In 2002, French developer Arkane released ARX FATALIS, a first person RPG that was ported to the original XBox a year later. Overshadowed by the higher-profile MORROWIND, ARX FATALIS was in many ways the better game. It had a more open-ended character development system, a larger environment to play in, and introduced the concept of casting spells through making a variety of gestures--a technique that was later raided by SACRIFICE and BLACK AND WHITE. Unfortunately, ARX FATALIS--on the PC at least--suffered at launch from a number of minor and more serious bugs, and had a visual style that was inconsistent: awkward character models contrasted with some beautiful level and environment design. Although the bugs were patched, and the xBox version was a little more polished, the game never found more than a niche audience.
Well, I was in that little niche of ARX FATALIS devotees, so I was really excited about the release of Arkane's DARK MESSIAH OF MIGHT AND MAGIC, a spiritual, if not literal, successor to the earlier game, as well as being another entry in the long-running Might and Magic universe. I had optimistic visions of a game that had the same, freeform world as AF, but with cutting edge visuals and physics as provided by the Half-Life Source engine.
We're gamers, you and I, so we're used to disappointment, but DARK MESSIAH OF MIGHT AND MAGIC is one of those games that, while full of interesting features and a lot of great content, ultimately misses the mark.
ARX FATALIS was an RPG told from first-person perspective. DARK MESSIAH, in contast, is really a first-person shooter with some rather minor RPG elements. You begin (and end) as a character named Sareth, and while you learn a variety of skills, spells, and weapons along the way, your journey doesn't entail much in the way of customization. You can learn spells and skills that take your character a little more or less in the direction of a healer, fighter, or mage, but since the single player campaign is primarily a solo one, the best skills and spells are those which increase your strength, stamina, health, and offensive abilities.
Sareth's story is linear and there is almost none of the free exploration or branching story that typifies an RPG. Although there are some decisions late in the game that determine a trio of possible endings, they are all minor variations on a theme. Put another way: your experience of this game and mine are not going to be radically different, no matter what our choices.
There are a wide variety of weapons in the game and, thanks to Source/Havok engine physics, a large catalogue of ways to dispatch enemies. Additionally, you can use some easily learned combos with melee weapons and attacks, so that you can entertain yourself with many, subtle moves when fighting the near constant parade of foes. Thanks to some weak A.I., and relative superior power of your attacks and weapons, combat in DARK MESSIAH is rarely a challenge. Every fallen enemy drops copious loot, and finding health and mana potions, weapons, supplies, etc. is never a problem.
Oh, yeah...and there are some jumping puzzles in this game. I hate jumping puzzles, but especially in first person shooters.
Graphics and Sound
DARK MESSIAH--like it's predecessor ARX FATALIS--offers some very nice, mostly dark, dungeon-like environments filled with detailed textures and moody, effective lighting. The environments get pretty repetitive, however, and there simply aren't the beautiful vistas like those that take your breath away in OBLIVION. Some care was obviously taken in the art direction, and character models look generally good. One of the "hooks" the developers added to the game was that the player could look down to see his entire body, though in terms of gameplay I'm not sure what this was supposed to accomplish.
Music in DARK MESSIAH is well produced and nicely scored, though never straying far from the "majestic" sword and sorcery cliches of heraldic trumpets, soaring horns, and melacholy, slightly exotic-sounding oboes. Ambient sound is extremely well done, as are weapon and spell sound effects.
I had a real problem with the voice acting in this game. Faux British accents are mixed jarringly with accents that come straight from the food court at the Galleria. I'm not sure what the solution to this problem is. RPGs like FABLE and THE BARD'S TALE can get away with inconsistent accents because they have satiric elements that support it. "Serious" games like DARK MESSIAH cannot. Equally inconsistent is the dialogue, in which vernacular English from the 21st century sits uncomfortably with dialogue straight out of Tolkien.
Multiplayer in DARK MESSIAH was not developed by Arkane, but by the English studio Kuju. It is perhaps a more potentially interesting aspect of the game than the single player campaign. You can enter battles as a variety of character classes (Fighter, Mage, Healer, Cleric, etc) which have nothing to do with your single player avatar.
There are a number of different modes in multiplayer: deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and a unique game called Crusade, in which humans face off against the undead in a series of connected maps, with control points and a ticket/respawn system reminiscent of the Battlefield series. However, in all forms of multiplayer most combat is melee and there are some problems with feedback and control during battle. It turns out, first person swordfighting gets a little old.
Fix the bugs
DARK MESSIAH shipped in an extremely buggy state. I experienced a lot of crashes to the desktop, sound stutters (typical of the Source engine it seems), loss of items, and many physics-related combat problems with characters hanging up. Overall, it just felt kind of sloppy. I know that many of these issues have been addressed in patches since release.
DARK MESSIAH OF MIGHT AND MAGIC is a let down; not a terrible game, but disappointingly short of its potential. In focusing on shooter-like combat, the open-ended RPG greatness of games like ARX FATALIS was sacrificed--why not give us both? Nice art direction and atmospheric lighting are ruined by jarring voice acting that takes us out of the nicely-imagined world. Potentially interesting physics-based combat is overused. In short, for every impressive element of the game, there is something that doesn't quite work. Patching will fix the bugs, but not bring back the choice, freedom, and depth of a satisfying RPG experience.