dmomm2.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch opinion column by Tom Cross focusing on the best bits of less-than-excellent games. This week, Tom rejoices at the brilliant combat and character simulation trapped in the sometimes unpleasant Dark Messiah of Might and Magic.]

I like to talk about “physicality” and “sense of space” in games. Most games do their best to trick players, to make their ingame characters move and look as realistic and believable as possible. Lots of games have little gimmicks and tricks that work towards this lofty goal. Those same games also use these tricks to gloss over the fact that little about them suggests physicality, character-world interaction, or momentum and weight.

Still, it’s interesting to look at how different games approach this tricky issue. Oblivion and Fallout 3 have so many movable, interactive (to the touch, at least) objects that I’m always knocking things over ingame. Of course, in both of these games, to move or twirl an object one is not holding (a skull or chain, say), one simply holds down a key and moves the mouse. What follows is both impressive and underwhelming. The object will tumble in midair as if handled by a ghost; the avatar’s hands and body are completely nonexistent in these situations. It turns what should be a neat, unobtrusive feature into a joke for players.

Most open world (and pseudo open-world) games employ similar tricks, tricks that seem neat at first and then just seem silly. They’re full of overly long animations (Risen is far and away the worst offender in this area), objects with text floating above them, and pointless physics tricks.

Dark Messiah of Might and Magic may share “high” fantasy setting with games like Oblivion, but unlike these games, it doesn’t need an open world or giant inventory of touchable items to back up its enhanced physicality. Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is a first person combat game. I could call it an FPS, and I did spend a lot of time shooting orcs with arrows and magic, but it’s not concerned with shooting.

Dark Messiah is all about kicking, punching, jumping, and slashing. It’s telling that despite the game's extensive magic system, and its arsenal of different bows swords, and knives, the most effective way to kill an enemy is to kick that enemy over a cliff or into a fire. It’s one of the most satisfying attacks I’ve encountered in any game, let alone an FPS.

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In Dark Messiah, the player character, Sareth, is a vaguely rebellious student mage. He works for an even less appealing mage named Phenrig, who in turn uses magic to bind Sareth’s soul with the even more annoying (sexy demoness) spirit, Xana.

It’s possible that Dark Messiah has the most annoying videogame characters ever to be acted or written. It’s hard to tell whether the actors’ scenery-chewing, grating performances are the result of the just-as-unpleasant script, or if these thespians went above and beyond the call of duty to create this horrifying experience. Regardless, the game’s story cutscenes are loud, offensive, and seem to go on forever. Never in my life have I wished for a Skip Cutscene button more.

All of this narrative junk is an excuse to give Sareth the option to become a mage, thief, warrior, or multiclass character. It’s also an excuse for some wretched plot twists, which lead to different powers and abilities deeper into the game. What’s important is this: it doesn’t matter what skills you pick. I’ve played through Dark Messiah as a straight-up thief, a fighter-thief, a fighter-ranger, a mage, and a mage-warrior. They’re all viable paths (and all require that the deadly kick to be employed often), because combat is so direct.

As I leveled Sareth up, I discovered that my skills, spells, and items could be combined to create very specific kinds of classes. Simultaneously, I quickly mastered Dark Messiah’s basic combat. Weapons have a different kind of attack for every direction on the keyboard (WASD). It’s a bit like Morrowind, except damage is the same no matter which attack you use.

What isn’t the same for each attack is the direction and momentum of each attack. I quickly figured out that forward attacks with all weapons are difficult to aim (they’re mostly jabs, which can easily miss opponents), while a sideways swing covered lots of screen space and (mostly) had the fastest animation. Every weapon can be charged up for a Power Strike. These are used to break shield and sword blocks, perform special finishing moves, and knock enemies back. Bows can be charged up for more powerful shots, and a headshot is almost always an instant kill. Daggers are fast (and were thus my favorite), but they do less damage. They’re also the only weapons that can perform backstab attacks (assuming you’ve unlocked the skill), which kill instantly.

Magic comes in many varieties, but the lightning, frost, fire, and telekinesis attacks are much more versatile than they are in most games. Dark Messiah is one of the few games that dared to use Valve’s source technology so soon after the release of Half Life 2. While the other title do this (Troika’s Vampire: Bloodlines) did little more than create pretty faces with the Source engine, Arkane used Valve’s new technology to create a world full of tumbling, hefty objects.

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Nothing in Dark Messiah moves lightly, nor does it move irrespective of its environment. It’s hard to stop from sprinting over a ledge, and it’s hard to walk backwards fast. Every spell and weapon has an effect on the environment: ice spells freeze enemies, who can then be broken. That’s not the only way to use a frost spell though. I can frost the ground near a ledge, fire, or wall of spikes (which are, unsurprisingly, everywhere in Dark Messiah) and kick enemies into and over the slick ground. I can dip my arrows in torches and create deadly fire arrows. I can pick up boxes and bodies (using magic or my mind) and throw them with deadly force at my enemies. Rope arrows turn every room and chasm into a playground of jumping and fighting, opening up new avenues of attack and retreat.

I could go on. Everything has more than one way of interacting with everything else. It doesn’t sound that impressive, but it definitely is. It creates the kind of “immersive” “emergent” moments that people clamor for in games, but it doesn’t do it with cartoonish exaggeration (like Just Cause 2 does) or single-mindedness (as Red Faction: Guerilla’s does with its limited focus on destructible buildings and cars). People talk a lot about the moments, the stories they’ve told in games. Dark Messiah is one of the few games that produces stories (always combat-based) that I’m actually interested in, despite the game’s proper “story” being such a wretched, drawn-out thing.

Part of this has nothing to do with how the game feels or how the physics work. While the world of Dark Messiah isn’t terribly original, what is here animates and moves beautifully. All enemies (especially orcs and spiders) have a way of moving and dying that looks great. These are the scariest, most disgusting, loudest-clicking spiders I’ve ever had the displeasure of fighting in a game.

The game’s few bosses are excellent. Ogres and dragons will kill players in a matter of seconds. Only environmental traps and hard-learned tricks will fell these beasts. The inescapable sense of disgust and dread I feel upon descending into a spider den (the sound of my feet on webbed ground alone makes me shiver) is matched only by the relief I feel upon spotting a glimmer of light leading to a bright, now jolly-seeming cliff face. It’s an exhilarating, constantly-tense game.

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Dark Messiah is also a difficult game to play through. There’s a reason few companies have tried to make games using the Source engine (I assume): companies that aren’t Valve have (so far) made glitch-ridden, awkwardly-presented games like Dark Messiah and Bloodlines. If you were to watch someone else play Dark Messiah, you’d think it was a brilliant game. It looks great, the characters and world animate wonderfully and the combat looks fluid and just weighty enough. Playing the game is another story. Everything feels awful.

Walking and running (especially walking backwards, which is incredibly slow) feel awkward and stilted. It’s incredibly hard to get the combat to work well. Sure, if you’ve played tens of hours as I have, combat looks fluid and deadly. Players new to the game will run up against enemies that break through blocks, knock players back into traps, and fire arrows with unerring accuracy. The platforming is almost impossible to get the hang of, and switching weapons is a trying, often glitch-filled task (and the inventory’s just as bad).

Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is incredibly frustrating to play. It's also a bright light in an otherwise unimaginative, backward genre. I’ve yet to play another game that does first person melee combat this well, or that does tactical environmental combat (or spiders, come to think of it) this well. We’ve come to accept the Oblivions of this world as adequate. They get the job done, we’re supposed to believe. Oblivion really doesn’t get the job done, Mount and Blade makes Dark Messiah look polished, and games that dabble in first-person melee combat (like Thief) aren’t really concerned with such things. Zeno Clash has the right idea, but it’s as concerned with fisticuffs as it is with edgy bird-men-ladies.

I’d forgotten about how good Dark Messiah’s melee combat was until I started a new game. Nearly unplayable faults and all, it’s a clever, resourceful game, one that sets standards that no one seems to care about. It encourages players to fiddle with and test the limits of environments and enemies, in a fast-paced, ever-deadly world. Playing this game, I feel the way everyone says I should feel when playing Far Cry 2.

Dark Messiah is extremely linear, but moment-to-moment play is freeform, “emergent” play at its best. That it causes me to mute my speakers (something I never do) is forgivable, or at least tolerable. Arkane is hard at work on another game, and they have the financial support of Zenimax behind them. It would be excellent and ironic if Zenimax produced the best and worst of first person slashers this generation.

[Tom Cross is a managing editor at Rules of the Game, writes for Popmatters, and blogs about games at Delayed Responsibility. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]