Ubisoft was kind enough to allow me to publish my impressions of the Dark Messiah of Might and Magic multiplayer beta test. As a veteran of the Heroes series, I saw very little Might and Magic in that game, but a very high potential. Even two months before its expected release date, the Dark Messiah beta is more polished and stable than most game demos I have tried.

Read my report, which includes several never-seen-before screenshots, here.

A Class Act

Important Notes: the following article is about a computer or video game under development. The content of the game and the visuals are likely to change before the release of the title. The article has been published with permission from Ubisoft.

It’s Not About Playing Roles

Last year, when Heroes of Might and Magic V had just been announced, there were rumors about a second title that would use the new Might and Magic universe created by Ubisoft. Fans immediately thought about a new Might and Magic role-playing game, the tenth chapter of the series, as it seemed normal to bring back the franchise to its roots. But it turned out that Ubisoft had quite a surprise for the gaming community: Dark Messiah was described as a first-person action game with some light RPG elements that would use the famous Source engine. Now, it's important to note that the experience of the Might and Magic players with action games was until now limited to a couple of failed titles, such as Crusaders, a third-person action game aimed at the console crowd, and Legends, a Counterstrike clone that suffered from poor design decisions, a lack of balance and countless of bugs. But to think that Ubisoft would repeat the mistakes of 3DO would be an error: the development team that was chosen to develop the new title was none other than Arkane Studios, creator of the critically-acclaimed RPG Arx Fatalis. What has been shown of the game until now has been very well received by the gaming community. The screenshots and the gameplay movies were showing how dynamic and exciting melee combat can be in an action game. However, gameplay is what really matters in the end, and that's what I am going to cover.

With a decent video card, the scenery in Dark Messiah is simply gorgeous.

A View to a Kill

The power of the Source engine is used effectively in Dark Messiah. While the sexiest visual effects have been kept for the single-player portion of the game to keep the online action fast and fluid, multiplayer matches take place in a lush and detailed environment. Cranking up the level of detail on a powerful computer produces some pretty Kodak moments, such as the lighting effects when a player is facing the sun, gigantic structures that make the players look like ants, or the view when a player looks down a cliff. The two maps were available in the beta test as of publication:

· The first one could be compared to the famous Faces from the original Unreal Tournament. Two castles are facing each others, with a series of small structures between them, the center one being on the top of a small hill. There are lots of mountains around.

· The second one is much larger and more complex. Two bases are hidden behind mountains, with various entrances on two levels. There are two paths to cross the chasm that separates the two mountains.

To some extent, the game reuses some of the dark atmosphere that was introduced in Heroes of Might and Magic V. The undead character models, for instance, are nowhere near the cartoonish monsters of previous Might and Magic games. While there are no screams and violent deaths as in many first-person shooters, you will see a certain amount of blood stains here and there. The only drawback is that the look and feel of the game has very little to do with anything seen in previous Might and Magic or Heroes games. I understand that the single-player campaign is where the new world of Ashan will be revealed, but a few subtle references to the old game would have been a nice touch. At the moment, there is very little Might and Magic in Dark Messiah besides the name.

The character models in Dark Messiah are grim and sinister... and the players behind them are even worse!

The Smell of a Fireball in the Morning

A multiplayer game is fast and brutal. A single multiplayer mode, Warfare, was available during the beta test. Two teams of players, the humans and the undead, start near their home base. The goal in that particular mode is to capture respawn points scattered throughout the map. Reaching the opposite team takes a little while, so each team has time to regroup in a specific area of the map, or to rush to the nearest respawn point. Players have a limited amount of stamina that they can use to run over a short distance – they can use it all to sprint to a specific location, but they need to be careful not to meet an enemy with an empty stamina bar; the results are often fatal. With a few notable exceptions, the maps are fairly symmetric, so it's easy after a couple of games to find our way around. Dead-ends are hard to come by, fortunately.

Just like any other multiplayer game, there is a learning curve. The controls are easy to get used to, especially if you have played a similar game before, but keeping up with the speed of the melee battles and playing in a way that will actually be useful to your team requires some patience and practice. It is advised to start on a quiet server, gather experience by capturing respawn points in order to learn new skills and put these skills to the test. The tips and instructions provided on-screen by the game are very useful, but you won't have time to read them on a populated server. The game includes a lock-on feature that allows your character to remain face-to-face with an opponent of your choice. Development has explained that this feature was introduced to add tactics to melee combat, which would otherwise become a click-fest. Despite my initial negative impressions, I got to appreciate the lock-on after experiencing and watching a couple of brawls between knights. The battle looks more realistic and the pace of the fight appears to be more comfortable.

The way to the undead castle. You never know what can come out of it.

The Players

Players are free to choose the class they want, and to restart with a new class during the course of a game, so the team lineups are always varied. Here are the game's four very different character classes:

Knight and Warrior: The definitive might class. Thanks to its intimidating speed and damage, the knight can quickly run through a crowd and bring down the weakest opponents. It's probably the class newcomers should choose right from the start, as rushing to the enemies and swinging the sword madly might very well get you a few kills. Players who learn to use the shield and the special stances effectively will become even more dangerous. No matter what class you play, seeing an experienced knight running your way is intimidating to say the least.

Archer: The other might class. Unlike the knight, the archer class takes a while to get used to. It turns out that the bow is a little more difficult to use than what the recent Dark Messiah gameplay videos suggested. Just like the sniper in your favorite first-person shooter, you need to aim ahead of your opponent before you release your arrows. That's why many players prefer to use this class at short range, a tactic that can be especially useful against rushing knights. As the archer gains levels, it becomes more powerful with skills such as triple, poison and flame arrows – however, getting there takes some skills.

Assassin: I consider the assassin class is hallway in the might and magic scale. Because its attack inflicts less damage than the knight, the assassin needs to rely on special tricks to defeat the enemy. Early on, he will become partly invisible to sneak through the frontline undetected, and will try to backstab any unlucky bystander. Afterwards, he will learn to use poison to partially blind his enemies. However, once the assassin is spotted, he is in an uncomfortable position. I enjoy playing as an assassin against a team filled with magic users, entering a building using the backdoor and sneaking up on their backs.

Fear the Fire

Mage: The Might and Magic equivalent of artillery, the mage compensates for his inability to fight in melee combat with an impressive assortment of direct damage spells. While his starting skills are modest to say the least, he becomes a powerhouse once he masters the fireballs and lightning spells. Mages will often stand on rocks and structures to launch and direct fireballs at long range, forcing their enemies to hide behind obstacles. But experienced players will have no problem rushing to the front line either. Even if you manage to get close enough to a mage to slay him, he will sometimes take you with them with a last second fireball.

Priest and Healer: Another pure magic class, the Priest is at the moment considered one of the best classes in the game. His very varied range of spells allows him to stand in the back and provide support to her teammates, but also to deal damage from a very long distance. A Priest is definitely in trouble if an enemy gets close, but hopefully a few teammates are nearby. The priest Slow spell, which drops a large amount of brambles nearby on the group and damages any enemy that tries to run through it, is fun to use and allows some interesting combos.

Character development works a bit differently in multiplayer than in single-player. While in single-player you are free to develop your character in melee, archery and magic and make any combination of those skills, multiplayer classes come with a predefined selection of abilities. For instance, a Priestess starts with her staff and a Cure/Curse spell. When she reaches level 2, she learns another spell, Slow, but cannot improve her melee skills. Later on, she will be able to resurrect teammates, heal several people simultaneously and creates toxic clouds on the battlefield.

The Messiah We’ve Been Waiting For

Dark Messiah could perhaps be the best thing that happened to the Might and Magic franchise in years. Even in its beta stage, the game is fairly stable, offers impressive visuals, provides a fair amount of innovation and, most importantly, is fun. The combination of the fantasy setting, the well-executed melee combat and the overall coolness factor are sure to attract a lot of new players to the franchise. If any other game provides a better experience of melee combat, I need to try it now and see it with my own eyes. Dark Messiah will be in store in September 2006.