Saturday, December 29, 2007

Another (sigh -- underwhelming) Demo: Dark Messiah M&M Elements

This demo left me curious, but underwhelmed. I'd give it a chance as a rental, but probably wouldn't buy it.

Right off the bat I was curious about the multiplayer element even though I'm not much of an MP guy. I guess I kind of have a fantasy about being able to play a fun MP RPG other than an MMO (which I find boring). More about the MP demo later.

After playing through the demo, my impression was that they were going for an Oblivion meets Half Life 2 with some Tomb Raider elements. I'm not a huge fan of first person puzzler/platformers -- but HL2 does know how to make physics based puzzles pretty darn fun. Where Dark Messiah was lacking most was when it tried to make me (and my character) feel as cool as Lara Croft, because the first person perspective because doesn't allow you to see yourself in the context of the environment you are interacting with. This means that climbing and jumping feel about as cool as simply walking down a corridor.

Like many demos, Dark Messiah began with a learn-as-you-play tutorial. The experience suffered for many of the same basic reasons that other tutorials suffer:

  • I was allowed to jump into the game with a Mage which made the initial experience of combat very uninteresting (I'll detail some of my trials and tribulations below). All of the combat tutorial hints were about melee combat -- which I'm assuming would be much cooler if I were a Warrior.
  • I died 4 times before completing the first leg of the tutorial. Yes, players must be allowed to fail gracefully (failure -- and even death -- can be a great teacher). But requiring painful reload and restarts when the player makes honest and forgivable mistakes seems overly punitive. Some of the reasons for my failure:
    • Prompts and level design/lighting don't always point me in the right direction.
    • Prompts during combat are likely to be ignored. I missed key points about how the combat system worked.
    • The logic behind "safe" and "fatal" falls was hard to figure out (leading me to die a couple of times when I thought I would be safe landing in water).
    • Puzzles that require me to think outside the box and try risky behaviors resulted in death and reloads (the "cross the rope bridge" puzzle stumped me for a while -- and failure meant death + reload each time).
    • Puzzles that stump me require a progressive system of hints. A prompt that basically says "solve the puzzle" is not going to help me if I'm stuck -- and I almost gave up on the game at the "cross the rope bridge" puzzle.
  • The "voice" quickly became annoying. While most of the time it pointed me in the right direction, it failed me when it simply repeated commands when I was stuck (think of that ignorant American tourist who SPEAKS SLOWER AND LOUDER when meeting someone who doesn't understand english), it annoyed me when it pointed out the patently obvious (use the key in the lock), and it insulted me when it berated me for failing to execute a complex maneuver correctly the first time.
Next. Combat. Combat started off pretty boring and unfun. Perhaps initial combat would have been more fun had I started as a Warrior instead of a weak Mage. However, the game let me choose Mage and should have had some sort of contingency for that. About 20 minutes into the demo I gained my first offensive spell -- and combat became much more enjoyable.

One of the most disappointing aspects of combat was the fact that I kept getting told about a "power strike" ability that would get activated based on an adrenaline meter. Unfortunately this ability never came into play as it didn't seem to affect either my bow or my spells (which were my predominant attacks). Also, the cool kick attack that the game tried to highlight in a number of places (kick enemy off bridge, kick enemy into spikes) seemed less relevant to my Mage than to a Warrior. Seems like there should have been a Mage-appropriate equivalent.

The other major disappointment was enemy AI. I was able to cheese out my first victory by plinking away at an enemy with my bow. It took 20 or more arrows, but it worked because the enemy couldn't figure out a way to path itself to my hiding spot. It just stood there and repeated the same annoying taunts.

The UI was similar to other games that feel like PC ports. That is to say that the UI was cumbersome and prone to errors like casting spells/using items when you didn't mean to and required weird combinations of button presses to confirm decisions. Some thoughts:
  • Why was Inventory mapped to the B button? Weird. It made me worry that I would be required to access the Inventory menu frequently -- which made me sad because inventory management proved not to be very exciting.
  • Assigning items to quick slots was confusing (I failed on my first few tries).
  • Feedback on grabbable items was sometimes lacking or confusing. I still have no idea what "collectible" items are (I assume some sort of special quest item) and it's weird to have an A button prompt over items I can't pick up when I don't get any feedback as to why I can't pick the item up. It just feels broken (I'm still not sure why I can't pick up all the quivers).
  • The MP gameshell and setup was even worse (see my comments below).
The "finale" was underwhelming. The final boss was a large spider. I took it down using the simple puzzle mechanic (levers with flamethrowers) located in its lair. I retrieved the crystal and then the demo ended. There was no real dramatic teaser to interest me further in the story and the gameplay wasn't exciting enough to leave me craving more.

I then dived into Multiplayer to see what that was all about. After learning that this was a Source based game, I'm thinking that the experience was meant to be some sort of high fantasy Counterstrike game where one could purchase abilities (the strong tend to get stronger). However, the UI was puzzling enough and the gameplay was confusing enough to leave me uninterested in learning more.

First, the gameshell and matchmaking UI. Because "Quickstart" didn't drop me into any games immediately, I tried a "Custom" game. It took a while to load (better feedback was needed) and I got dropped in a traditional game lobby. I chose a session with the largest # of players and best connection speed and was dropped into a game lobby. I mashed my way through a setup screen that did little to educate me about the gameplay or what my choices really meant. Then I struggled for a minute or so trying to figure out how to actually start the game (which was already in progress). Frustrating.

The gameplay itself seemed to be potentially interesting. However, I took a mage that seemed to have no useful powers to contribute. I couldn't figure out how to use my special ability -- and the "help" button gave me some esoteric and jargonistic stats readout that was unhelpful. After getting pummeled by other non-Mages several times I gave up.

I'm having a feeling that I should probably try Shadowrun if I want to have a more magic vs. tech first person shooter experience.

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