After only two games, Arkane's influences are really showing. Their first creation, Arx Fatalis, was a transparent attempt to ape Ultima Underworld, and was hailed by fans as a worthy successor to the classic dungeon crawl. Now their second attempt builds on that foundation with elements neatly plagiarized from Deus Ex and Thief, and I'm beginning to think these guys have a thing for Warren Spector's games. Shameless though its borrowing might be, Arkane (aided in part by the Looking Glass Studios vets at Floodgate Entertainment), has put together another loving pastiche, sure to please fans of Spector's uniquely immersive first-person games.
It's a title that claims to be a reinvention of the Action-RPG, which is interesting, because the term is almost never applied to Western RPGs, even when they have action-based systems. Oblivion for all its real-time hack-and-slash and Guild Wars for all its frenetic pacing, were simply called RPGs. And indeed, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is a lot heavier on the action and lighter on the role-playing than appearances might convey. It's more of an action game with customizable character building (think: Deus Ex), an RPG-style inventory and equipment system, and a traditional fantasy theme than anything resembling what you might normally think of as an RPG.
It might also be that it's the first time anything vaguely resembling a role-playing game has had action this well developed, this deep, and this fun. The combat here might, at a glance, resemble the set up from Oblivion (or, perhaps more accurately, Arx Fatalis) but it's fleshed out beautifully. It's possible to parry, counter, and kick an opponent back. There's also a host of spells ranging from simple projectiles to more creative effects, like possessing an enemy to do your bidding, or levitating objects like a magic version of Half-Life 2's gravity gun.
It's a title that claims to be a reinvention of the Action-RPG, which is interesting, because the term is almost never applied to western RPGs, even when they have action-based systems.
There really isn't a lot of lateral movement to be found. There are places where the path forks for a bit, but it always meets back up before long. There's not much interaction with NPCs, and what is there is rigidly scripted. Indeed, the progression here more closely resembles a first-person shooter than it does an RPG, but this also means it has the same kind of dense pacing as an action game. It's a roller coaster ride that held my attention more consistently than anything the genre has produced before.
And just because you don't have the freedom to go wherever you want, chat up the locals, or peruse through shops, don't think that the gameplay is rigid. Instead, the flexibility lies in how you approach the many conflicts you'll face. Dark Messiah does a beautiful job of not pigeonholing you into one particular style. Levels are carefully constructed to give players some leeway in how they tackle their obstacles. They can use brute force, magic, stealth, or exploit the environment, and they'll likely end up using all of the above at various points.
This is thanks to the foresight of the designers not to include a proper class system. Instead, players are awarded skill points for completing objectives. There are no skill points awarded for just killing enemies, rendering power-leveling impossible, and making the non-confrontational approach just as viable. These skills offer all manner of effects improving various aspects of fighting, enabling new spells, and bestowing new abilities that can be used for all approaches. Some skills require other skills in order to unlock, but it's not strictly based on class.
All the approaches are entertaining in their own unique ways as well. Favoring stealth makes the game feel very much like a successor to Thief. Magic lends a dash of Heretic, though, as I mentioned before, there's a lot more to magic than fire and ice. Even the sword-swinging is interesting, with relatively intelligent enemies that work together and fight back with the same kinds of kicks, and special moves you can. They dodge, hide, parry, and flee for help, and are genuinely fun to fight.
Dark Messiah sports the Source engine developed for Half-Life 2 to great effect. I was under the mistaken impression that Source was getting a bit dusty next to oh-so-popular Unreal Engine 3, but Arkane has proven me wrong. Not only does the game look great, with the best HDR lighting I've seen and shader effects pushed to the max, but that physics engine that we couldn't get enough of in HL2 is really exploited brilliantly.
The environment is a powerful tool here. Physics are used for more than just ragdoll effects and knocking stuff over, here. You can take the leg out from a shelf at the top of a flight of stairs to send barrels rolling down on enemies below. You can sneak up behind a foe and kick him over a ledge or down the stairs. You can even cut one of the ropes suspending a chandelier to send it swinging down like a pendulum of death on an unsuspecting guard. You can use telekinetic powers to pick up objects (and even enemies if your adrenaline meter is full) and fling them around. Coupled with the excellent first person camera work, it helps to build the illusion that you're a whole person in a real, solid world and not a head and a hand floating around a model.
It's a good thing that the action is good enough to carry the game, because there really isn't much else to it. The story (based on the world of Ashan, created by Ubisoft for Heroes of Might and Magic V, and not on the classic New World Computing games) is paper thin, linear, and forcefully predictable, letting the cat out of the bag too early, too often. There are a few endings, but these hinge of two rather obvious decisions very late in the game, and not on how the majority of it is played. Things might drag a bit later on, too, as leveling your character up too much in any one category can encourage cheap, repetitive tactics and throw off the game's balance. Things get a little easy toward the end anyway, as the best weapons might be a little too powerful.
Once you've plowed through the single player campaign (it's long for a first-person action game, but short for an RPG) there's an extensive multiplayer mode to dig into. This isn't really a multiplayer version of the same game. Instead it's a completely different game, with a separate installation, made by a different developer (Kuju) in a different country! It borrows the world, engine, and graphical style of the single player game, and uses a skill point system that works similarly, but that's where the overlap ends.
As Battlefield 2142 takes its class-based first-person battling into the future, Dark Messiah brings it to the Middle Ages. Archers, fighters, priestesses, mages, and assassins duke it out to take over a series of maps in a campaign resembling how DICE might handle a Battlefield 1042. Skill Points are used to level up characters in much the same way as the single-player, but each class has distinct skills here, and have none of the flexibility I loved there. The balance could use a little work, too, with sword-swingers seeming a bit impotent against powerful magic-users. Still, it's a meaty game unto itself, worth exploring on its own terms.
As much as I want to fault the game for its bland story, stale fantasy clichés, and weaker later levels, I can't deny that this was some of the most fun I've had with a game all year. I don't think it's going to hit its mark with fans of Might and Magic or Elder Scrolls, but for the cynical RPG fan tired of repeatedly clicking on monsters until they die, Dark Messiah is like a syringe of adrenaline straight to the heart. Arkane might not introduce anything entirely revolutionary, but they only steal from the best, and the blend of elements is far more refreshing than anything the genre has come up with lately.