Messiah: Saving the world with strength and cunning
(IDG) -- Shiny Entertainment has always displayed an off-beat sense of humor in its odd, distinctive designs.
From the superb MDK to the mediocre Wild 9, its track record has been spotty, but its latest, the much-delayed Messiah, looks as if it might put the company back on track. It's got the bizarre character design, a black sense of humor and the distinctive play elements we expect, rolled around an impressive graphics engine.
You assume the role of a cherub, Bob, sent by God to a city overrun with crime and corruption to find the source of the evil that has polluted the planet. To this end, Bob can take over humans and use their bodies, abilities, and weapons to pursue his goal.
In Cherub form, Bob is relatively helpless -- the flying baby he appears to be -- so taking over others is necessary to his survival. When a possessed body dies, Bob just gets thrown out of the corpse, ready to use someone else as a vessel.
While Eidos' Omikron the Nomad Soul uses a similar concept, in Messiah it's far more pronounced and flexible. You can leave a body at any time and take over pretty much anyone you can get close to.
The game consists of 16 levels -- including two boss levels -- set in three urban zones. These regions are further divided up through the use of linking portals in the game's engine, enabling huge maps to be broken up into smaller ones, while still being seamlessly interconnected.
Messiah's engine (also used in recent Interplay baseball games) is designed to be scalable for a variety of systems, which basically means that the graphics will adjust themselves depending on how powerful your machine is. So, the polygon count and graphic detail will get less or more sophisticated to adjust for individual PC's. Still though, the final product is still likely to be a hardware hog.
Currently, the minimum requirements are a Pentium II 233 with 32 megs of RAM, and a 3D accelerator card. Also, the polygon count of the characters you see increases and decreases to adjust for distance and camera angle to help keep frame rates, animation and visuals optimal.
The results are very cool. This is a great looking game. Character design and animation is fluid and realistic, and Bob in particular is extremely detailed. There are around fifty characters to encounter in the game -- from cops, soldiers and mutants, to prostitutes of various sorts, mechanics and very scantily clad waitresses.
Shiny is working to create believable and challenging AI for them as well. Characters react to threats, track you, and respond to each other. And in the pre-production, three-level beta we played, the AI and the game in general were incredibly tough.
Actual gameplay involves a solid, if familiar, mix of third-person adventure and action-based puzzles such as the use of switches and platform jumping, combined with plenty of violent gunplay. But Bob's possession ability adds a whole other level of situational puzzles as well.
Stealth is a key aspect here, and Bob can usually find an out-of-the-way position from which he can see what's happening in a room. He can then possess specific characters by simply jumping right into their back, and use them to sabotage things, create disruptions or diversions, or lure guards from other areas (thus giving Bob access those regions).
Since each character type has certain skills, you can approach problems from various perspectives. Cops and thugs might use force to get past an obstacle, while a prostitute might use her sexual luring powers to draw a guard away for instance.
However, you can be more aggressive right from the outset. So, if, for example, Bob is dropped into a volatile situation, you can forgo stealth and just run right to the nearest gun-toting maniac, take him over, and fight your way through. This is probably the most interesting aspect of the game design, since it lets players choose whether they want more action or more adventure.
Several games are trying a similar mix lately -- Outcast, for instance -- but it's a hard combination to get to work effectively. If all goes as planned, you'll be learn whether Messiah gets it right in November, when the game is scheduled to ship.
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