How Dark Messiah Shames Skyrim And Dishonored
I recently had the honour of playing through Dishonored, which is the latest game from Arkane Studios, a developer whom I hold great affection for, having played two of their previous game series, one of them being the focus of this article and the other called Arx Fatalis. Dishonored was published by Bethesda Softworks, who also published another game I hold near and dear to my heart: Skyrim, of The Elder Scrolls series.
Apart from publishing houses, another thing that Dishonored and Skyrim had in common was the silent protagonist (apart from the odd grunt or, in the case of the latter, dragon shout) who operated entirely from the first-person perspective. Okay that’s not entirely fair on Skyrim because at least there you were allowed to switch to a third-person perspective but did anyone really use that horrendous mode and if so, how?
I was late to The Elder Scrolls series, picking up Oblivion a few years after its release and then going back to try out Morrowind and attempting Daggerfall before giving up because it was too graphically inferior for me to derive any sort of comfort from playing it — and this from the guy who went back, a few years ago, and played Beneath A Steel Sky, Fallout and Half-Life, because I simply had to justify having them installed on my PC. But I digress.
The point in mentioning Skyrim and Dishonored, and to a lesser extent Oblivion as well, is that they all did something atrociously bad that was done right before. Which just makes it a little confusing, for me.
Dark Messiah: Might And Magic is a game that was developed by Arkane Studios using Valve’s Source engine — I believe it was the first non-Valve game to be developed using Source, and as such it excited me intensely, prior to release — which was published by Ubisoft and released in 2006. It wasn’t the greatest game ever, by a long shot. It took a silent protagonist who was apparently the fabled chosen one, added a contrived story filled with predictable plot twists and uninspired characters, and threw in a naked demon lady (seriously) just for the lols. Review scores were not friendly to Dark Messiah and critical reception was lukewarm at best. Very few sites favoured it too much at all. But of every site that reviewed it, there was one thing to which every reviewer agreed: It did first person combat so right.
This is where that video I’ve embedded above comes into play. Watch it, I beseech you. See for yourself what Dark Messiah is all about, if you haven’t played it. In my opinion, the game was an egregiously underrated experience which was shafted, ignored, cast aside because a game simply must have a good story (Journey, anyone?) in order to be considered good. But what Dark Messiah brought to the fore is something that such games as Dishonored and Skyrim could both have taken notes from. Something that, once again, I find a little confusing. I will explain soon, I promise.
What Dark Messiah did so very right was introduce proper first person combat with swords, shields, daggers, bows and arrows. It had a very fluid, very workable system that was in no way the clumsy button-mashing experience that Oblivion was. It was an unparalleled experience and took the game to completely new levels of awesome. Seriously, you cannot even begin to understand just how well Dark Messiah did first person combat without having played it for yourself and sat back every few minutes in wide-eyed wonder or, alternatively, watched the video above.
It’s unfortunate that there will never be a true Dark Messiah sequel since Ubisoft owns the Might And Magic license and Arkane Studios are now with Bethesda, but this is where the confusion comes in. Dishonored was developed by Arkane. Skyrim is a Bethesda title. Both of these titles benefit from the in-house scenario where a developer can just go, “Hey, you guys did that other game with the awesome combat. Help us out here, would you kindly?”
Dishonored had good combat at times, but it was clunky and awkward at other times. I cannot begin to tell you how annoying it was, having to bring up that power wheel and accidentally picking the wrong power and using it, wondering why time hadn’t slowed down or why I was suddenly somewhere else. And Skyrim did no better because, while it was a lot better than Oblivion, if I wasn’t killing things in one hit, I was either backward-stepping with a bow in my hand or mashing violently at my triggers to try and kill enemies rushing me. I recently picked up my copy of Skyrim (which I had previously invested some 150 hours into, over six hundred saves and fifty one levels in-game) to try out the recently purchased DLC I have for it, as well as Kinect functionality (oh my fuck, it is awesome to be able to say “Fus Ro Dah” to my screen and watch my character perform the relevant action), and having played Dishonored just a few weeks prior, the combat felt a little clumsy, a little too finnicky. And that was not the Skyrim I remembered, but at the same time, it wasn’t because Dishonored was so much better either. All it took was one viewing of that video above for me to remember how much better it felt, long ago in a different time.
How did neither game reach the levels of smooth, suave gameplay that Dark Messiah had previously achieved? How did Arkane not manage the same level of perfection in a game which by all rights, was better? It had a better story (arguably), better visuals and a far, far better reason to have a good combat system. The only argument would be that the game was about stealth and if so, why not demonstrate more of this in the trailers leading up to the game? I was stealthy in Dark Messiah too, anyway. And it worked better, there.
I’d love to hear the thoughts of anyone who has played all of these games, or watched the video above keeping in mind the age of said video. It’s irksome to play a game where so much of it centres around an experience that is inferior, and doubly so when it’s from a developer who is already known for not being inferior. I suppose now I understand better, why people criticised BioWare for allegedly taking a step backwards in Dragon Age 2, although at least there they improved the combat. Hell, they improved the combat in Mass Effect as well. Arkane, Bethesda, what’s the matter? Or are my spectacles just a little too rose-tinted here?