If you go into Dark Messiah of Might and Magic like I did, looking for an RPG, you're going to be shocked if not disappointed. It took me a considerable grinding of mental gears to get myself out of the Oblivion mindset and start to understand DM for what it is, because it's not an RPG in the vein of Oblivion. It's not even as much of an RPG as Titan Quest. It's more like a first person Tomb Raider with some light RPG elements thrown in to try and accommodate different playing styles. In that could perhaps have succeeded, but instead it fails because of a lack of enemy variation, a stupid story, and a truly novel combat system that is overused to such an extreme that it becomes almost a gimmick. It also claims the rather dubious prize of being the first game in my memory that gives away the big plot twist during the opening movie â€“ did they show the movies out of order or something? Oh, and it has absurdly long load times.
Without a doubt the most interesting thing about DM is the combat system. Arkane has taken the Source engine to a whole new level. No longer just a great looking engine that allows me to smash bottles and makes bodies fall in entertaining rag doll ways (I'm thinking primarily of Counterstrike here, my most extensive exposure to Source), but DM approaches as close as I have seen to a completely interactive environment. You can pick up (physically or with telekinesis) just about any object you can see and stack them or throw them (even bodies) as a weapon. That's just cool. You also have a kick maneuver that pushes your opponent back. This can be used to, say, kick an opponent off a cliff or into a fire (the AI, BTW, can do the same to you). The first opponent you fight in a furious sword duel and then defeat by kicking into wall of spikes to see them impaled is really satisfying. Then later as I'm kicking my hundredth orc into a wall of spikes (and just where is OSHA with all these unsafe spike walls hanging everywhere?), I think they've taken it too far. Why must EVERY combat have a convenient spike wall, or fire, or cliff to finish off my enemy? Why do they so often stack boxes in a rickety fashion more or less hanging out a giant neon sign telling me to kick it over onto their heads? You can throw a jar of oil onto an enemy and then set them ablaze. Neat! The game has, as a conservative estimate, 6000 jars of oil. What could have been used as a light sprinkle of seasoning to really add zest to the combat instead became that practical joke where someone has unscrewed the lid of the salt shaker and you come along and bury your steak under half and inch of granules. Wow, that's such an awfully executed metaphor that I'm going to leave it in.
You begin the game as a generic guy named Sareth. As you progress through the adventure, you receive skill points that you can use to add skills to Sareth to sort of customize him to you. Note that I said as you progress in the adventure â€“ this isn't like gaining experience from your activities. More combat isn't going to get you more skill points (though solving certain optional quest objectives might). The skill points are awarded for completing goals within the story, so almost no matter what you do everyone who plays the game is going to end up with the same number of skill points. You can spend those points on things like extra endurance (hit points) or magic skill (mana). You can gain critical strikes, or learn to move silently, or learn a new spell. There are skill paths that more or less conform to the usual ideas of fighter, thief, magic user, and cleric, but you are completely free to pick up any skills you like from any discipline (except in that some skills must be unlocked by having the skills below them in the tree). So my present character, a thief, can dole out some real damage in melee combat, and can cast healing spells. My last character, a magic user, could pick locks and use a bow and arrow. So although there are only about two dozen skills available to choose from, you can still build some modicum of character specialization for yourself.
I think my biggest complaint about DM is that there is just a dearth of interesting stuff around. There are only like 6 different creatures that you fight not counting boss monsters â€“ orcs, goblins, zombies, zombie dogs, and spiders. Hmm, that's only 5. Maybe I'm missing one. Anyway, once you develop a good way to defeat each type of creature (spiders, for example, are very flammable but are all but impossible to kick back) the combat becomes very mechanical. While the maps are laid out fairly well you see the same dozen pieces of furniture over and over again. There are perhaps, just to throw an approximate number at it, thirty different weapons and items that you can pick up which is a far cry from Oblivion where I could literally make just about any item that I wanted to. I'm just trying to convey the general â€ślightnessâ€ť of the RPG factors in this game.
The other big complaint I have about Dark Messiah is the phenomenal lameness of the story. Oh, RPGs in general have pretty been-there-done-that stories, but Dark Messiah's story is especially pathetic. All the demons in the world have been imprisoned in a magic cell, but the cell is weakening over time. Go and get this artifact, and fix the cell. That's the whole game. No wonder the entire single-player adventure takes less than 10 hours to complete. And while there is clearly a good/evil decision to be made in the game, you can literally wait until the last conceivable second to make your choice (and you can save your game before making it) resulting in merely a different closing movie. Just a note: the evil movie is cooler.
This shouldn't guarantee that DM is a bad game â€“ they've made a great combat engine, and then attached it to a poorly thought out dungeon with a bargain basement plotline. That would lead you to believe that the multiplayer should shine, right? Well, not to beat my favorite dead horse unnecessarily, but it runs through Steam, and any who have read anything I've ever written about Steam, and as anyone with half a brain in their head would agree, Steam isn't a good thing for anyone except the game manufacturers, and of course Valve themselves (certainly not game players, at any rate). Anyway, beyond the pain that is Steam incarnate, the multiplayer was horrifically laggy. It features four modes: deathmatch, team deathmatch, CTF, and a variant called crusade in which is a kind of like Onslaught in UT2K4. Oh, and there's a variant called Coliseum, that is like mano-a-mano deathmatch. Your multiplayer character is separate from your single player character, and as near as I can tell only exists as long as you are logged onto the server. Every time you start, you start with a new babe. Combat is a flicker fest of stuttered dialog and dropped frames, and that's with a reported ping of under 40. Jumping in to a server with a bunch of people who have been playing that map for awhile leaves you almost hopelessly outgunned because with kills you gain skill points that are used like in the single player game to improve the character. There are also serious multiplayer balance issues, as the guys with ranged attacks cut down the melee players while they're trying to close ranks. Consequently, the multiplayer games are very heavy in mages and priestesses.
So both the multiplayer and the single player games have some serious problems, and last I checked that was the entire game that came in the box. With some time, maybe they can correct the multiplayer problems. Short of rewriting the entire story and redrawing the whole dungeon, the single player isn't going to get any better. I do genuinely hope that this combat system appears in some future, hopefully better, game. But for the time being, this is the game that I was given to review, and I didn't care for it much at all.