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In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Phil puts the boot to the monsters of Dark Messiah of Might & Magic.
Dark Messiah of Might and Magic was a curious thing. It was created by Arkane Studios, and released six years before Dishonored. It's a melee combat game, created in Source—an engine that never struck me as especially well suited to melee combat. On release, some reviewers bemoaned its repetition, its story, and especially its bugs. I'm not sure I disagree with them. It's a strange, clunky mess; the kind of strange, clunky mess that seems totemic of mid-'00s era PC first-person development.
I say that because, despite the problems, there's genius in there too. And that genius is wrapped up in systems that, on the face of it, make no particular sense. Ostensibly, there are three ways to play: melee, stealth and magic. There are upgrade paths for all three, but neither magic nor stealth are a particularly effective way to play. Technically, melee weapons aren't the most effective way to play either. In terms of pure effeciency, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic's most powerful weapon is the foot.
DMoMaM's kick is a beautiful thing. Your character—Oblivious McDense—may have all the presence of a fart in a hurricane, but he's got a big, chunky foot that will forcefully propel just about anything into just about anything. Game physics are at their most enjoyable when tuned to massively over-exaggerate the player's effect on the world. I love this stuff; whether it's a pointless touch like Dark Souls' ragdolling bodies, or a key feature like Red Faction: Guerilla's magic hammer of destruction. Dark Messiah, similarly, revels in giving the player this brute-force shortcut to floppy-bodied chaos. It's sublime.
The game knows how good its kick is. Throughout, most in-game tips are reminders to engage with the physics aspects. Reminder: you can knock out a wooden beam to cause barrells to fall on enemies heads, instantly killing them. Reminder: you can kick enemies into wooden boards covered in spikes, instantly killing them. Reminder: you can kick enemies into fire, instantly disabling them and then slowly killing them. Reminder: kick the things; break the things; physics the things.
Every room you come to is filled with surfaces covered in spikes. There is no reason why this should be the case, except that every room will contain monsters and those monsters must be kicked into spikes. Standard melee attacks are a slow and dangerous affair, and—even if you can't feasibly kick every enemy into every trap—the chance to thin out enemy ranks offers much needed breathing space. Against three orcs, a straight melee battle would be slow and gruelling. Dispatch even one with a well placed kick, and the immediate gratification lasts throughout the resulting battle.
Dark Messiah's clever trick is making you feel clever for kicking an enemy to death. You're not—it's clearly been painstakingly designed that way. Between the reminders and the careful placement of traps, there's almost no feasible way to not boot a guard into some deadly scenery. Nevertheless, the vastly wild power differential—the ability to take out an enemy with one simple button press—makes it feel illicit. The visual response is perfect, too. Enemies ragdoll back much further than you feel they should. It feels absurdly overpowered—more so than the demonic powers you get midway through the game.
The game's best level is Chapter 5. It's a long, sprawling affair, taking you through a temple, a spider-infested cave, and, finally, through a cliffside settlement. This last part is your reward for making it through everything that came before. It's a series of fights across small, treacherous platforms overlooking a massive drop. It's a birthday party for your foot, and tens of orcs are invited.