Underdevlopment strikes again
Fantasy themed FPS's are rare, much too rare for my taste. Heretic, Hexen, and Hexen II ("The Serpent Riders Trilogy" as I refer to them) were fantastic, clever, creative games that were a nice break from the more common FPS themes. At least, they were for their time. Yet still, to this day, the overwhelming majority of this genre consists of military, stealth, sci-fi, and horror. For some reason, fantasy remains an elusive theme.
Enter Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, the first fantasy-themed game I've seen in quite some time, about the adventures of one mage apprentice named Sareth (I'll leave it at that). The first thing you'll notice is the beauty of the game. The Source engine, while not the most technically advanced, especially now that it's nearly four years old, spins us a web of a haunting, sinister atmosphere that could compete with the Thief series. Outdoor areas are appropriately bright and beautiful, while darker environs such as crypts and abandoned temples are genuinely frightening and can cause a sense of paranoia.
The weapons and other inventory items are pretty standard fare for a fantasy game: daggers, swords, shields, magical staffs, bows, as well as the expected array of defensive/offensive spells and armor. The game is designed with the idea that the player can choose which type of Sareth character to play during the course of the game, be it magic, combat, or stealth based...essentially an RPG-lite design without rolling the dice.
Like Half-Life 2, the player can also put their surroundings to use during combat with enemies. Speaking of enemies, if you've ever played a typical fantasy game, then you'll know what to expect; spiders, undead, orcs, and evil wizards. The most fun part of the game is, obviously, the combat. I must say it was highly, highly entertaining sneaking up behind a necromancer and slitting his throat, kicking goblins off cliffs, impaling evil knights onto spikes, setting zombies on fire, and electrocuting spiders. I also can't tell you the pleasure of cutting the rope on a chandelier only to have it the crush five knights who were previously charging at me swords waving.
...the combat is about the entirety of the game's value. And as fun as it may have been, it wasn't enough after a while. In fact, the combat environments seemed as though they were laid out on a snap-to grid! No matter what locale your traversing, be it a crypt, a castle, a temple, or a courtyard, there were always carefully placed spikes, fire beds, stacks of barrels on destructible racks, and a/an [insert pendulous heavy thing here] suspended on the ceiling only held there by a weak rope, and your friendly neighborhood bottomless chasm. Seeing as how the Source engine is so well known for its physics capability and its ability to render many movable objects at once, it surprises me that the developers didn't invent more creative ways to utilize the environment. The above options are about all you have.
Speaking of combat, the game does indeed heavily favor the Fighter over the Mage or Assassin. While there are a wealth of spells and some decent magical weapons (staffs of course), most of the enemies in the game don't appear to be designed to be damaged much by them. While shooting fireballs at a knight will eventually kill him, it's simply no comparison to slicing and dicing away with a pair of high-damage daggers or a sword. Still, the stealth player is yet again the most neglected. Sure, there are missions/areas with plenty of shadows and opponents ripe for some stealth play, but most of the game just doesn't call for that because it isn't designed for it. The game is simply too linear for its own good. Yes, I do realize that despite the absence of guns this is an FPS, and most FPS's are linear, but the level design still could have been more open-ended and not so water-tight.
As for the game's plot, well... The FPS genre is generally not known for great storytelling;.that isn't to say an FPS cannot have a solid plot (see Half-Life or Thief), but they are far and few between. Dark Messiah
is not one of those few I'm sorry to say. The plot is harmless, generic fantasy: find the Magical Object and destroy the Evil Power because it is Your Destiny. But seeing as how the gameplay hours for this title are quite short (8 to 10 hours is a rough estimate), there just is not enough time for Arkane Studios to give us their own personal Silmarillion
All in all, the game feels extremely underdeveloped. There were so many elements of this game that could have made it a great title, but sadly fate did not smile upon this game. I'm unsure as to whether or not Arkane was being hen-pecked by Ubisoft to get this game out, but it certainly seems that way.
The Bottom Line
To put it succinctly, if you want a gigantic fantasy world ripe for exploration, more weapons, spells, enemies, styles of play than you can count, and an epic fantasy plot, then I would direct you to the nearest Elder Scrolls
title. But if you're looking for mindless fun... In spite of all the flaws I rambled about, the atmosphere is fairly engaging, the combat is entertaining, and Dark Messiah
is a perfect game for playing in 30 minute or one hour bursts. Now that it can be had for less than $20, pick yourself up a copy and kick some goblins off cliffs!