Fatalis, Dark Messiah would be Ubisoft’s next chapter in the Might and Magic franchise. But as players discovered, while it brings the gritty world and soaking gore of Ashan to life with remarkable set pieces and an intuitive fighting system, there were worse things waiting just beneath the surface.
The retail Collector’s Edition of Dark Messiah fulfilled its prophecy on my PC. It can also be registered on Steam, where it is also available as a downloadable purchase.
The Wizard’s Apprentice
The story of Dark Messiah begins with the defeat of a powerful demon lord in ages past by the Seventh Dragon, a powerful being whose magic had sealed his foe and his minions between worlds, never to return. But the prison was flawed and would eventually weaken, so it was prophesied, allowing a Dark Messiah to shatter its walls and free the demonic hordes from their unholy bondage. Over time, the story would fragment into scraps of a legend that few would remember but others, in secret, would fervently continue to believe.
You are an assistant of a powerful wizard named Phenrig who has taught you, as his adopted son (hint, hint), the ways of fighting with both might and magic for the day when you would be able to assist him in his quest for the lore of the past. Eventually, you will become part of a quest that will take you to the dark corners of Ashan as you attempt to stop those that would see the demons freed from their prison. Surviving the dangers of what will lie before you is only part of the challenge. What you decide to do and who to trust will ultimately decide the fate of all Ashan as you attempt to fulfill, or deny, the prophecy of the Dark Messiah.
It doesn’t take much from reading into the lore to guess what is going to happen and who exactly the Dark Messiah is. Most of the story is also told from within the gameworld itself, much as Half Life 2 had done with Alyx and the other NPCs that players would interact with at certain points during the course of their adventure. There are moments when cinematics are used to emphasize important milestones, but much of what you will experience will come straight from the world of Ashan itself as you race towards one of the endings that are determined by what you do at certain points in your quest.
The predictable story does enough to keep things moving along, though, even though the characters don’t make it a big secret as to whose side they happen to be on. Everyone wears black and white hats in this adventure, especially the spirit that is sent into your head to accompany you at one point, but the voice acting adds just enough drama to those scenes that need it such as when you are called upon to decide where the story must go with your actions. The villain, in particular, is condescendingly brutal in his delivery, the goblins are hiliarious, and the orcs are as grumpy as you expect them to sound. Unfortunatey, several other NPCs have as much personality as a wet towel.
Might and Magic
Veterans of the series may be disappointed to see the direction that Ubisoft has taken with Dark Messiah, dropping the party based RPG formula of the past for an FPS based action RPG. To make things more confusing, the game may appeal more to fans of Arkane Studios’ previous work with Arx Fatalis as Dark Messiah had started out as its successor. With this title, Ubisoft has made a clean break with the past in order to rebuild the franchise and despite its new direction, adventurers looking for an action RPG should be in for a few surprises if they can deal with its issues.
The FPS controls of the game make it easy to get around as you head off to decapitate your foes or freeze them solid with your magic, something that Arkane Studios has had experience with from Arx Fatalis. Weapons can be swung from a variety of different head smashing or limb cutting angles depending on which direction you are moving in when you click to attack. Clicking and holding will charge your strike, enabling you to deal serious damage with whatever you have in hand when you connect. Attacking and defeating enemies will also begin building your adrenaline level and once it’s filled, your power move can result in a devastating killing blow that will send limbs or heads flying in slow motion. Magic is also handled in the same way when it is equipped. A set of configurable hotkeys make it easy to switch between armed combat and spellcasting as you organize them with whatever you think you will need.
Experience isn’t earned for monsters killed meaning that you can try and avoid fights whenever you can, but skill points are awarded for accomplishing your goals or in taking part in small side-mission type challenges. The scarce number of points can then be used to purchase or improve skills such as Melee which can enable you to throw a flurry of blows against your enemies, Endurance which will affect how many hit points you will have, Archery, and even Lockpicking for when you can’t find that key for opening the occasional chest or door. They can also be used to purchase spells that can then be added to your repertoire of arcane talents. Some pieces of equipment in the game will require you to be at certain levels within certain skills to be able to use them, making it even more of a challenge to predict what you will need and whether you should hoard your points or spend them to survive.
Essentially, you can follow any path that you want with your character such as creating a fighter with some magic, a mage with a little thievery, and a talented archer that isn’t too shabby with a blade. Or you can try to be a virtual savant, but there are only so many points that can go into your skills and the game can easily feel more geared towards fighters than mages or even thieves. You don’t have to fight everything that you see, but some areas in the game can make that hard to avoid.
And then there’s your foot. I don’t think I’ve kicked as many NPCs in a game since Tri-Ace’s Radiata Stories on the PS2. As you slay your way through this adventure, you’ll be able to kick your enemies off of ledges or into all-too-convenient spike racks that “just happen” to be lying around such as along a wall, around a corner, or just below a ladder waiting for falling foes. Much of the game can feel as if Wyle E. Coyote had joined the devs as a member with giant blocks of stone or spiked logs hanging from the ceiling just waiting to be broken free so that they can crush and grind whatever they fall through. Breakable platforms are covered in convenient barrels to maul enemies as they tumble off when they fall, or you can even pick them up and fling them at your foes to stagger their chase.
Foes will try to limp away if you inflict enough damage, fly through the air from explosive magic, or scream as they fly off a ledge thanks to yet another well placed kick. The environments are also detailed with plenty of photorealistic textures and a variety of locales ranging from cobweb filled spider nests to ancient, sand filled ruins, the broken walls of an ancient fortress, to the clean streets and homes of Stonehelm. Arkane Studios have always had a knack for creating a detailed world in which their stories take place and that tradition is continued in Dark Messiah.
The objectives that you are asked to risk life and limb for are relatively straightforward tasks such as opening a certain door, taking out a certain group of enemies, or meeting someone. You’ll occasionally get optional side quests, such as killing a powerful creature that may be somewhere nearby or in rescuing a damsel in distress, that can yield a few more precious skill points. Not many of these side quests yield too much in the way of skill points, though, and some of these don’t even reward you with any other than in giving you the personal satisfaction at accomplishing something. There are also tasks involving NPCs tagging along for the fun, such as your potential love interest in the game, which can get tricky especially when they can easily die. You can tell them to stay put, which is what I tended to do most of the time, as their deaths will usually result in a reload.
Most of the weapons and other items such as spell scrolls for the magically inept or healing goodies, such as food and potions, are found where you would expect them to be. Enemies will drop their weapons and any shields that they might be using when they die, most others are found along the way, and more are hidden away in secret places for the curious. You can’t carry everything you find, though, but you can carry enough to try and survive what is ahead. Unfortunately, there’s no in-game store to sell any extras and the game is extremely carefree when it comes to poison which can be extremely annoying to deal with. I found just enough antidotes to keep me alive, but don’t be surprised when the next encounter poisons you all over again. You can purchase an innate ability to help with your poison resistance, but it won’t keep you from getting poisoned anyway. Is it too much to ask for an antidote spell to go along with the healing?
Using Valve’s Source engine as a base, many of the special effects in the game come through in the physics and the incredible architecture of the colossal set pieces that you will encounter. When there’s fire nearby, you can roll barrels and throw boxes into it and watch as they actually burn, or even kick the enemy into the burning mass and watch them burn instead. The animations for the enemies as they scramble towards you, your character as he twirls his weapons into his hands, or the detailed faces of the NPCs that may help or hinder you demonstrate the Source engine’s strengths and succeed in bringing Ashan to life. Just as Arkane Studios had done with Arx Fatalis, you can even look down and see your booted feet, which might be wearing chain or covered in plate depending on what kind of armor you manage to get, or even your body as you are thrown back from a heavy hit making you feel less of a floating camera and more a part of the world in the game. Matching the epic range of the story is the music whose orchestrated thunder is an obvious fit for the fantasy title, reaching the kind of tempo driven into players by Jeremy Soule’s excellent work in Oblivion and other titles.
But as nice as the game looks and can play, there is a heavy price to pay for everything that it seems to do right. Much of the detail seen will push even low end PCs on its recommended sticker to their limits. Even when the detail is tailored down, it’s no guarantee in avoiding the occasional crash. I didn’t get hit with the bugs all at once as they only got worse the further I had gotten into the game. Rebooting seemed to help…sometimes…but it eventually got to a point where simply looking around would result in sound stuttering or crash the game, dumping me to desktop. Having reached the middle of the quest and not wanting to simply give up, I decided to migrate my retail game over to Steam, even though the last patch released there was for multiplayer, to see if that would do anything.
Steam did what it needed to do, moving my retail install over to its own directory and transferring some data over…3.2GB of it…to finish up the single player move in my case. And be sure to reboot after it’s done moving and shaking all of your files. Before doing that, I wasn’t able to get into any of my saves as the engine would simply crash with a Source error. Rebooting and doing a defrag seemed to fix it and my experience substantially improved. I consider myself lucky that I’ve been able to get it to work as well as it has for me to finish it as others have reported worse on the forums with better systems.
Magic and Melee
Kuju developed the multiplayer for Dark Messiah, putting a neat, medieval fantasy twist, to the title’s version of Counterstrike, replacing guns with arrows, magic, and plenty of swordfighting. Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Capture the Flag round out the basic modes that you’ve seen in most everything with an MP heartbeat. Dark Messiah also includes two modes that help it stand out. Crusade strings together five different maps and success by any one side allows them to progress to the next one in their path of conquest. Each map is controlled by several Battlefield-like control points. The more points one team has in their pocket, the faster the number of tickets given to the other team bleeds out. Coliseum is another game mode, although not as popular as Crusade seems to be, with two sides participating in one to one duels before a crowd of spectators and would-be gladiators. Voice communication is also supported, or you can use the well acted in-game voices to ask for healing or to warn your team mates of danger.
You start off by choosing what to play as from five different classes, each with their own sets of skills and weaknesses. In team based modes like Crusade, you get to pick which side to represent from the good loving Humans or as the nefarious Undead. Knowing which class works with your play style will take some getting used to. Experience is earned on the field through killing the enemy and helping to take objectives. With enough experience, you’ll level and use the skill points earned to pick and choose what abilities you should improve or purchase just as in single player. Players can set traps using poison, snipe using bows, release a torrent of destruction with their magic, resurrect their friends, and shatter their frontlines with edged steel. As fun as this can sound, it can become frustrating when faced with certain classes that become nigh invincible at higher levels. If you join a game in progress such as Crusade, you might find yourself acting as cannon fodder to experienced players if they decide to harvest your spawn. Some balancing would be welcome here, but as it is, certain classes will simply have an easier time at laying their enemies into the ground especially if your team is at a level disadvantage.
Despite its issues, MP it is still a lot of fun extending the life of the game well past the remarkably short single player campaign and Steam makes it easy to find a session to join. If teamkillers happen to spoil the fun, you’re afforded the chance to forgive them, set them on fire, or even slay them outright thanks to a handy menu that comes up right after you bite the dust. Most of the players I played with were great and understood that accidents happen, but there will occasionally be the usual idiot that thinks everyone is out to get them.
The Collector’s Edition
So why not buy it on Steam? It’s available for purchase, but not everyone may have the bandwidth or the inclination to subscribe to Valve’s online delivery service. Fortunately, there are a few compelling reasons to make the retail version a bit more attractive. One is that you have the option of having the media in hand, and another is the Collector’s Edition with some interesting extras.
The Collector’s Edition comes with a deck of glossy cards with bios on each of the monsters that you will run into during the main quest which some might find useful if they happen to find a lich in their basement. A “Making Of” DVD is also included, taking you through nearly thirty minutes of documentary on what went on behind the scenes. The game trailers and “Kill Kevin” teasers for Dark Messiah are also on the disc in case you had missed any of them. A Soundtrack CD with a little over twenty minutes of orchestrated music from the game as composed by Sascha Dikiciyan and Cris Velasco rounds out the package.
When all is said and done, several longtime fans of New World’s former franchise may see this latest chapter as Might and Magic in name only, bearing more of a resemblance to Arx Fatalis than to the series of RPGs that they may remember. As an action filled adventure backed by an entertainingly brutal combat system and incredible set pieces, it can still provide more than a few exciting moments both on and offline. But you will need to look past a number of frustrating problems in order to enjoy Arkane Studios’ latest which may be one task too many for those of us hoping simply for a return to the world of Might and Magic.
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