Dark Messiah: the Celestial Heavens Review
As the single-player component of Dark Messiah of Might and Magic was revealed to the press and fans via a demo, people started to notice that it suffered from an identity crisis. Built on the Source engine, the game was seen as the stepchild of Half Life 2. The RPG elements it promised led people to compare the game to Oblivion, the current role-playing best seller. And last but not least, Dark Messiah includes the words Might and Magic on its box, and some people thought the famous role-playing series had been granted another chapter, under a different name. With so many different expectations, it is quite easy to be confused, surprised, and perhaps disappointed by the path that has been chosen by Arkane Studios and Ubisoft. But if you can accept Dark Messiah for what it really, meaning a role-playing game (yes, we believe it can be described as such) with a heavy focus on action, you will get a breathtaking tour of the new world of Ashan, and witness some dramatic events.
Dark Messiah takes place 20 years after the end of Heroes of Might and Magic V. After a short prologue, a young man called Sareth is sent by his master to the city of Stonehelm to give an artifact called the Shantiri Crystal to Menelag the wizard. From there, the game will quickly put you in the middle of the action and let you progress through nine chapters and one epilogue of various lengths. You see the world through the eyes of Sareth, who travels alone most of the time, and the games does a good job to let you identify to the character: if you look down you will see your feet, if you climb a ladder you field of vision will be limited on each side, if you are thrown by a creature you will end up on the ground, looking at the enemy who is towering you. Unfortunately, that effect is spoiled by the fact that all conversations in the game are scripted and spoken. Similarly, the game gives you very little freedom in your travels. You are supposed to go from point A to point B, and besides a few exceptions, walls, closed doors and dead-ends will force you to follow the path drawn by the developers. As a consequence, your tour of the city of Stonehelm is limited to a few streets and buildings. There is no shop around, bystanders will barely say a few words and ignore you when you talk to them, and the objectives in your journal are merely a list of things to do before you get to the next chapter. However, the first time you come across an enemy, you quickly find out that your trips around Stonehelm will not be a walk in the park.
The real beauty of Dark Messiah is that whenever you encounter an obstacle, you can usually solve the problem in more than one way. Magic-oriented players will be given a varied selection of spells, from the simple vision enhancement to the impressive inferno. Stealth game specialists can either try to get closer to the enemy and perform a backstab move at the last moment, or perhaps shoot a few arrows from a distance and hide in a dark corner. However, in many cases battle cannot be avoided and you must make good use of your melee weapons. Hand-to-hand combat in Dark Messiah is possibly the best implementation ever in a video game. It is all about timing, carefully executing your special attacks and making sure you are not surrounded by multiple enemies at once. There are not a lot of creature types in the game, but they all behave differently in battle: while spiders will simply run towards you on sight and attack, humanoid creatures will parry your blows, attempt to dodge your projectiles and try to coordinate their attacks when in a group; “We got him cornered now” and “Go get him from the left” are some of the things you will hear during a fight. When you get yourself in a particularly difficult situation, you can take advantage of the environment: racks of spikes, railways above chasms and campfire and barrels can be found all over the place and can be used as weapons with a slash of your sword or a well-executed kick. Unfortunately, most enemies will fall for the trick too easily and Sareth's kicks become a weapon that's even more useful than that Superior Naga Silksword you found in a dungeon. At times the game will feel more like Karateka than a Might and Magic game. But the fact remains that taking out a group of orcs all by yourself is very rewarding, no matter what course of action you chose. And that's perhaps where you will decide to roleplay your character a little and force yourself to use specific tricks, by using stealth as much as possible or by not using the kick button at all.
The game is not all about combat though. A couple of simple puzzles can be found throughout the game, many of which involve using the game's rope bow, a tool that allows you to attach ropes to wooden structures and use them to reach remotes locations. Since a couple of secret areas and hidden treasure can be found above your head, it's usually to look for planks inside dungeons -- the rewards are not always very exciting, but the Pitfall-style rope jumping is quite fun for a while. At times, the answer to the puzzle is a little too obvious, such as when your sidekick tells you right away to look at the ceiling to get out of a specific room, only the repeat the advice a couple of seconds later. While getting some help for a puzzle is a nice touch, it spoils the feeling of accomplishment we would get had we figured out the answer on our own. While various tricks will allow you to progress through the game without using melee weapons, the way of the warrior is certainly the easiest way to finish the game. The mage and the archer will sometimes get into trouble once his enemies manage to get closer to him, while the rogue's stealth skill won't be very useful against groups of enemies, at least until it is maxed out. But the good news is that all class combinations will allow you to complete the game without too many problems.
Arkane has perfectly used the great potential of the Source engine to create massive and engrossing dungeons, as well the beautiful Stonehelm city architecture and great looking weather effects. As a side note, several NPC models clearly could have been designed better – even on highest settings Phenrig and Menelag look somewhat rusty. Also it could be interesting to find out why Leanna portrays such a naïve sounding girl with embarrassing miniskirt and big breasts? Initially we got similar thoughts about Xana as well but after the beginning of the game she makes almost no physical appearance and guides Sareth with her voice. Maybe for the better.
Playing Dark Messiah one can really feel that the character voices were recorded by professional actors – with a very few exceptions all of the spoken dialogues were perfectly recorded, especially Arantir and Xana. The soundtrack is simply awesome though some of the themes make a too little appearance and the only major combat soundtrack in the end started to get repetitive. One of the most memorable moments was shortly after the beginning of the game when an undead Cyclops storms through the city gate, everyone running away in panic and a great heroic music running in the background. We wish there were more such moments that make you feel like running through a great action movie. Clearly the game developers spared some of the best soundtracks for boss fights and the final battle.
We experienced that the official minimum and maximum requirements to run the game were not quite correct. We were able to get a decent performance with lowest settings on a computer that is below minimum requirements. However, while trying to play on highest settings on a computer with the recommended settings, we switched to the medium settings after some annoying lagging. We played the game on almost all possible settings, starting from the very minimum up to the highest settings. To our surprise, we couldn’t notice a clearly visible difference if the texture detail was reduced from high to medium, which helped to improve the performance greatly.
In the multiplayer you can choose between several game modes: Crusade, Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch and it has been confirmed that Capture the Flag mode will be delivered with the next patch and so might be the Coliseum mode later as well. For everyone’s taste the player can choose his character from five classes: fierce warrior focused on close combat and fast movement; tricky assassin that loves to backstab his enemies from shadowy corners and setup traps; powerful archer that can ignite his arrows and even shoot three arrows at the same time; cunning priestess who can either develop her healing skills for defensive purposes or curse her enemies; and finally a classic mage whose almighty spells can send anyone right to the Moon. While we were writing this review, the classes still were pretty much unbalanced – lots of players have complained that the mage spell “Lightning Orb” should be banned forever, that archers are superior to warriors in melee and that warriors have become quite a weaklings. We tried to play only as a warrior and it was a painful experience – hopefully the planned tweaks in the next patch will balance the classes though Kuju was fully aware of these problems since the early beta.
By the time we publish this, Dark Messiah still suffers from major bugs after a first patch. A lot of people experience crashes, poor performance and video glitches. Many fans feel that the game was not yet ready to hit the shelves, and are waiting for further improvements. Another area where Dark Messiah is lacking is in the level design area, as some levels are uninspired and repetitive. A few locations include dead-ends that seem out of place, much like the closed doors in KOTOR 2: The Sith Lords, as if unfinished sections of the map had been removed at the last minute. Still, at the core is an impressive game that could possibly spawn a new spin-off series. Despite its limited character development and its lackluster story, we cannot imagine a better first-person adaptation of the world of Ashan. By letting you choose your own course of action, the game provides a different view of the “Might and Magic” paradox.
Celestial Heavens gives Dark Messiah (version 1.01) an 8 out of 10.