Consider the Boot. The Stalwart Companion of the Road. The Silent Sufferer of the Inevitable Sewer Level. Courageous Clinger of Ladder Rungs. Stoic, Sodden when Submerged. And yet, despite all these admirable feats, the Gracious Boot doesn't often get much of a look-in in games. Often, in fact, it won't even be rendered, its hard work all but ignored when you look downwards, only to find empty air between you and the floor.
Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is a game that gave the Boot a little fun. It's always present, either to look at or, more importantly, to slam into the faces/stomachs/groins of anyone and anything that stands between you and the Shantiri Crystal. It's a vital tool in your arsenal, there to create a little space whenever you need it, when there are too many evil men clustering around you. Thwack - and you've got a moment to breathe.
Although it's not always about space. More often than not, it's about kicking to somewhere, rather than from yourself. Into a flimsy support beam, causing a cascade of precariously stacked boxes to crush the poor sod you just booted. Into one of the many, many, dangerously placed spiked grids that serve... some purpose. Kick, stumble, skewer. Or, as is perhaps more often the case, kicked into the great abyss, kicked off a cliff, kicked down a staircase, or over a balcony. Any and all prepositions can apply to the Mighty Versatility of the Boot.
Once you understand this basic connection between man and foot, foot and enemy man, you can start to understand why Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is quite such an enjoyable game. It's about placing you in the world, rather than just being a hovering gun that points at things that it wishes dead. Your boot is your connection to the world of Might and Magic, but it's merely an implement; the effects you can bring about are where the meat of the experience lies.
Released in 2008 by Arkane Studios, of Arx Fatalis and the upcoming Dishonored, Dark Messiah was made in Source, Half-Life 2's engine. The similarities between them, few as they are, dwell in the strength of Source: its physics. Importantly, though, rather than go down the route of Half-Life 2's physics puzzles, Arkane made a game shot through with that physicality, permeating the entire game world. Things that you'd expect to react to a bunch of medieval fantasy dudes duking it out do react to a bunch of medieval fantasy dudes duking it out.
Attic floors, constructed of half-rotten wooden planks placed down by some cowboy carpenter, splinter and snap when put under the pressure of a lobbed crate, taking the three guards you really didn't want to have to deal with down to a sticky end on the floor below. A chandelier swings wildly out of control when you cut the rope that was so courageously holding it back. Men get crushed, all the bloody time, because you're just the kind of curious sadist that Arkane made the game for.
More importantly, these tactics are all but required if you don't want to die constantly. Dark Messiah treads the tricky line of empowering you without ever making you feel superhuman. Your opponents don't have noticeably less health than you, and there's rarely a time when you'll be facing them one at a time.
Instead, you need to stack the deck against them, coupling your inherent skills with a keen observation of the surrounding environment. Figuring out where you want to fight is almost as important as how; if you lure them over to this suspiciously spiked vine-frame, you can kick one of them into it, killing him instantly, while you dispatch the other. Or perhaps you can get them dangerously close to the campfire and set them alight with a well placed Boot-to-Groin.
Of course, so many environmental hazards are suspect. While a certain amount of them can be argued away as shoddy workmanship and an evil necromancer's penchant for anything with metal spikes on it, it's not long before the constant placements in every single combat arena start to get a little bewildering. The counter to that is, of course, that kicking evil guys into these things never stops being fun. It's a novelty, really, but it's not one that outstays its welcome for the eight or so hours of Dark Messiah's single-player.
Although they're completely different games, it's hard not to keep Mirror's Edge from your mind while playing. They were a few years apart, but the basic physicality of the game, finally feeling like you're actually in a world rather than just interacting with it, is hard to shake. Being able to see your character's body in the first person is a woefully undervalued feature, but beyond that, it's being able to pick things up, climb up ledges, and more importantly, kick anything that looks even remotely flimsy.
There's a rooftop chase in the first hour or so of the game that drives this feeling immediately to mind, where you're leaping and scrambling your way across tile roofs, barely holding on half the time, with poorly constructed wooden supports collapsing left and right. It's the perfect antithesis to the previous level, where you've been on the run, desperate to get to safety before you get eaten by a great undead Cyclops.
All this considered, Dark Messiah is a game of moments rather than a sustained marvel. It's about slipping away from the corridor for a moment and finding a weirdly abandoned smithy, letting you smelt iron into a blade then temper it and finally add a hilt. This isn't just a crafting bar that fills up, it's a surprisingly in-depth action. Put the raw iron in the pot, pump the billows, pour the molten metal into the mould, flood it to cool. That sort of thing.
It's about the sudden, unexpected nod to A New Hope, with the walls closing in. There's no droid in a command centre somewhere, blipping and blooping their way to saving you, and so you've got to figure out how to save yourself from being crushed. The answer, as always, lies in your interaction with the world and using the systems you've already figured out in your favour.
There are bad moments, too, and they're mostly spider-based. It's one of the most tired fantasy clichés, and because it's so very often tied to poison, as it is here, it's one of the most frustrating, too. It's rarely any fun at all to watch your health bar diminish because you've not got any more antidotes, only for the poison to dissipate when you've got just a sliver left, ready for the next light gust of wind to finish you off.
The story itself is a surprisingly shallow attempt to justify the movement from one location to another and while the design of each location is often beautiful, the lack of any real narrative momentum can make things falter a little; wanting to know what happens next is rarely your incentive to carry on playing.
Instead, what drives you back is the compelling ebb and flow of things to do. You're almost always either fleeing some greater force or infiltrating some grand complex. The way you build your character feeds into that, as well, with stealth being the obvious option, but even going the warrior path makes you feel like some sort of fantasy commando, dispatching those he comes across with efficiency but not a huge amount of fuss.
It's a dungeon-crawler, but in the way that we all imagined dungeon crawlers to be when we first heard of them. Traps all over the place. Goblins, orcs, spider caves. Floors that suddenly collapse underneath you, sending you off on some unexplored, unexpected detour. Betrayal from someone you obviously knew was going to betray you because they sound like a sadistic nymphomaniac. Sure, it's linear, but whatever sacrifice has been made on that front has been to place you deeper in the world, make sure that you realise that you're there and not here.
It all comes back to that boot. Thankfully, the boot hasn't become a footnote in the graveyard of great ideas. It may have started with Duke Nukem 3D, but that was hardly its ending. Bulletstorm was all but a love song to the boot. Dead Island makes it a necessity for staying alive. Mirror's Edge, Crysis 2, Brink...
The question then arises: what exactly did Dark Messiah do to differentiate its boot from those of other boots? It's what you're allowed to boot into. I'm coming back to that idea of being in a game world rather than just interacting with one. Boot to man, man to rack of spikes. Boot to man, man to ledge, man over ledge and screaming to his death. It's Newton's second law in glorious, virtual motion, writ large across your monitor.
Sure, your gun can make guys' heads explode - but my foot can make them fly.