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TVG fights undead Cyclops and Necromancers to get a look at Ubisoft Annecy's upcoming release...
A spin-off of the long-running Might & Magic franchise, Dark Messiah of Might & Magic first launched on PC back in September 2006 to a somewhat mixed reception thanks to reports of bugs, and a list of system requirements that drastically reduced the chances of a decent run at retail. At the time, TVG was in a rather prophetic mood, suggesting that Ubisoft would only improve the chances of kick starting a successful spin-off franchise when they brought it over to the then 'next-generation' of consoles.
It came as no surprise then, that a console version of the title was revealed in May last year at the inaugural 'UbiDays' event in Paris. Christened 'Dark Messiah of Might & Magic: Elements' and unveiled as an exclusive for the Xbox 360, the expanded port's development has been the responsibility of Ubisoft Annecy under the watchful eye of DMM&M creators, Arkane Studios. Set for launch at the end of January, TVG ventured into the lands of Ashan to scout ahead and see how the production has been going...
He's not the Messiah (Dark or otherwise).So far as the story is concerned, Elements shares much with its older PC brother. Beginning with a monologue of Lord of the Rings proportions that tells of a prophecy and the coming of a 'Dark Messiah', the action swings towards the protagonist and trainee warrior wizard Sareth as he's tasked with tracking down a rather foreboding object called the 'Skull of Shadows'. Needless to say, events take a turn for the worse, and Sareth is confronted with decisions that ultimately decide some rather polarising fates...
At first glance, it would seem that Elements puts its metaphorical hat well into the realms of Action RPG-dom, with all the inventories, character classes, levelling up, and the magpie-like obsession to collect an entire library of weapons, which you'd expect to feature in any number of Middle-Earth/Tamriel/Eberron-based worlds. However, the gameplay is more action-orientated than that, and there's certainly an underlying desire for Dark Messiah to be regarded as some sort of 'Half-Life-in-a-fantasy-world'. But whilst Valve's title has been largely universally lauded in the three years since it first exploded onto the gaming scene, most recently as part of The Orange Box on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Elements is set to fall far short of that almost iconic high.
Like the slight addition to the game's title, the Xbox 360 version of Dark Messiah is set to include a number of features not seen in its older PC brother, including a few new missions, revamped interface, and a beefier multiplayer for up to 10 players at a time. But beyond that, it's difficult to see on the back of the preview build why console gamers have had to wait nearly fifteen months for Elements...unless of course, Dark Messiah's performance at retail took Ubi by surprise and forced them to expanding the game onto Xbox 360.
Element-ary issues rear their heads.Built using Valve's Source Engine, the original Dark Messiah made strong use of the physical environment as weapons and counter-measures against Sareth's enemies, and Elements is of course no different. Collapsing support beams in order to crush enemies under falling barrels, setting alight objects and throwing them at the advancing hordes, or the simple act of impaling them on the walls of spikes that the people of Asham seem to enjoy, are just three ways in which players can take advantage of this physics-laden world.
But naturally, combat is more than sending barrels hurtling towards an enemy's head; there are weapons and magic at hand too. Cue one the introduction to what is shaping up to be one of the least satisfying combat systems in console gaming. And no, we're not kidding. The success of a game is won or lost in the opening minutes and hours spent with it, and if the preview build's opening missions are indicative of the final complete version, then Dark Messiah's potential performance could prove disastrous. Depending on whether you've chosen the tank-like warrior with his double-edged blade, or either of the other classes in Elements, the combat is either bland or pointless. In fact, the dependency on Mana if you're a Mage is so high thanks to inadequacy of the Wooden Staff, that all too often we were forced to kick enemies backwards time after time, hoping that they'd fall into the nearest and burn.
Yes of course Annecy may well have tightened up the balance in combat, but what was shown here is enough to at least prepare to flick the warning lights. The most 'fun' (if that's the correct word to use at all when describing Elements) to be had rests with the Archer class, which at least means that players can take out enemies at range - bringing the experience more in line with standard first-person shooters. Naturally, you'd expect there to be an increase in combat proficiency as Sareth levels up - and there is - but the balance so far is far from perfect and we can only hope that Annecy has had the time to iron out a very creased production.
A strong sense of immersion is key for any videogame, but especially for those set in high fantasy worlds of dragons, wizards, demonic ghouls. Atmospheres created through the visual style and a multi-layered use of sound and music that suck players into the experience, with the final embrace coming from engaging gameplay. So far it seems that Elements is way, way off the mark, with visuals falling far short of what we'd expect from a game being released over two years into a console's life-cycle. The textures in the gameworld are wholly underwhelming in the build, reaching the standards expected in an Xbox 1 title, the animation is clunky and robotic, and the lighting/shadowing isn't convincing in the least. There's little sense of atmosphere or immersion in Elements to date; at no point in the hands on did it feel convincing or engaging. Instead, the experience felt rougher than sandpaper.
Considering that Elements is due for release over twelve months after the original Dark Messiah launched on PC, the game is shaping up to be woefully inadequate in the company of various contemporaries, including Valve's own Orange Box. Whilst some of the many bugs and jitters that we had to contend with in the preview build are things than the team at Annecy will have strived to overcome between then and release (such as the long loading times, missing textures, unsynchronised sound, and the occasional critical crash), there are issues that will be there to the bitter end...like the distinct lack of atmosphere. Who knows though - Ubisoft Annecy may just surprise us.
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