The dark before the dawn
Ok, pay close attention to this and it might just save you a headache. You need to go into the game's menu, enable the developer console and type the following command:
Why this, well, it helps - it helps quite a lot. Now to be honest a game as big as Dark Messiah shouldn't have this many bugs, some of them related to the way it handles textures are real show stoppers. There are frequent crashes and definitely a number of jumpy frame-rate issues stuttering and the like. The mm.exe has a tendency to belt you hard to the desktop and leave you wondering what just happened.
I'm going to probably take some flak for this but once that little command has been entered, 90% of the crashes are gone for good. I was able to play for quite a few hours without trouble, taking the usual responsible eye-resting breaks and so on.
I shouldn't have to rely on reducing the graphics quality slightly to stop a game from crashing, Arkane however have been appearing on the forums and Ubisoft have been doing a good job at coming up with pre-patch fixes, like the one listed above.
So I am going to be kind and review the game based on my experiences with the command, and not out of the box. Boo-hiss I hear you say, well, lets see if the game's worth playing before we start getting out the pitch-forks and so on.
It starts out as a generic fantasy story and soon develops into something a little meatier? I am not going to spoil it, but suffice it to say that Dark Messiah's plot has a few twists and turns that lift it out of the fantasy mire. You play as an apprentice to a local wizard, Phenrig, who has sent you out to gather a particular crystal (this is the focus of the first game level and the actual tutorial) that he needs...but soon things develop beyond a simple treasure hunt.
Dark Messiah uses the rather excellent Valve Source Engine that powered the hit, Half Life 2 and it has been tweaked quite considerably since then. It is a first person game and rather like GRAW PC it uses a full body awareness system that gives you a view of the character's feet, torso, hands and so on when you look down and around.
It is an action game mixed with some RPG conventions, it's not a core RPG and it's not like Oblivion where you can wander the whole world and interact with everyone, do side quests and so on. Dark Messiah is a linear game that succeeds by providing non-stop action and certain puzzles.
You explore the various big locations and enter into combat with various denizens; it plays a lot like a FPS except there are some key differences. The most notable is the inclusion of a skill system that allows you to build your character based on your play style.
If you prefer the sneakier (Garrett) approach and would prefer to shoot your enemies with arrows, backstab them and slide through the shadows like a ghost then you're going to want to put points into the stealth based skills.
If you're a dangerous brawler and warrior type, you're going to want to put points into the various blade skills and so on. A wizardly type would put points into the magic that's available.
This simple but effective method of skill resolution (you get skill points for accomplishing objectives) provides a good level of customisation for your character. If you want to mix a fighter with an assassin, you can, it's up to you in the end how you spend those points.
As you progress through the story you are rewarded for exploration, usually by finding hidden areas that contain some useful items and often you'll track down a particularly impressive or dangerous weapon. Some of these require you to have a certain level in a particular skill or ability.
They are quite numerous and there are some pretty nice magical items to find. A personal favourite of mine so far has to be the Assassin's armour and a pair of shadow daggers, these make hiding in shadows and backstabbing enemies a lot easier.
There's not just one way through a level, there are numerous ways you can destroy your enemies and the physics system makes sure that you can utilise your environment to deal damage as well. From fires, oil spills and rickety walkways, there's usually something in Dark Messiah to destroy to create a little bit of havoc.
There are often spiked walls or iron spiked railings that make a nasty mess of the enemy, all it takes is a well timed kick.
Combat: Dark Messiah style
The key to any FPS is decent combat, be it guns, knives, rubber chickens or high explosives. Thankfully Dark Messiah has fantasy sword, knife, staff and bow combat in abundance - enough to satiate the most blood thirsty Robert.E.Howard fan out there.
Battle in Dark Messiah is a gore-fest and the game has a 15 rating since its fantasy violence, so no gangs here or helpless little old ladies being beaten with baseball bats. What you can expect to see are orcs, Cyclops and some truly terrifying monsters trying to take a bite out of our hero.
The combat system is based on key press directions + mouse buttons and works in tandem with Havok physics to provide a truly bone-crunching experience. There hasn't been a first person combat system like this since the awesome Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and in my opinion Dark Messiah tops Riddick in that respect.
Blows are exchanged at a furious pace and each hit causes damage to the victim, strike hard enough and you might even sever a limb or cause a knockdown. You build up a power bar as you fight, eventually this adrenaline meter fills up and you can launch a power attack.
The results of a power attack vary depending on the type of strike direction used, the weapon and the opponent. It might be a blow that severs a limb or takes off the enemies head, or you might thrust your sword through the chest of an enemy and then viciously boot them off the blade.
All attacks in Dark Messiah have an adrenaline effect and the magic effects are often increased dramatically when your meter is full. With a fully powered bar you can lift some incredible size objects with telekinesis for instance, or hurl enemies around like rag dolls.
There are also weapon-locks in the game, when you parry a blow you might become locked to your opponents blade and have to push the RMB rapidly to break the deadlock - do it right and you could end up disarming your foe or leaving them open for another attack.
Knock them down and you can coup-de-grace, just power up a strike and aim, your character will stab them and take them out of the combat.
Blades clash, shields break and the enemies surround you in some of the most brutal and effective combat in a game yet. Dark Messiah is truly excellent in that respect and it really is an adrenaline soaked FPS fantasy combat game.
A quick note is that enemies can often grapple you; they can then throw you to the ground and follow up with a couple of blows.
With the Source Engine behind the game Dark Messiah looks nice. It's not the nicest game out there but supports all the fancy graphics effects and tweaks that people expect from a new game. High Dynamic Range Lighting serves to lend a real sense of darkness to some of the dungeons; coming out of a cave into the bright sun momentarily blinds you as the light blasts into overload.
The colour palette used for the game varies from grungy brown and greens to slick stonework, marble, bright and colourful for the interiors of certain places. Dungeons are slimy and dank, the perfect kind of atmosphere for a fantasy game.
The graphics for the actual models, monsters and objects in Dark Messiah are definitely just as good as the interiors and exteriors; they have a good level of detail and are definitely well designed and very well modelled.
Dark Messiah has some simple levels early on that make way for more elaborate and complex levels later in the game. One of my favourites so far has been an orc infested temple where it clings like a faded memory to the side of a mountain, you have to watch your footing but there are plenty of places to indulge in your creative destruction side - especially when you can trigger some nice environmental attacks to bring down your foes.
There are often hidden routes, multiple paths and plenty of shadows to lurk around in for those people that don't want to charge in blade swinging, the developers have certainly taken their time in the level design, the attention to detail in the architecture is meticulous.
The animations in Dark Messiah are well done. The combat animations especially are excellent with a great deal of detail given to the exchange of blows and the physical reaction to the various weapons. A heavy strike can stagger an enemy and in some cases the weaker enemies will be forced into a wounded state, they'll become slower and swing their weapon as though it weighs a lot more.
The adrenaline moves, such as the brutal chest stab are likewise spot on animations that really bring the brutality of the combat system to the fore.
The AI in Dark Messiah is good. It can flank, coordinate attacks with allies and it can also use the environment to inflict pain. There are times I was picked up by an orc and hurled off into a fire or over the edge of a precipice to fall to my doom below. The enemies also have a certain racial reaction to each other; orcs don't quite like goblins, so they'll often fight if they meet. You can use this to your advantage and a distraction on certain levels.
The AI differs as well between species; a giant monster like the Cyclops uses different attacks and reacts to wounds differently compared to the orcs. It also requires a little bit of thought to get the better of, some of them are definite 'puzzle' bosses and you'll need to work out the best way to beat the bigger enemies.
The AI also knows when it's beaten, when to run and when it's got a definite advantage. It will press the attack harder when you've been wounded and go for the kill if it can.
Havok powers the game and provides a solid level of physics interactivity to the game. Objects behave based on mass, weight and other physical properties to allow for some very slick environmental attacks and destruction.
The game has solid sound effects. There are spot effects in the levels that serve to enhance the atmosphere, the battle sound effects from the clash of swords and the thud of weapons against flesh are well realised.
Dark Messiah has a brooding orchestral soundtrack that flows from haunting melodies to brutal confrontations, nearly seamlessly.
All of the voice acting in the game is top notch, there are a couple of cheesy dialogue lines but for the most it's a good script and the voice actors have done a brilliant job in bringing the world to life. The combat sound effects are great, there are some nice taunts especially delivered by the orcs.
The MP in Dark Messiah needs some tweaks, there were severe crashes server wise and it hasn't been easy to get a stable game quite yet. It has several modes, most of these are vanilla - however there's a Crusade mode that reminds us of Team Fortress and provides a significant distraction from the single player campaign.
There are 5 separate classes in the MP game:
The Archer: Akin to the sniper, the range specialist of the game.
The Mage: Kind of like artillery capable of some punishing area effect magic.
The Priestess: Not quite a medic, can cure or curse, can also perform other magic and resurrect the dead.
The Knight: A true close in combat specialist, brutal and deadly.
The Assassin: Stealth specialist, has a backstab ability.
In MP Dark Messiah you don't get new weapons, what you do get is experience points to buy new skills - a little like the single player game.
Crusade mode is about the best part of the MP side of the game, two teams battle to achieve objectives on a map. Victory assures that you progress to the next map - there are 5 maps that are divided between Human and Undead factions. The ultimate target being the stronghold at the end of the map set.
You begin at the middle of the map set and if you win the map moves closer to the enemy stronghold. It is similar to the Battlefield style of games with control points to reduce the enemies respawn tickets.
You must conquer the enemy stronghold to win, you also keep XP to the next battle in this mode.
The last stroke
A game should work out of the box, that's the saying and it's true. Dark Messiah shouldn't be as buggy as it is, but once you enter the mat_picmip 1 command into the console most of the issues vanish.
There are some extremely annoying show-stopping crashes and bugs; these impact the enjoyment of both the SP and MP sides of the game. However in all fairness my experience has not been jaded by playing it without the command, so I can say that I have played up to Chapter 7 so far without incident with the command, and about 10 minutes into the game it repeatedly crashed without the console command.
This is a game that should have had a stricter QA process and it is unacceptable to most gamers, who have shelled out their hard earned cash for a game that they can't play without using a command.
The game as it stands at the moment unless you do use the command suffers from long load times as well, these are significantly reduced by the picmip command so I presume the level load times are related to high resolution textures and the way the engine handles them.
Hopefully a patch will sort these problems out.