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Dark Messiah Single Player Preview

Dark Messiah Of Might & Magic pack shot
Developer:Arkane Studios
Genre:Action RPG
Official Site:http://www.mightandmagic.com/
Release Date:October 27, 2006 (UK)
Writer:James Barlow (Malis)
Buy now at Amazon.co.uk

Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is not an Oblivion clone. Let's get that clear right from the start. Although the two share a common view-point and a fantasy theme, these are two titles that offer very different game experiences. It's frustrating to see other websites compare the two so much, and must be even more frustrating for the developers themselves - it serves only to confuse gamers. Ultimately, Dark Messiah is a first-person action game that owes more to Half-Life and Deus Ex than to an open-ended RPG.

Developed by Arkane Studios, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic puts you in charge of Sareth, a student of the mysterious Master Phenrig. Although the plot wasn't totally clear from the preview I played, it seems to be clear that all the elements are in place for an epic fantasy romp. A formidable warrior, Sareth can use both spells and conventional weapons to grisly effect. Make no mistake; this is an action game through and through. The emphasis is placed firmly on wading knee-deep through throngs of goblins, hacking and hewing at every creature in your path.

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In the preview code I played, I was treated to three levels, all carved out using Valve's amazing Source Engine. Vast gloomy halls are rich in detail, and powerful beams of HDR light cut into the dark, dazzling and blinding the player at every turn. Dark Messiah is incredibly atmospheric, and it's a testament to Valve that the Source Engine still looks so fresh.

Much like Half-Life 2, or any other recent FPS, Dark Messiah uses a traditional level-based structure, but makes them huge. As a player you'll follow a set path through a level but your objectives may change on the fly. For example, on one level you're woken up in your room by a servant, only to be told that there are enemies loose in the city. At first you'll have to fight your way to Master Phenrig's house, however the mission soon turns into a roof-top chase after a murderous ghoul. In this respect, Dark Messiah appears like many other FPS around at the moment, bar one very unique twist. Being a fantasy game, there's no shotguns or laser cannons in this world. Instead much of the game's focus revolves around a melee system - something we've yet to see successfully implemented into a FPS.

It's lucky then that the close combat system Dark Messiah employs so far seems convincingly robust. Combat is both brutal and exhilarating, truly there's nothing quite as satisfying as taking on a room full of orcs with just a short sword and emerging a blood-spattered victor. If you've played the demo you'll have some idea of what I'm talking about, but the skirmishes seen there are but a fraction of the battles to come. Whilst a basic slash is useful to let off quickly, the real meat of combat comes from stance moves. Hold down attack and a direction and you'll perform a powerful attack that breaks through an enemy's parry. This simple system lends itself to incredibly satisfying combat, helped in no small way by the enemy AI.

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I really can't remember the last time I had so much fun fighting a computer, and credit must be given to Dark Messiah for producing such memorable foes. Goblins for example, will rush you in numbers, whooping with delight and crying 'aim for its legs' as they attempt to overwhelm you. A few well placed sword strokes will send them running though - literally. It's not uncommon to obliterate a room full of enemies, only to find a goblin cowering in the corner with his hands over his head. Upon approaching, don't be surprised if it tries to bargain for its life. Of course, the officially recognised procedure in such a situation is to remove the head from the shoulders of the offending goblin. With some force.

Did I mention this game is bloody? Every swing of your sword or axe is met with a satisfying amount of red liquid spurting from of your enemy - finish an orc off with a cut to the throat and it will collapse to the ground gurgling in pain. I saw injured enemies will hobble towards me feebly, frantically trying to stave me off (sadly I had to put them down). If you're equipped with twin daggers, even fleeing enemies aren't safe thanks to a context sensitive dynamic to attacks. If your enemy is fleeing, instead of slashing with your dagger, you'll throw it into their retreating back, quickly dropping them. If you knock your foe to the ground, a sword slash will turn into an instant-kill impale if you're quick enough. Best of all is the adrenaline bar. This fills up gradually as you fight. Once it's full you'll get tunnel vision for a short period of time, and your next attack will be an instant kill. Although it varies from weapon to weapon, it normally involves a slow-motion decapitation.

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Of course, you're not just limited to close combat. Sareth can specialise in different areas through use of the skill system. Much like Deus Ex, Dark Messiah uses RPG features streamlined into the FPS environment. While you won't level up as such, completion of various tasks in levels, or reaching certain points will reward you with skill points. Assigning them to skills will give you access to new spells, more powerful attacks and stealthy abilities. Specialising in stealth for example, allows you to creep up on unsuspecting foes and slit their throats. Invest heavily in magic though, and you can set people on fire, lay magical traps, or even lift huge objects using Telekinesis.

Using the Source Engine, it's no surprise to find that Dark Messiah makes good use of physics in combat. Most things can be picked up and thrown at the enemy as a make-shift weapon, or if they're light enough, kicked into the face of a rushing attacker. The kick button really is dangerously fun. At the click of a button you can send enemies tumbling over edges, backwards into a fire, or thumping into a wall of spikes. Of course it has other, less practical uses - nothing like playing football with a decapitated goblin head! Just don't forget enemies kick back too. Using the environment is important, and sometimes essential to staying alive. During the preview I encountered a Pao Kai (a dragon-type creature), which literally burst through the roof in a fabulous sequence. It required some quick thinking and effective use of the environment to kill...let's just say I introduced several spikes to it's skull. It was over in a minute or so, but the event was both frantic and exhilarating. Another similarly astounding moment came later, when a Cyclops literally picked me up and bellowed in my face, before hurling me across the room.

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But it's not all one-eyed brutes - the start of one level saw me joined by a lovely lady as we attempted to infiltrate an orc temple. At my side was Leanna, a female companion who seemed to play a similar role to Alyx from Half-Life 2. Part guide, part side-kick she would help fight orcs using some nifty spells. Leanna has her own health bar that is visible in the top left of your screen. Let her die and it's level over, so you'll have to throw yourself heroically in front of her to stop her being overwhelmed by nasty creatures. We'll have to wait and see if she proves more a hindrance than a help over the course of the game.

Ultimately, the charm of Dark Messiah is it's effective use of both scripted and random events. One level sees you trying to escape a nest of poisonous spiders. You'll have to scale a tall circular tower room using a rope bow, swinging and climbing from ledge to ledge, all the while chased by spiders scurrying up the wall beside you. Complete this scripted event and you'll end up in some goblin infested halls, where chaotic random combat takes place. Here I would find myself frantically duelling for my life, kicking boxes into enemies' faces, freezing leaping goblins mid-air (their frozen expressions are fantastic) and wielding a pick-axe in a frenzy. It's the fast-paced chaotic nature of combat that makes it so enjoyable. Often you don't have time to think about what you're doing in Dark Messiah - slashing away floorboards from beneath your foes, or slicing support ropes all seems incredibly organic and natural. It's only when the dust has settled and you're clambering over bloody corpses that you'll sit back and go - "Wow, that was cool!"

On the basis of what I played, there's every indication that the finished game will invoke a similar response.

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