Sacrifice

Review by Steerpike
July 2002

Here's the Story

As veteran readers are already doubtless aware, and as newcomers quickly gather, this site is devoted to games of certain genres—specifically, the ones we like to play and talk about. There's nothing wrong with NFL 2002; it's just not the sort of title you're going to find headlined on a site where story is king. I bring this up because there was a brief and friendly discussion about whether or not Sacrifice belonged in our stable of reviews when I offered to do the job.

The truth is, though Shiny Entertainment's Sacrifice was billed as a real time strategy game—albeit one very different from all the others out there—it's a disservice to describe it as such. With few exceptions, real time strategies are twitchfests involving little actual strategy or depth. From a story perspective, for every Hollywood-quality Starcraft there is a written-while-in-the-bathroom Outlive, and the RTS genre has become much more about technology than artistry—which is exactly why Sacrifice is a stranger in a strange land for an RTS.

Sacrifice is real in the sense that it exists in the physical world; time will pass while you play it; it requires both the left and right hemispheres of the brain to be played effectively. And that is where its shared genealogy with "Real Time Strategy" (according to the practical definition of the genre) ends. The truth is that if the game had been marketed as what it is—a brilliant and unique reimagining of nearly every aspect of PC gameplay from story to execution, it probably would have sold a lot better.

An intensely story-driven game in every sense of the concept, the Sacrifice campaign tells the tale of Eldred, a powerful conjurer whose less-than-altruistic experiments led to the utter destruction of the reality that was his home. With demons of both the literal and figurative variety in hot pursuit, he sets off through the ether as the last survivor of his people, eventually finding himself in a bizarre and starkly beautiful new realm of islands floating on a sea of astral void.

Lost, frightened, and (presumably) harried by the guilt he carries as the individual solely responsible for the destruction of his home and everything living there, Eldred works to right the wrongs of his past in this new land. Here five gods vie amongst themselves for power, gleaned from the reverence of mortals. Each god has a stable of champions, wizards such as Eldred, but a war is brewing and all are eager to hire on some temporary new help.

Replayability is evident in Sacrifice from the get-go. Though the game is played from beginning to end in a total of ten missions, fifty actual and unique scenarios await the player—because at the outset, you have the opportunity to work from whichever god you choose. Eventually, of course, you must declare your support for a single deity or alliance thereof, at which time the others close their doors to you; so in order to experience everything Sacrifice has to offer, you'll have to play through a few times. For those who give this beautiful, complex game a chance, however, that's hardly a burden.

The Haagen-Dasz of video games, Sacrifice finds a perfect golden mean between strategy and action. It's as ideal for RTS buffs hungry for something new as for action fans looking for a real challenge. You'll be asked to keep track of a ton of onscreen action, maintain a unique spellbook and bestiary with which to smite your enemies, and, of course, play so late that you get in trouble at work because you overslept.

And You Thought Your Job Was Tough

Though the gods are at war all the time, their squabbles are largely petty and mostly bloodless until a grim prophecy about divine betrayal and a second apocalypse puts everyone on the offensive. How you as Eldred choose to deal with your own role in the destiny of this strange land is dependent largely on which god(s) you choose to serve, and the moral quandaries involved in this decision are rich indeed.

The oftentimes infuriatingly superior tree-hugger Life Goddess Persephone will load you with healing spells and troops bent on domination through justice. The currently ascendant Pyro, God of Progress and Advancement (his definition of "progress" appears to focus largely on the application of explosions and violence, brutally and often), while appearing theoretically evil, may indeed simply be a blind servant of futurism. Charnel, God of Slaughter and Strife, revels in misery and dark forces while still adhering to a strict—if somewhat alien—moral code of his own. Chilly-willy Stratos, of Air and Knowledge fame, looks for answers to ancient questions in the unexplored corners of the universe, while invertebrate James, God of Earth and deification of Shiny's original success, Earthworm Jim, lays out his openness and honesty for all to see.

Here's the trick. One god is a traitor; one is a terrifying wolf in sheep's clothing. One cares nothing for the world and is bent on domination even at the ultimate price; another is deeply honorable despite protestations of monstrosity. And the fifth may waffle so long before taking sides that the decision becomes meaningless. Into this morass you are thrown, and much of Sacrifice is spent pondering your own moral compass. As available paths dwindle, you may realize too late that the side you've chosen represents the very ideology you meant to set yourself against.

If you prefer not to look so deeply into the Black & White-ism available in Sacrifice, you'll still find a spectacularly violent and wonderfully thrilling adventure composed of epic, earth-shattering battles between deities' champions, fought in a dreamlike landscape as weird and varied as it is beautiful.

Real-Time Strategy Redux

The nuts and bolts of gameplay do bear similarities to the RTS genre. On the battlefield, Eldred is placed in control of an altar to the god he has chosen to represent for the mission. Wizards in the field can be destroyed only when their altar is desecrated by an enemy; a rather terrifying eventuality that involves the ritual and bloody sacrifice of an opposing creature. Desecrations are easily stopped, but this requires you to essentially drop what you're doing and race back to the starting line, so it's wise to prevent them from occurring in the first place, rather than trying to halt one in progress.

Pure mystical energy sprays high into the air from mana fountains sprinkled across the landscape. The conjuration of towering manaliths channel these magical carbohydrates back into your character through the auspices of floppy-eared Manahoars, helpless creatures who gather magical energy for their patron wizard. Using this raw power, you cast spells to devastate your opponent and summon fantastic creatures from a bestiary that grows and expands based on whom you serve. Each wizard's spellbook should be slightly different from everyone else's, as your progression through the game and the gods you serve determine the powers at your disposal.

The raw material for your armies are souls, either collected from the corpses of the faithful or brutally converted from fallen enemies. Souls are the key to a game of Sacrifice—you will spend most of your time battling enemies and allies alike for control of them.

Blue souls float above the corpses of your own creatures; they are free for the taking. The souls of enemy creatures glow red, however, and before you can claim them as your own you must summon a special minion called a Sac Doctor to gather the soul and rush it back to your altar, where a painful-looking conversion ritual is performed on the hapless soul before it's added to your pool. Of course, the souls that are red to you are blue to someone else and vice versa; during combat a great portion of your strategy is forcing your opponent to clear off the battlefield while leaving some souls behind. In this manner you can chip away at even the mightiest wizards—as a sorcerer without souls is all but helpless.

You summon an army and dictate its formations and general behavior, then head off with your menagerie in tow to crush the enemy. There's not much in gaming today that's more spectacular than watching Eldred and his mystical army on the move, or climbing a steep hill and seeing an opponent lumbering across the horizon with a vast cavalcade of beasts in tight formation. Essentially, therefore, the base structure of the game is similar to real-time strategies—you must police your assets, generate an army, and produce structures. But since there are no "bases" to speak of in Sacrifice, and the building of structures has been reduced to an absolute minimum, management of troops and resources takes on a more expanded role.

Beyond that, the RTS comparison breaks down. RTSers will squawk that there is "strategy" involved in building massive armies that come thundering down on enemy bases. That's bull. Real strategy involves formation, maintenance of supply lines, control of critical areas in a theater, and so forth; success in Starcraft (and I don't mean to knock Starcraft, but it's true) is really a matter of good timing, not good strategy. A clever Sacrifice player will make use of feinting, diversions, and pincer maneuvers, all of which would be a waste in classical RTS, in which victory is determined by sheer numbers.

Since you need at least one soul for every creature you summon and there is a finite number of souls on the board, you can forget about huge armies. Also, since your own character is out there with your army, casting spells and hurrying around running combat-related errands in the middle of the slugfest, being outnumbered is really a matter of perception. The best Sacrifice players I know run around the map alone or with a skeleton crew at most, preferring instead to shackle their armies to areas that they must keep well-defended.

You Shore Do Have a Purty Mouth

Sacrifice was one of the first games to employ hardware transform and lighting. It manifests itself in this case not in the presence of more polygons or unusual environmental effects, but as a colossally stupendous draw distance and uniformly curved surfaces covering a polygonal wireframe. Sacrifice stands out as one of the most beautiful games on the market—I was recently introducing a friend to it, and she announced that were it not for Morrowind, it would, in her opinion, be the best-looking game she'd ever seen. Considering that this exchange took place more than a year after Sacrifice's release, gamers who haven't given it a try yet can be assured that the visuals will not disappoint them.

Those familiar with Shiny's other escapades, from Messiah to MDK, will certainly be unsurprised by the lethally day-glo tinting. Each god's little corner of the world is so parti-colored that you'll think a rainbow vomited on the screen. Strong fog tables and engine-supported full-screen anti-aliasing are icing on the cake to Sacrifice's powerful visuals, which will manage an easy thirty frames a second with today's top-shelf accelerators.

One warning to Radeon owners—given ATI's total lack of interest in providing quality drivers for its products, and its total contempt for the wishes of its consumers in this area, you may experience some problems when playing Sacrifice. Nothing so serious that it will prevent you from running the game, but there are known performance and feature problems limited to the Radeon. ATI doesn't care about fixing them and Shiny is no longer patching Sacrifice, so it may be in your best interest to keep ATI's current driver release, along with a WHQL certified release and possibly a beta driver on hand, until you nail down what's best for this game.

Shiny is one of the few studios that places great significance on the quality of their voice talent; they realize that bad acting can ruin an otherwise good story and therefore spare no expense on their voice actors. Sacrifice is no exception. To a character it is well and subtly acted. The sharpest ears may recognize Tim Curry as Air God Stratos, and though the rest of the cast may not be known in Hollywood, it's a veritable who's-who of A-list talent in the voice industry.

Music, as well, comes straight from the Computer Game Orchestra First Seat. Though Sacrifice isn't exactly a loud game—it doesn't feature pounding explosions or earsplitting bass effects—the delicacy and power of the score go a long way toward evoking the mood that the designers appear to have been going for. Music in Sacrifice is exactly what game music should be: excellent and completely invisible. This sadly means that Sacrifice did not win any special achievements in soundtrack, but it certainly makes for a pleasant experience for the gamers.

My Dog's Name Is "WASD"

Sacrifice could have been a control nightmare—imagine a third-person shooter like Max Payne's controls set in a real-time strategy game's engine—but in fact they're relatively graceful so long as you're out of the stone age as far as hardware is concerned. You're going to need a mouse with a scroll wheel that doubles as a button and a keyboard you're able to wrap your hands around (you could play Sacrifice well on a laptop so long as you used an external mouse).

In fact, I wish Black & White had emulated the control scheme of Sacrifice, since the two games share many graphical similarities. Essentially you move Eldred around with WASD and control your pointer with the mouse. Camera control is achieved by holding the middle mouse button or by maneuvering the pointer to the edges of the screen. Beginners will have a hard time with the controls while they get the hang of it, but veterans are so well-oiled that they can zoom around the battlefield, picking up souls and casting spells, all the while knowing precisely what's going on around them.

Creatures are big and brightly colored and, when selected, surrounded by a huge white bounding box and status icon that can seriously get in the way when you're trying to pinpoint an object in the play area. It's the price the designers paid for such large and highly detailed creature models, but the bounding box was a little more than was necessary. Complaints as far as the control structure go are limited to the vague but persistent irritation associated with wanting to click one object only to find that another is in the way.

Most levels in the game offer a number of objectives, some optional, so you won't get stuck in the ho-humness of level after level with the same objectives. Ultimately your goal is usually the same—destroy an enemy wizard's (or wizards') altar(s), but the way you go about it and the challenges you will encounter on the way vary greatly.

Aiding you in this adventure is a highly disrespectful homunculus named Zyzyx. He will guide you through Sacrifice's three excellent tutorials and is a critical player in the story itself—he, along with more than a dozen other characters, is the backbone of the story as well as its supporting cast. Zyzyx flies around the battlefield and calls out advice and situation reports, along with the occasional catcall, and can generally be relied upon to get in the way when you need unobstructed vision. Despite his I-quit attitude and tendency to take cuts in line, however, he's an invaluable resource that most players can't help but be fond of.

As the game progresses, you're naturally granted access to more and more powerful spells and creatures until, in the final levels, you have attained the pinnacle of power, the mack-daddy of magic, your god's mighty capital creature and capital spell. I always like games that allow you to deform the terrain of the game world. I don't mean the crappy you-can-chip-the-rock-where-we-say-you-can of Red Faction, I mean the bust-up, rumbleicious, crunch-all-you-want, we'll-make-more-total-freedom-of-a-capital spell in Sacrifice. Tear off the lid off a mountain and watch lava spew forth, suck an entire enemy army into the swirling vortex of a tornado, hurl opponents miles into the air, slice out a Delaware-sized chunk of the map and watch it fall into the nothingness below ... this is the glory of the capital spells in Sacrifice. Effects like this are satisfying graphically and viscerally, and they are the kind of reward players deserve for progressing toward the end in a game they've adored.

There Is No Fighting in the War Room

There's plenty of goofiness to go with Sacrifice's chilling story of demonic incursion and power-mad wizardry. It's obvious that Shiny has a lot in common with its (former) fellow Interplay minions Black Isle and Bioware. We all remember Fallout, a franchise that somehow managed to incorporate laugh-out-loud humor into a series of games set in a postnuclear world where more than five billion were already dead and the rest likely to die under the smoking barrel of your character's zipgun.

In addition to snappy writing, humor is contributed via the creatures. Take the hideous Phoenix, Pyro's capital creature. It's the opposite of pretty much everyone's mental image of the mythical beast. It's fat. It's pink. It's got about nine feathers. It looks like a semiplucked escapee from a fat farm for chickens merged with a Powerpuff Girl. And far from being a flaming bird of paradise that rebears itself through its ashes, it is ungainly when airborne and fires a ruddy laser beam that tears through legions of foes. Not exactly the glorious firebird of Archon, a game I consider to be Sacrifice's spiritual predecessor, but a witness to the creative genius and incredibly disturbed humor that stokes the furnaces at Shiny.

Sacrifice is such a hectic game that it will probably not appeal to epileptics, nervous individuals, or people who have a hard time keeping track of a number of events at one time. The game's true masters are totally aware of everything going on around them and can dodge and weave through the middle of combat, gathering their own souls, converting others, summoning creatures and casting spells without a break in the action. Beginners should take heart; Sacrifice is relatively easy to learn and very difficult to master, but if you give it time you will be rewarded.

Also included is the Scapex level editor, one of the easiest mapmaking utilities I've ever seen. Scapex allows you to create your own Sacrifice maps and populate them with scripted events and objectives; in ease of use it's similar to the editor that Starcraft shipped with. Instructions on how to use Scapex are included in the printed documentation—a nice touch—even beginners should be whipping up levels in no time. Sacrifice.net offers quite a selection of excellent user-made maps and episodes.

There is a very small community of gamers who still play Sacrifice online. They are few and far between, so if you want to try your hand at online combat, you'd be better off organizing a game among your friends than trying to locate some other opponent. Chances are you won't find many active Sacrifice servers these days, though it doesn't hurt to look.

Showmanship and Genius (Or, the Inevitable Section That Uses the Words "Looking" and "Glass")

Despite total critical acclaim (it is one of the highest-rated games ever) and near-complete adoration from fans, Sacrifice sold very poorly. It was relegated to the bargain bin at most stores within a month. This is depressing on a number of levels.

Consider that Shiny is a small studio that, until its recent acquisition by Infogrames, was at the mercy of its publisher, Interplay. Interplay has been in desperate financial straits for the last three years, so the failure at retail of an expensive project like Sacrifice was disastrous to everyone. The attempt to build sales by squashing it into a genre into which it doesn't fit made things worse: dyed-in-the-wool RTSers didn't "get" Sacrifice and didn't commit the time necessary to master it. Casual gamers were put off by its bizarre landscapes and complicated storyline. Those parents who bother keeping track of what their kids do were concerned by the demon-lord undertones and splatterfest violence in the game. Despite the lack of human characters, so much blood is spilled in Sacrifice that Wal-Mart released a "friendly" version of the title with entire levels stripped out.

Ultimately the pitiful message of Sacrifice's failure is that it's not a good idea to be innovative. If you make a highly imaginative game set in a unique world and requiring a very open mind to appreciate, you're going to get burned. This says bad things about the industry, implying that the lowest common denominator is the safest audience to cater to. It does not encourage publishers to offer financial support to the Shinys of the world—a grim thought indeed, since studios like Shiny are the creative successors to Looking Glass, the collapse of which left a scar on our industry that will never truly heal.

Despite poor performance at retail, there have been noises over the past half year about a sequel to Sacrifice. Shiny's a small studio that can only work on one project at a time, and it's currently focused on a video game adaptation of the Matrix films—a dumb idea, in my opinion, since I defy you to name more than three games-based-on-movies that have been remotely successful. A recent Sacrifice.net posting from Dave Perry, Shiny's president, makes a few remarks about the potential for a Sacrifice 2. Perry's notice manages to use several hundred words without actually saying anything, but it nebulously implies that Sacrifice will be a standalone game and that there will never be a sequel.

That thought is the most depressing of all, because if true, it means that the Man wins—Shiny acknowledges that being creative leads to failure at retail, and it prefers to latch onto potentially surefire movie franchises rather than be one of the industry's true artistic movers and shakers. And again Looking Glass turns over in its grave. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Shiny Entertainment
Publisher: Interplay
Release Date: 2000

Available for: Windows Macintosh

Four Fat Chicks Links

Player Feedback

Screenshots

Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge

System Requirements

PC:
Pentium II 300, AMD K62 550, K63 450 (II 450, AMD Athlon 450, AMD Duron 650 recommended)
Windows 95/98/00
DirectX7.0a
64 MB RAM (128 MB recommended)
4X CD drive (8X recommended)
650 MB free hard disk space
8 MB D3D DirectX certified video card (16 MB recommended)
DirectX certified sound card

Mac:
Mac OS 8.6
300 MHz or faster G3 or G4 processor,
128 MB RAM,
8X CDROM or DVD drive,
3D graphics acceleration with 8 MB of video memory

 
   
Copyright © Electric Eye Productions. All rights reserved.
No reproduction in whole or in part without express written permission.