Developer: Shiny Entertainment
Release Date: November 2000
Shiny Entertainment is known for its imaginative games. From the classic side scroller Earthworm Jim to the ambitious but deeply flawed Messiah, Shiny designs are known for their artistic merit and original premises. In Sacrifice, Shiny managed to combine an original premise with showstopping artistic design and a rich strategic framework worthy of the RTS genre's best games. While nominally a real-time strategy game, it borrowed from third-person action games, role-playing games, and even first-person strategy games like Uprising and Battlezone. It's a heady mix that can overwhelm the unwary.
Sacrifice is an RTS played from a third-person perspective. As a wizard serving one of five gods, you use an array of spells to summon creatures and capture sources of power (mana) called manaliths. Your home base is a large stone structure called an altar, the destruction of which (through "desecration") knocks you out of the game. Simply killing an enemy wizard turns him into an ethereal form that needs mana to reassume its corporeal state. All creatures have "souls" that float above them when they die. Friendly souls can be collected by moving over them with your wizard. When enemy creatures die, you can summon beasts called sac doctors to harvest the dead creatures' souls and take them back to your altar for sacrifice. They then become available for use in summoning spells. More-powerful creatures require more souls. Since there are a finite number of souls in any given game, winning means defeating enemy creatures and stealing the souls. This is made difficult because the enemy wizard can just run over them, while you have to wait for a sac doctor.
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The game's graphics are flamboyant, eerie, serene, and sinister--and any number of other adjectives depending on which god you're following and what scenario you're playing. The gods themselves are wonderfully realized, from the trippy Stratos, Lord of the Air, to the foul Charnel, Ruler of the Undead. Each god has different creatures and spells, and the solo campaign is a branching one where you can follow different gods in different scenarios, which lets you gradually build a spell book that comprises a selection of creatures from each god. Casting these spells and summoning creatures (while directing your troops and moving around) is the basis for gameplay, although due to the very fast pace of the action and the impossibility of properly controlling all of these factors with the mouse, the game's learning curve is quite steep until you get used to doing everything with hotkeys. And then there's the strategic depth to master.
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Apart from the difficulty in controlling units effectively by using the interface, the other complaint leveled against Sacrifice was that the system of capturing souls and manaliths led to stalemates where neither side could gain a decisive advantage over the other because of the inability to capture enemy souls far from a friendly manalith. This hampered play between evenly matched opponents, but there were so many tricks and skills to be learned from carefully studying the interaction of the different creatures and spells that a clever player could usually find a way to break an impasse. Sacrifice is a wonderfully deep game because of all the possible creature and spell combinations.
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Sacrifice won GameSpot's Best Artistic Graphics of 2000, but simply focusing on its incredible appearance shortchanges the rest of the game, which is indeed outstanding. It has a substantial learning curve and is perhaps a bit too frantic for those used to slower-paced RTS games, but in terms of depth and originality, it stands alone in the genre.