Our initial experiences with Dark Messiah weren’t good. First off, we dropped the game box on our big toe when hastily removing it from the jiffy bag it arrived in. Then while it was installing, we made a cup of tea and brought it back to our desk only to discover we’d forgotten to put the sugar in. Clearly, evil forces were afoot.
But all that was nothing compared to the wickedness Dark Messiah inflicted on our hard drive. After playing the tutorial and reaching the first chapter of the game proper, the hard disk started to churn like crazy and this first-person action RPG became a slide-show. One frame every five seconds isn’t pleasant.
The cause of this? We suspected a memory leak and that theory was confirmed by visiting the game’s forums. The problem was cured for us by simply installing the version 1.01 patch, although some users on the forums still seem to be having trouble even after patching. However, a 1.02 patch is promised to sort matters fully and hopefully it will be delivered quickly.
The good news is that once we started to experience Dark Messiah in all its fluid glory, the wailing and gnashing sounds of the hard drive were replaced by appreciative “ooh” and “ahh” noises – and the odd “cor blimey” – from this reviewer’s mouth. Because frankly, the game’s bloody excellent.
The emphasis is on action and combat, but there’s a layer of character development and the experience differs depending on which path you choose. Broadly speaking, you can be a warrior, assassin or mage, although you can combine skill sets. For example, a warrior can learn some healing magic to cure his wounds, making what would commonly be known as a paladin class.
Naturally, warrior types play an all-action hack and slash, while mages rely more on cunning, charming opponents to fight for them, flinging rocks using telekinesis or just toasting all and sundry with fireballs. The assassin’s game experience is quite different, relying on stealth to sneak up on enemies and stab them in the back. In many respects, playing an assassin is like returning to the classic “Thief” series, even down to the interface’s light-meter which indicates how well hidden you are.
Further variety is thrown into the game via the depth of the combat system. It’s simple and intuitive on the face of it, but even a straightforward warrior has tactical choices to make; does he use a two-handed staff which can stun opponents, or a more damaging sword? The staff is well suited when mobbed by large numbers, as you can temporarily knock some of them to the floor, making the fight more manageable.
The environment plays a large part in combat tactics, too. If there’s a spike protruding from a wall, you can execute a kick move and knock the enemy backwards into it, impaling them. Monsters can be booted off cliffs, or into fires (afterwards they’ll run around panicked and aflame) and objects like barrels or crates can be picked up and thrown, causing hefty damage.
The combat mechanics just feel spot on, with added fun in such improvisation, and it also helps that the enemy artificial intelligence is reasonably smart. Monsters will block, parry and evade attacks, and they all have varying behaviors. Big orcs strike aggressively with powerful lunges that can shatter your shield, whereas the smaller goblins bounce agilely around, running away shrieking like cowards when they’re wounded.
Dark Messiah’s storyline flirts with the usual fantasy cliches – an imprisoned ancient evil, prophecies and powerful magical artifacts – but it’s entertainingly scripted as well as obvious. The path through the game’s quests is largely linear, but it shifts through an impressive number of different environments (all fantastically rendered) and features a variety of objectives.
One minute you’re chasing a ghoul across the rooftops of a city and the next you’re trying to stealth onto a ship, disable its cannons, then escort someone on board, defending them from an onslaught of guards and archers. The only slight let-down is that sometimes the game insists on dropping heavy hints as to what you’re supposed to do next, and we’d have preferred to work things out ourselves.
That minor moan aside, the single player campaign is highly enjoyable and when you’re done with that, the multiplayer offers a healthy dollop of options. These include standard deathmatch and capture the flag modes, along with coliseum (arena combat) and crusade (an objective-based battle mode in which you earn experience points and advance your character). Mighty and magic stuff indeed.