Dark Messiah of Might & Magic: Prima Official Game Guide Review

by Angelspit (special thanks to Oakwarrior for his assistance)

 

Thanks to the Disciples of Sareth, I received a copy of the Dark Messiah Prima Guide, long after I had finished the game. I decided to write a little review anyway, since some of you might consider picking up the game (and possibly the book as well) as their prices drop, and I didn't want the book to gather dust on a shelf, unread. My first comment is that it is far better than the book they published for Heroes of Might and Magic V (read Sir Charles' warning). However, there is a limit to what can be said about the strategies to be used in a first-person action game, and that book definitely crosses that limit. My article includes a short changelog of the recent patches compiled by Oakwarrior; because of publishing deadlines, that crucial information is missing from the book. Read it all here.

DarkMessiahBoxShotI have a love-hate relationship with strategy guides. Back in the early 90s, when I was playing the Ultima games, the Star Wars simulation and one of the last generations of adventure games, hint books (that's what they were called back then if I remember well) were our only reference if you happened to be stuck in a particularly obscure puzzle or an insanely hard mission. Computer games of that era lasted longer because, unless you gave up and put back the box on the shelf in frustration, you often spent hours replaying parts of a game, looking for that hidden pixel that will allow you to move to the next level. Once or twice, I went to the nearest Radio Shack, hoping they would carry the hint book for the game I was playing, spending over $10 for a tiny booklet, and reading only a few pages. With a price tag that's the equivalent of 20-50% of the value of the game, strategy guides are a costly investment, especially today when the information is often available for free on GameFaqs or fan sites.

At 8.5 x 11 inches and a whopping 192 pages, the Dark Messiah Prima guide, written by Mike Searle, certainly cannot be described as a booklet. Fully illustrated with artwork of the creatures, characters and weapons of Dark Messiah, you'll want to carry it with you to impress the kids in the bus. It covers both the single-player and the multiplayer portions of the game, with SP getting over two thirds of the book. Let's look at the content of the various sections:

In Our Darkest Hour

That two-page section serves as an introduction to the book, and tries to describe what gameplay feels like, but of course Dark Messiah is like sex as mere words won't be enough to describe the experience. Soon enough it's obvious that the book won't teach us anything about Ashan and the young new world of Might and Magic, but that was to be expected.

Combat and Tactics

An interesting overview of the gameplay, Searle shares a couple of essential tips for both FPS rookies and veterans. The basic types of weapons are detailed, as well as the art of "dancing", or moving quickly from one enemy to the other hitting them in sequence, a crucial tactic when surrounded by multiple enemies. The author might lose some readers when he goes over the power strikes, a move that needs a little while to master and that's best explained with a tutorial, or the rope bow, a weapon that becomes available only after a few chapters.

Skills, Weapons & Armor, Magic Items

Much like Heroes of Might and Magic V, the skill system in Dark Messiah requires a chart to be understandable. Each skill is described in a few words, but we don't really find out about their usefulness until later in the game walkthrough. More interesting are the class templates, where the author provides a few recipes based on the total amount of skill points available in the game. The Brawler, the Power Mage, the Healer and the Thief should all be fairly successful in the game. A Jack-of-All-Trades template is also provided for players who cannot decide on a particular playing style. The list of weapons specifies in which situations each weapon should be used, but unfortunately no accurate statistics are provided. As for the list of magic items, it shows you ahead of time what the requirements of each item are, so that you can plan ahead the equipment you want Sareth to use.

Monster Handbook

There are not that many monsters in Dark Messiah, and dealing with them is fairly easy after a few battles. The strategy guide allows you to skip that step by providing some general guidelines, and by specifying which weapons are the most useful against them. After all, it's a common misconception to think that your sword will help you in all situations. Never underestimate the speed of the daggers!

Walking Through the Game

The step-by-step instructions for each chapter of the single-player game are very wordy and include a lot of details, too many details in fact. Considering that's it's very hard to get lost in the linear levels of Dark Messiah, two or three pages of steps would have been enough. More than once you will browse the content of a whole section, trying to find the specific area where you're stuck. The screenshots are of little as a visual reference because of their size: the same textures and decorations are used extensively in any given level, so screenshots that are no larger than your thumb end up all looking the same, which is unfortunate for such a beautiful game. The trick is to keep an eye on the comments under each picture, as they describe the various locations where an action is needed. So, just like with a Playboy magazine, you can stick to the pictures and forget about the text in many cases.
Resist the temptation to take a quick look at the chapters you haven't explored yet, as even the ending sequence is shown with a series of (small) screenshots.

The author does a good job of identifying the areas where many players are likely to get stuck -- the Maiden's Eye, the Matron's Heart and the first Pao-Kai are certainly some of the most frequently asked questions on the forums. He lists the weapons and spells of choice at the beginning of each chapter, but at times these tips will be useless based on the skills and spells you have chosen for your character. I found the monster chart to be a bit of a spoiler, considering that most of the game is spent fighting those monsters. The list of items that can be found in the levels is much more useful, particularly for the player interested in finding all secrets of the game (and there are many). I also appreciated the addition of warnings (highlighted in red) in the articles that clearly identifies the situations where a player may fail his mission. There are a couple of areas in the game where specific actions are rewarded with instead death, which can be particularly frustrating if you haven't saved your game for a while. All in all, a good walkthrough that's lacking some visual references.

Messing with Multiple Players

The multiplayer sections begins with a tip that's good for all multiplayer games out there: avoid playing as if you were facing a predictable computer opponent, otherwise you will be dead in seconds. The game's learning curve can be brutal if you end up on a server filled with experienced players, and the goal of the guide is to teach about the classes and the levels ahead of time. The action is so fast and intense that you will have a hard time experimenting with the various skills and spells. And your teammates will quickly get mad at you if you do so in the middle of a match. The author also provides other good tips for any multiplayer game: saving stamina, dying for the team, playing defensively, taking the time to analyze the current situation, etc.

The book provides a good analysis of the five multiplayer classes. The skills it recommends as first picks is debatable, but the new player will appreciate the tips and manage to get a few kills more quickly. Unfortunately, the development team made several changes to the classes since the publication of the book, so certain strategies need to be reconsidered. My good friend Oakwarrior was kind enough to provide a quick summary for anyone who has purchases the strategy guide -- think of it as a little erratum:

Oakwarrior's Summary of the MP Changes

  • Warrior quick attacks cost stamina.
  • Warrior Safeguard skill costs mana to maintain, takes away mana when hit, and only protects the side where the Warrior is facing.
  • Almost all Archer special arrow mana costs are lowered.
  • Archer movement speed while an arrow is nocked has increased.
  • Assassin special Daggers take mana per hit instead of a constant drain of mana.
  • Assassins move faster than other classes, but a little slower than Warriors now.
  • Priestess range of Corrupt/Healing has been split into upgrades.
  • Priestess utility spell costs have been significantly lowered/altered.
  • Mage spell damage has been lowered.
  • Mages of opposite alignment do more damage to each other (Fire vs Lightning or the other way around).
  • Mages have been given a smaller (upgradable) version of Magic Shield at level 1.
  • Mage's Lightning Orb has been nerfed, it doesn't hit players immediately after launch and behind the caster, and takes time to charge after being ordered to fire.

Also on the down side are the multiplayer tips provided by the Ubisoft FragDoll. While most of them are worthwhile and useful, they are sometimes redundant with the rest of the section, which makes me think they are part of a gimmick between Ubisoft and the publisher of the book. The worst part is when the Dolls suggest capturing points behind enemy lines, also called backdooring, a tactic that's not very appreciated by the multiplayer community. Use that tactic sparingly unless you want to become the favorite target of the opposite team. The class vs. class strategies are all very interesting, if debatable based on the latest patches and the way people play the game three months later.

All in all, the D
ark Messiah Prima guide is a valiant effort from the author. Considering that the single-player campaign can be completed in about ten hours, it's safe to say that the book contains more information than you will ever need. The presentation is top-notch, the combination of a white font over a black background is easy on the eye, and the visual references succeed, to some extent, in highlighting the crucial information. Obviously, it's unlikely that you will read it from cover to cover, and you'll get bored with the very long level descriptions. The fact that you spend $19 (Ed: or $13 since a recent price drop) for information that can already be found online is likely to be a turn-off as you browse the various sections. While the multiplayer section certainly requires a little tutorial unless you are a veteran of first-person shooters, the single-player walkthrough is certainly not worth your time. The single-player campaign is quite easy and requires some good reflexes, and that's something a book cannot help you with.

Pros
  + Thorough analysis of the multiplayer maps
  + Good production value
  + Lots of good tips for newcomers

Cons
  - Tiny screenshots are often useless
  - Useful info is buried in large chunks of text
  - Some tips are considered cheap shots
  - You don't need it

Rating: 2½ out of 5


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