The moustachioed gentleman from Ubisoft with the monocle and top hat shouts: "One-point-three-million dollars!" The gasps of the auction house dissipate into a wave of shocked whispers and murmuring. That's probably exactly what happened when the Might & Magic licence bouquet was chucked into the air by 3DO and consequently snatched by the French publisher. What happened afterwards was pretty special too, with Arkane Studios taking up the Might & Magic reins and kicking some life back into that dead RPG horse with a well-placed FPS spur.
After a recent trip to their studio in Lyon, Arkane made it clear to us what Dark Messiah is all about, and moreover what it's not all about. Obvious parallels will be drawn with recent RPG epic Oblivion, but those parallels will be misguided, looking more like tangents or right angles than parallels.
Dark Messiah belongs to the subset of genres suffixed by 'with RPG elements', in effect being a first-person adventuring game which allows you to learn new skills and powers as you progress through the game's sequential level structure. RPG tenets such as looting corpses and collecting gold, while present, simply aren't prominent, the focus instead turning to a more physical and visceral depiction of melee combat.
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Arkane is also pushing for emergent gameplay in Dark Messiah. There are no classes or set roles - instead, you simply play however you want to play, using the skill points you earn for completing objectives to improve your abilities in whatever area you want. Abilities range from skills like improved sneaking and telekinesis to the ability to disarm your opponents or magically shrink them. That's right, shrink them and then squish them with your foot as they run off screaming with high-pitched voices. Or you could pick up a flask of oil and chuck it at a necromancer as he charges his fireball attack, setting him and those around him on fire.
Kuju, a developer best known for Battalion Wars on GameCube, will be providing the multiplayer portion of Dark Messiah, which will involve five connected maps spanning from a human stronghold at one end to an undead stronghold at the other. Victory for either team results in the map shifting one notch towards their opponent's base and ultimate victory. With 32 players per server, massive city walls to launch volleys of arrows and magical attacks from and huge siege towers to scale and conquer those walls with, the multiplayer aspect of DM should be of significant interest to RPG and online FPS fans alike.
With a truly hands-on and openended attitude towards combat and level design, Dark Messiah's strengths will lie in the challenge of finding your own way of completing the various quests. That, and the sheer joy of lopping off an orc's head and seeing it arc through the air, freezing the floor and watching a bunch of goblins fall on their arses, or firing an arrow from the shadows and pinning an enemy to the wall. The choice is yours.