I'll go a long way to spare bandwidth. In fact, I'll go to Surrey. It's the day before the Dark Messiah demo's being released and I've trekked down to the wreckage of Ubisoft's HQ to spend some quality time with Arkane's forthcoming fantasy-first-person action-RPG, so Eurogamer can be the first with their impressions. Not that it's quite the same code as the demo that's been released, with access to a few more weapons and skills than what's available to you if you download it, but the tone and timbre's the same. So get it downloading and read this while you're waiting.
It's a short demo. For its file size, especially. You can burn through it very quickly. But if you burn through it, you don't really appreciate it for what it is. It's a game. You're meant to play with it. And when there are as many options for amusing distraction as Dark Messiah, play really is the word.
So I played with the magic. I played with the stealth. I played with a variety of swords. I played with the orcs, quite roughly. I played with enormous spiky things which made a terrible mess of anyone who got in the way. I played hide and seek with a Cyclops. I ignored years of governmental information films and played with fire. I played.
Based on Valve's full high-definition lighting-including (i.e. TheSunIsVeryBright tech) Source engine, it's a mission-based first-person action-RPG. Stress the "action" in that sentence, with your collections of equipment and progression down the skill-tree mainly used to improve your ability to turn breathing monsters into monsters sans-breathing. While the missions themselves are set along a linear arc, there's plentiful room inside individual missions for choosing your own route. And then everything's going to change depending on whether you're going for melee, magic or stealth skills.
Melee skills are the most instantly amusing. The basics are simple enough. Left click for a quick slash, hold for a more powerful blow and right click to bring up your parry. There are more strikes which can be accessed by holding the mouse button while moving in a direction. Basically, if you've experienced Oblivion's system, you'll quickly get used to the combat here. Of course, being an almost pure action game (with a splash of RPG to taste) there are a load more sophistications. For example, there are jump attacks which apply a particularly powerful blow, sending your opponent sprawling back if they hit and leaving you vulnerable if they don't. It's even possible to lock blades and match your strength with the opponent, with the winner sending the loser reeling.
Two words may catch your eye in the previous paragraph. "Reeling". "Sprawling". It implies there are a lot of people falling around in Dark Messiah. You're not wrong. Real physics is applied primarily to make people fall on the floor so you can ram a sword right through their chest. Send them flying.
The most used tool is the trusty kick. See that enormous metal spiked rail? Time your kick right and make them stumble and impale themselves onto it. The fire? Likewise. Backing away and a barrel crosses your path? A quick application of your size-12 adventurer's boot and it'll hurtle towards the opposition, distracting them and leaving them open for a follow-up. This isn't one of those fighting games where someone being on the floor is a sign to leave them alone. This is a game where you're encouraged to apply the coup de grace as often as possible. If your katana isn't black with blood by the end, then you're doing something wrong.
The fluidity of the environment adds a real swashbuckling feel to the events. You're always moving and looking at the environment for ways you can quickly finish off the opposition - and when you're often seriously outnumbered, you want to do that as quickly as you can. While many games have played with the occasional indirect way of killing enemies, the demo of Dark Messiah barely has a weak-looking pillar supporting a gangway or a wall without a rope to slice; to send something vicious flying towards someone who really doesn't want it imbedded in their chest. And while you think this'll give you an advantage, it does. It's especially exciting as the people you're fighting against will try a whole load of the same tricks. It's absolute chaos. Essentially, at its best, it's like the Keystone Cops doing slapstick in a pit full of fake gore. In a good way.
And then the magic just makes it all more so. While the fantasy staples are all present - fireballs and lightning and whatnot - it's in the more environment-altering spells where it really shines. While every previews of Dark Messiah have mentioned the ability to create patches of ice on the floor so pursuing beasts slip over, none really get the absolute joy of actually doing it to a mob, then turning on the spot and dispatching an orc as he attempts to rise, then using the telekinesis spell and hefting a nearby object, turning and firing it at people. And then there's the Duke Nukem-referencing shrinking spell, which turns your full-size foe into a pint-size midget which you can easily stomp upon. But that's even funnier when you turn the leading member of an oncoming group into a tiny person who immediately gets stomped on by his so-called friends. Now that's what I call Peer Pressure.
Of the three pillars, at least in this demo, the stealth aspect seems most initially unimpressive. It's solid enough, based firmly on the Thief: The Dark Project patented lurk-in-dark-bits-to-avoid-being-seen (including a meter to show how concealed you are), but there's little as yet which we haven't seen before. Yes, there's some particularly brutal backstabbings, and those Taffers disappointed by the disappearance of rope-arrows from Thief: Deadly Shadows will be overjoyed with a functionally identical weapon here, but compared to the pleasures of magic or melee it's not exactly the one which catches the imagination.
(Of course, the actual game won't force you strictly down any of the three paths. A hybrid fighter-thief, thief-mage or even a thief-fight-mage sort of model gives you the best of all worlds. But dividing your advances will make you a Jack of All Trades, Master of, oh God, I hate that bloody cliché.)
It's fun. It's violent. It's silly. You really should play it. And since your download should be ready now as... what? It's a gig and a half. Man, I'm glad I went to Surrey to play. You can work out how to spend the remaining hours waiting yourself. Phone your gran or something. You haven't spoken in ages. Shame on you. And best to do that now, because if it's actually as entertaining as the demo is, chances are you won't be calling her come October when it's released.
You heard the man! October! That's according to Ubisoft's latest release schedule.