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Shiny's Crazy Diamond

Out of left field and onto your hard drive

If there's one thing better than a good game, it's a good game that's weird. And if there's one thing better than a good game that's weird, it's Sacrifice. It's shot through with a vivid abandon that animates its artwork, gameplay, campaign structure, production design, sense of humor...even its manual. This is one of those in stances of a developer capturing lightning in a bottle; it crackles and buzzes warmly with a rare magic.

Ridiculously Sublime

On its most basic level, Sacrifice is another real-time strategy (RTS)/action hybrid, a genre that goes back to Bull frog's Magic Carpet and found its most advanced expression in Activision's Battlezone titles. In Magic Carpet, you have fantasy dragons and fireballs. In Battlezone, you have sci-fi tanks and robots. But Sacrifice is too bizarre to sit comfortably in any established style. In Sacrifice, you have goggled gnomes with flamethrowers, and prancing, grinning clowns with machine guns. You have slurping mutants who sound like the Elephant Man and purring insectoid cat crabs. You have squat droidy things with spinning blades on their heads. You have bug-eyed dwarves with huge, floppy dog ears. You have spiders with heads slung under their bellies, and bulls made of rock and dirt. You have bugs and pestilence and slime and oil. You have giant malicious beanstalks, volcanoes, and spiraling sinkholes 100 yards across. And, yes, you have artillery that fires a giant cow. It is at once spectacular, beautiful, and really weird. I don't know how the developers at Shiny come up with this stuff. I'm not sure I want to know.

In keeping with its unique sensibilities, the gameplay is also distinct from other RTS/action hybrids. In Magic Carpet, you mainly cast spells. In Battlezone, you mainly order units around. In both games, you float about the world like an air hockey puck, with the vaguely disconnected sensation of wearing socks on linoleum. But your small wizard in Sacrifice is both a spellcaster and a general, trotting slowly across hill and dale in these strange worlds, wrapped in their alien skies. He is both frail and powerful, capable of calling down apocalypses, but vulnerable to being knocked out of his own skin. Sacrifice achieves a balance where other RTS/action hybrids have failed. Your creatures are an important part of the game, but you're neither relegated to the role of spectator (Battlezone) or left to your own devices (Magic Carpet). Your creatures may be smart and determined, but it is your own magic hand that can tip the balance.

Soul Power

The resource model is an important part of the game's unique mechanics. Each game is a battle for the pool of souls on the map. You gather these souls — which are the limiting factor in the size of your army — and use them to summon creatures. If you win a battle and hold the field long enough, you can mop up the souls from your vanquished enemy's dead beasts. These souls are your treasure and your firepower, but the mana you use for spells is an easily replenished fuel, like solar power. This encourages the frequent spellcasting that keeps you constantly engaged in the action.

The pace of Sacrifice sometimes outstrips its interface. Hot-keys go a long way toward making it all manageable, but the default setup seems to have been designed for one of the game's 13-fingered beasts. Rebinding the keys is oddly inflexible. You are allowed only one keyboard setup, although you may have multiple wizards with different spell books. Beware the dreaded F2 key — it will instantly quickload you out of any game without so much as an "Are you sure?" Some players might complain about how hard it can be to target small fast units, but this seems to be a part of the game balance. There's no denying that Sacrifice requires a quick eye and an even quicker wrist. Because there's no difficulty level, it will probably be overwhelming to some casual gamers. And I can't imagine anyone enjoying the game's final mission — which is one of those unfair brick walls you'll spend three days pounding your head against.

There's a lot of strategy in the combinations of creatures and spells, but it isn't easy to see under the pace of the action (the manual's breezy "figure it out yourself" approach doesn't help). At first glance, Sacrifice just looks like weird things beating each other up. Don't be fooled — it's a game with legs. The longer you play, the more the game reveals and the more you learn. It's an entertaining learning curve. The single-player campaign follows bickering gods on a funky cool Olympus, all brought to life by impeccable voice work. As you choose sides in their arguments, you determine which missions you'll play and thus which spells and creatures you'll get. It's a do-it-yourself spell book, cobbled together in a cauldron of divine and petty spats.

As a multiplayer game, Sacrifice is a fine fast flurry of thrusts and counterthrusts, bluffs and trumps. As in most multiplayer games, new players won't have much fun being steamrollered by experienced players. But the gameplay — together with the variety of game types, spells, creatures, and maps — makes it a many-splendored bag of surprises and choices. Kudos to Shiny for not requiring the CD in the drive and for providing a competent AI that uses all the spells and creatures. But raspberries to them for not supporting direct TCP/IP connections over the Internet; when the servers are down, so is the game. Sacrifice also needs some sort of post-game debriefing. As it is, you come out of an exhilarating battle eager to see scores or stats or even some sort of line graph, only to be dumped into the crowd in the multiplayer lobby. It leaves you with a hollow "is that all?" feeling, to come out of an extended rush with nothing to show for it. It's like abruptly flipping on the lights after an intense movie.

Altar-ed State

But it is exhilarating and it is intense. It is lovingly unconventional and singularly alive. Sacrifice captures that intangible joie de gaming often missing from otherwise competent titles. There will be a great moment when you're crossing a map — leading a troop of flapping, crawling, loping, whirling, hopping things — when, out of curiosity, you will spin the camera around to see your wizard at the vanguard of his odd army. The shimmering weirdness of it all will strike you and you'll think, "This is what gaming is all about."

CGW Rating 4 Stars: Sacrifice

Pros: An exhilarating melange of action, strategy, Sac Doctors, Mana Hoars, and Bovine Intervention.

Cons: Ten fingers may not be enough.

Requirements: Pentium-II 300, 64MB RAM, 650MB hard drive space, Direct 3D-compatible video card.
Recommended Requirements: Pentium-II 450, 128MB RAM.
3D Support: Direct 3D
Multiplayer Support: LAN, Internet (2-4 players).
Publisher: Interplay
Developer: Shiny Entertainment
Price: $45
ESRB Rating: Mature; animated blood and violence.
By Tom Chick, Computer Gaming World   [posted on: Jan 09 2001 12:00:00:000AM]

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Copyright (c) 2001 ZD Inc. All Rights Reserved. ZDNet and ZDNet logo are registered trademarks of ZD Inc. Content originally appearing in Computer Gaming World Copyright (c) 2001 Ziff Davis Media. All Rights Reserved. Computer Gaming World and Ziff Davis Media are trademarks of Ziff Davis Publishing Holdings Inc.