Not so long ago, The Kingdom of Ashan seemed to be suffering from an incurable blight. It wasn't a centuries-old curse from before the Seventh Dragon. Nor was it a ruddy great troll sitting on a volcano. To an outsider, Might & Magic seemed to be a self-contained niche, catering to its devotees and completely ignoring the rest of the world. The last few RPG games have been as thrilling as a wafer, and whereas the Heroes series has produced some good strategy games, you'd have to have some demented humping disease to suggest they were sexy.
With the RPG side of the franchise in crisis, Dark Messiah seems like Ubisoft's justification for shelling out over a million dollars for the franchise in the first place. Give the devotees a stepping stone between Ashan and acceptability, and lasso a pile of new players in with some gutsy action and geysers of arterial spray.
There are even sassy women scrapping over you, although one of them is inside you and could well be evil, and the other one has cracking boobs but... Well, she could be evil too. As for the guy who guides you through your tutorial, if that's not the voice of an evil bastard then I'm a gymnast.
And it works. Once you're out of the training dungeon, you get to see just how beautiful the game is. If you're not one to question orcs living in Dutch huts right next to massive spider's nests - and if you are, stop it - there's some breathtaking vistas to be had. The Source engine hasn't been given much chance to astound people outside of Half-Life 2, but Dark Messiah is testimony that two years on, Valve's baby is still capable of slapping your stupid face and making you watch. In comparison, the pre-rendered cut-scenes are like being struck down briefly with astigmatism.
As luck would have it, after your training mission, your mentor reckons you're ready for a proper quest, and asks you to take the Shantiri Crystal to some wizard in a town somewhere. The reasons are as forgettably fantastic as any excuse for a 15-hour scrap. Suffice it to say he thinks you'll need help, so he summons a jealous sex-obsessed woman who jumps into your head and acts as a saucy narrator. (And more, later on, but no spoilers here, sir.) A short monorail - sorry, horse - ride later, and the action begins in true HL2 style, running around buildings while glimpsing the stuff you're going to have to fight later.
And the fighting is where it's at. If you played the demo, you'll have felt that excellent sense of 'connect' that's so rarely even attempted with first-person fantasy games, but was hinted at with Oblivion. The swordplay works brilliantly; you can click-hack away if you like, but beating the goblins with a powered-up slash is both economical of finger and gives you that sense of competence that stops you having flappy palpitations. It also powers up your adrenalin bar, which boosts your next charged attack or spell to 'mostly lethal'.
There's a good collection of spells and bows (including Thief's rope bow for the platforming elements) and you can plump for stealth if that's your sneaky bag. Stealth would seem a shame, though. With all the fun of fighting, it seems like a waste to avoid it, and the opportunities for effective sneaking aren't too regular anyway. It's often more effective to run screaming through a spider's lair than tiptoe. (Plus it amuses me to think of two bored spiders half-turning around from tending to their queen and saying: "Did you see that? A big man just went running through.")
Developing all these powers without being forced to choose a class or a race keeps the focus happily on sticking your sword into an orc's face. There's a very small role-playing element, but Arkane have chosen to limit stats to the absolute minimum. The three small skill trees - combat, magic and other stuff - are purchased with skill points earned at set moments in the game. You get the vast majority of points simply by getting by, not by meticulously killing everything.