Version tested: Xbox 360
Finally putting Dark Messiah to rest at 2.15am this morning was a mighty relief. Apart from being tetchy and desperately in need of some sleep, I was grateful I wouldn't have to endure another day of draining exasperation. For its considerable flaws and its ability to wind you up, you'll want to kick Dark Messiah: Elements into the inky abyss.
Yet there's so much to love about Arkane's brutal fantasy-action RPG - not least the humour coursing through the veins of every undead encounter. The ability to be so routinely violent helps you keep your head when others are, inevitably, losing theirs in great globs of blood. It's a game of simple, repetitive and often wicked pleasures: booting unwary enemies to their doom; into the abyss, against a wall of spikes or flame. If none of those are options, then you can always see if you can slash a rope and send a massive stone statue tumbling onto their heads, or dispense some lightning justice into a pool of water and electrocute the whole lot.
Despite its RPG leanings, Dark Messiah: Elements is an unapologetically linear, story-based affair, set over ten medium-sized chapters, and in some ways all the better for it. Like a more focused, action-oriented take on Oblivion, it strips out most of the padding associated with fantasy RPGs and just lets you get on with the business of fighting an awful lot of ugly monsters in a plethora of familiar fantasy haunts (think dungeons, sewers, castles). Admittedly, the story isn't exactly its strong point (thanks to wooden voice acting and uninspired dialogue), but you can't help smirk at, for instance, the way the game plays evil brunette Xana off against wholesome, simpering Leanna. Xana's jealous reaction is good value even if you do spurn her rather predatory advances. All the stuff about you, Sareth, going after Shantirir Crystal and the Skull of Shadows is pure fantasy fluff, but innocuous enough.
In terms of the gameplay, how you go about death-dealing is, to a large extent, up to you, despite the way the game initially funnels players into selecting one of four available character classes (Warrior, Mage, Archer, Assassin). For example, selecting a Mage gives you the ability to cast fireballs and lightning, but doesn't preclude you from using a sword, combining attack methods like a Warrior Mage hybrid. That said, you can't wield a shield as a Mage, so you might end up casting protection spells, while your inability to use a bow might encourage you to blast enemies with fireballs, rather than arrows, or play around with telekinesis. Playing as Assassin, you sneak around plunging daggers into enemy backs and pushing them off precipices. It's certainly a game that promises numerous different experiences to suit everyone from the patient, stealthy type to those that just like to smash things up and roar (speaking of which, you should've heard Tom's furious Turok sessions - the office shook).
Playable exclusively in first-person, the first thing to note about the new 'Elements' version of Dark Messiah: Elements is how well the controls have translated onto the 360 pad. The basics, like aiming and firing, work fine, whether dealing with projectiles or one-on-one melee battles, with right-trigger to attack, left to defend, and both held down at once to pull off the ever-useful kick. The more expansive use of skills and special abilities is handled with remarkable fluidity thanks to the 'quick switch' d-pad system. Delving into the actual menus lets you select one-off items, such as health and mana potions, and configure the quick-switch mapping to your own requirements.
Within an hour or so, once you start to level up and gain new abilities, the whole quick-switch/menu system becomes a regular companion, making inherently quite complex actions and choices simple. The more you play and the more you start to understand the weaknesses of each enemy type, the easier it becomes to settle on favourites, and the more enjoyable the combat becomes. Few games have ever managed to pull off such sickeningly satisfying first-person melee/magic/sword combat, so to combine so many varieties and make every one of them enjoyable is creditable. Although it's about to be bettered in melee terms by the upcoming Condemned 2, there's still an enormous amount of satisfaction to be gained once you get going and have an array of skills and items available to you. That feeling of having so many effective options to choose from at once, for me, elevates the game above some of its issues - even if, ultimately, it takes a good few hours before that becomes apparent.
In fact, such is the extent of Dark Messiah: Elements' problems, it'll be a miracle if you get that far. Good (ish) news, though: Elements is a classic example of a game that starts off mediocre, dips into the realms of outright rubbishness, then soars unexpectedly out of the mire to become bafflingly engaging. The opening levels are dire (and formed the basis of the dreadful demo released before Christmas); beginning with a clunky, charmless demonstration of your ability to kick people to their doom, before descending into murky dungeon monotony then moving onto a Cyclops chase level so badly optimised it made onlookers wince.
Ridiculously, the game has no auto-save, meaning that if (like me) you switched the machine off at the end of a session, you'll have to start over. Worse still, if (like me) you end up playing the game all evening and fail to save, then (like me) get stuck inexplicably in a piece of scenery or find that the game has just locked up for no apparent reason, you find yourself having to go back to the last save - even if that was four hours ago. Yes, despite regularly checkpointing your progress, it doesn't write those checkpoints to disk. And if that doesn't sound annoying enough, how about the time when a scripted sequence failed to cue up and I was left wandering around for ages wondering what to do next? It was only when I deliberately died and went back to the last checkpoint that it became apparent I was doing nothing wrong, and merely the victim of shoddiness. Trust evaporates after something like that.
Even less forgivable are the optimisation issues. Surely a 16-month-old PC game based on Source (an engine from 2004, remember) should be capable of running on the 360 without a hitch? A few bits of slowdown and some tearing we can tolerate, but Dark Messiah: Elements regularly grinds to a near-halt when there are more than a handful of enemies on the screen - even when they're not in view. Not useful when you've got a gaggle of zombies lurching towards you and you're trying to aim your lightning bolt or fireball. Ubisoft is no stranger to dodgy ports (Double Agent PS3, anyone?), but this is a particularly special shambles. No wonder it continually slipped - it makes you wonder what the game was like when it was originally due out. Perhaps it murdered kittens if you inverted the Y-axis.
Then again, Elements is hardly glorious-looking. The character models are alright, with gory damage effects when you're busy stabbing them in the face, but the environments are patchy. Texture levels aren't up to modern standards, and the game is plagued with lighting issues that only get worse if you fiddle with the in-game brightness and contrast. In what's already a very dark game, the underground levels are gloomy beyond understanding. You're supposed to use your night-vision in such situations but, er, it doesn't make it easier to see. Elsewhere, a broken implementation of the HDR-style lighting effects often fails to turn on or off properly, meaning outdoor areas are drenched in saturated contrast longer than they should be, before jarringly popping back to normal levels. There are times when the game's intricate architecture is grand and imposing; and when it's all running smoothly, it conveys a chilling atmosphere that draws you in. It's just not very consistent.
If you find yourself able to tolerate everything I've mentioned, then there are some great set-piece moments hidden away among the dungeon-crawling slog. Even when it descends into "let's throw every single enemy and every boss you've faced so far at the player in waves" territory towards the climax, the combat is so enjoyable that you don't mind. You're such a roaring badass by that stage that you're pulling off adrenaline kills for fun and experimenting far more because you know you're so powerful it'll probably work.
With a paucity of players currently playing the game online, it's not really fair to judge quite how much of a difference the online modes make, but it's fair to say that if it wasn't a big draw on the PC it won't be now. For its 360 release you can expect to play against up to ten players, with the usual Xbox Live player or ranked matches possible. As well as the usual Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, you get three other team-based modes. Training acts as a basic introductory mode where you only have one skill per class to master, and the idea is to capture the other team's control point. Blitz has no respawns, and, again, involves capturing a control point, while the objective-based Crusade mode lets you play as the humans or undead trying to destroy the opposing stronghold. Set across five maps, you start in the middle map, with the balance of power shifting depending on who wins each round.
Anyway, I love and hate Dark Messiah: Elements. For everything that's good about the combat intensity, the flexibility of the skill system, the quality of the puzzles and the brooding, engaging atmosphere, it's undone by massive technical problems. After such a long wait, the last thing we expected was for it to be even more of a buggy, unoptimised mess than it was the first time around. But it is.
6 / 10