Dark Messiah of Might and Magic proved to be a solid first-person action game on its release towards the end of 2006. The Source Engine powered brawler swapped guns and soldiers for swords and demons. The result was something a little different but ultimately not quite the game it could have been. Quite why it's taken so long to arrive on the Xbox 360 is unclear, but now it's here can it hope to compete with the console's growing stack of high quality, truly next-gen titles?
This Xbox 360 game is essentially the same game that hit PC over a year ago. You play as Sareth, an apprentice working under a magician named Phenrig. The story revolves around a crystal that you recover after defeating a giant spider-like creature in the opening level, before handing it over to supposedly safer hands. Things of course don't go to plan. Throughout the way you'll be treated to a few cut-scenes but there's also a fair bit of in-game storytelling, often by Xana, a mysterious woman who somehow gets inside your mind and often offers advice if you seem stuck. A number of endings can be obtained, depending on how you tackle later sections, but on the whole the story isn't the strongest aspect of the game.
Most of your fighting will be done up close and personal, with varying degrees of magic thrown in depending on how you sculpt your character's skills. You can acquire numerous fire and ice attacks, as well as telekinesis and some handy health replenishment skills. How your character grows will depend on how you use your skill points, earned as you progress through the game.
Being the key to the whole game, the melee combat had to be up to scratch and thankfully it is. By default your right trigger will attack and the left will block, and various other attacks can be performed by holding down the attack button or by moving while attacking. Ranged attacks can also be performed using a bow, and your skill here can also be improved if you so wish. Each attack, magic included, also has a powerful rage strike that can be performed when your adrenaline meter is full - filled by attacking enemies. These finish off enemies in one blow, often sending body parts flying in slow motion - the game certainly earns its 15 BBFC rating.
It would be fair to say there are definite RPG elements to the way your character's skills are levelled up, and the whole game has the feel of a much more streamlined, linear Oblivion. Dark Messiah is a chapter-based game though, so there's no free-roaming to be done, but the way you tackle each chapter will depend on the skills of your character. The inventory is easy to use and 'quick use' items can be set to the four directions on the d-pad. It's not as user friendly as the PC's keyboard and mouse control scheme, but not a bad compromise.
Early on, when your skills are weak and health potions aren't all that plentiful, battles are incredibly hard. You'll soon learn how to approach fights, and by the time you can quickly tap the d-pad to cast a health regeneration spell, and your inventory is packed full with mana potions, things become a lot easier. You can also make use of a handy kick move, killing enemies by sending them over a cliff edge, into a wall of spikes or onto fire. It is easy to abuse the kick, but overuse will deplete your stamina meter and force you to resort to other means of attack.
As well as the standard orcs, trolls and the like, at various points in the game you'll encounter larger creatures that take a little more skill to kill. Among others are a dragon-like flying creature and a Cyclops. Each enemy has its own weakness and the environment can often be used as a way to kill or aid in the killing of each beast. The Cyclops, for example, will fall to his knees if you repeatedly attack his eye. You can target this with your bow, but you can also cause a statue to fall on him, allowing you to get up close and personal. Falling statues and other interactive elements feel rather contrived, with easy to cut rope sending them falling, and there are far too many platforms that can be collapsed, but it all adds to the options you have to take out enemies.
Dark Messiah of Might and Magic's biggest problem is how dated it feels to modern console games. The PC controls have made it to the controller pretty intact - save for the odd moment where your character doesn't seem to want to perform the move you want - but the frequent loading screens, compulsory manual saves and the fairly basic AI hurt what could have been a decent action fantasy game.
By now most people recognise the Source engine as what Valve's excellent Half-Life 2 was built on, and Dark Messiah definitely looks like a Source engine game. The problem being that it's dated quite badly and the port to 360 hasn't been incredibly smooth. Texture work is the worst offender, with ground textures among the poorest I've seen in a 360 title. The character models are adequate if not spectacular and the lighting, which looked pretty good in 2006, looks a little flat by today's standards. The game also bogs down an awful lot whenever more than a couple of enemies are on screen, which is a little surprising given the dated visuals on display. For whatever reason the game's audio has also suffered during the porting process, with environmental sounds cutting out suddenly as you move around the levels. The musical score is solid, but the voice work comes across as a little cheesy.
A class-based multiplayer mode for up to 10 players is available for those who wish to take the fantasy gameplay online, and the melee combat makes for a rather different feeling online experience. As well as the expected deathmatch and team deathmatch modes there's something called Crusade, which pits humans versus the undead, in a battle for control points over a number of maps. Your character will level up and this stays with you over the course of your time connected to the game. Multiplayer certainly has its moments, but the melee combat simply isn't as exciting as standard FPS weapons making it something for fantasy fans only.
There's no denying that Dark Messiah has a certain bloody charm, with battles against numerous enemies being both challenging and rather gory. By the end though, things do become a little repetitive, and this prevents the game from being anything truly special. It's also arrived on the Xbox 360 far too late, with recent releases leaving Dark Messiah looking and feeling a little like a budget release. Had the story been stronger and the visuals suitably improved to a level Xbox 360 owners expect, Dark Messiah would have been very easy to recommend. As it stands, it's nowhere near polished enough to be anything more than an enjoyable diversion.