Action Review
Shiny's apology for Messiah
Publisher: Interplay
Developer: Shiny
Posted: 12/12/2000
Written by: Erik Wolpaw
Sacrifice Click here for more shots!

Strategy game reviews are required at some point to include serious-sounding analyses of unit balancing, resource distribution, interface refinements and lots of other boring things, so let's set the tone of this one right now. Sacrifice is super-freaking cool! If you read that, covered your chest with one of your dainty, pink hands and thought "Well, I never. This isn't my kind of review," then this isn't the game for you, either.

Although it says "real-time strategy" right on the box, it's really the action man's thinking game. Sacrifice is gorgeous, polished, groundbreaking, and a lot of other impressive-sounding adjectives, but it's also chaotic and lacking in the precise micro-management and complex planning that endears many people to the genre. If you think you can relax enough to trade deliberate, thoughtful play style for wild action and a whole lot of beautiful scenery, you're going to have a great time.

It's mana-riffic!
Continuing the Shiny staff's fascination with souls and creative ways to defile them (first explored in their buggy, mean spirited possession epic Messiah), Sacrifice's central theme is the subjugation of your enemies' metaphysical essences. These souls, along with the omnipresent fantasy staple of mana, are the game's two resources. You take the role of a lone wizard. Each of your spells requires a certain amount of mana to cast, which can be gathered in unlimited quantities from mana fountains scattered around each board. The closer you are to one of these fountains, the faster your mana replenishes. You can take control of a mana fountain by casting a spell that creates a structure over it (called a manalith), after which it provides resources only to you.

Mana powers your creature-creation spells as well, but these also require a certain number of souls to cast. There are a limited number of souls on each map. You generally start with a few in stock, and can pick up others scattered around the landscape, either naked or trapped inside the bodies of hapless villagers. You can also steal the souls of slain enemy units, and this struggle for the control of souls forms the core action of the game. Whenever a creature dies, the souls originally used to cast it break free of the corpse and hover above it. If the beast belonged to you, you can grab the souls by simply running over them. Otherwise, you have to cast a jolly little guy called a Sac Doctor. He'll suck the enemy's soul into a giant syringe then skip merrily back to your home base, called your altar, where he performs a cleansing ritual on the soul, at which point it's added to your reserve and is available to power more creatures.

Both your own and your enemies' wizards are vulnerable to direct attack, but they can't be killed. When your health bar reaches zero, you turn into a ghost—invisible to opponents and invulnerable, but incapable of either casting spells or issuing commands to your units. To reconstitute, you have to find and stand next to a mana source. In order to destroy a wizard permanently, you must fight your way to his altar and have a Sac Doctor perform a desecration ritual on it.

WarCraft it ain't
Unlike most real-time strategy games, there isn't much of an initial build-up period. You can only create two structures—the aforementioned manaliths, and remote altars, which Sac Doctors can use to perform their cleansing rituals and save themselves the trouble of walking all the way across the map to do their job. It doesn't take much time to cast spells, so creating your initial army isn't a lengthy process. You create some creatures, build a couple of manaliths, then go looking for trouble—all of which generally takes less than a couple of minutes.

The tried-and-true strategy game tactic of sitting back and letting your opponents pound each other and then swooping in to mop up is utterly ineffective here. Instead of weakening both participants, battles always result in either a stalemate or in one wizard actually becoming stronger (if he manages to steal a few precious souls). As long as you retrieve their souls, the loss of your units is not particularly debilitating since you can recast creatures so quickly.

Rather than using a standard tech tree, the game features an RPG-like level system. Combat gives you experience, which accumulates to periodically grant you access to more powerful spells. The limited availability of souls and a tech tree based on combat insure that everything moves along at an often-frantic speed. Without skimping on the tactics, Sacrifice enforces a refreshingly brisk pace and eliminates many of the tedious and repetitive conventions of the genre.

All of this sounds fairly straightforward—the fantasy squad tactics of Myth mixed with some light resource management. Where things get unique—and potentially aggravating to micromanagement fans—is in the camera view. Rather than being an omniscient overseer, you control your wizard from a third person view, ala Tomb Raider. You see only what he sees. If you want to look at what's behind you, you have to turn around. If you're wondering what's going on halfway across the map, you have to hoof it over there and find out. It's sort of the ultimate fog of war. There's a mini-map, and you can actually issue commands from it, but a hands-on approach is generally more effective. All of the standard unit options are available, such as formations, waypoints, and hotkey groupings, but when you have forty creatures in the heat of battle it's sometimes difficult to target a specific unit. The chaos can be frustrating at first, but this frenzied style of play appears to be by design. The perspective puts you right in the thick of battle, with all the action and confusion which that entails.

"Shiny" objects
While a few strategy titles have offered this same single-unit viewpoint—Uprising, the Battlezone series, and the great granddaddy of real time strategy, Herzog Zwei on the Sega Genesis—none has pulled it off with as much style as Sacrifice. It's a gorgeous game. The art-direction is a colorful mix of Dr. Seuss and Shiny's own MDK and the landscapes stretch out far into the distance without any fogging. Games that take place in huge outdoor environments are becoming more common, but at this point it's still a striking feature. Climbing to the top of a tall hill and seeing the entire battlefield laid out before you is exhilarating.

There are over fifty different creatures available, and virtually every one is amazingly animated. There are also over fifty different offensive spells, each with impressive accompanying visuals. For instance, one creates a fierce storm and a mile-high tornado that sucks up nearby units and sends them swirling skyward before dropping them back to the ground.

You only need to complete ten levels to finish the single-player game, but in the interlude between each one you choose one of five gods to serve during the next mission, and the plot branches accordingly. Different gods have different missions attached to each of the ten slots, and the god choice also influences what spells you receive at each point in the story. This structure provides a lot of incentive to solve the game more than once in order to play the different missions and try out various combinations of spells. One nifty feature is that every time you complete the game, the custom spell book you've built up by taking that particular path becomes available for use in multiplayer matches.

Something completely different
The multiplayer mode supports up to four people at once. You can play locally over an IPX LAN or over the Internet through a built-in matching service. For some reason, Shiny opted not to include a direct TCP/IP option, which means if you want to set up a game with your buddies and the Interplay server is down, you're out of luck. You could always use something like Kali to simulate IPX over TCP/IP, but at this point in the history of gaming you shouldn't have to. Other than that, however, multiplayer is generally stable, includes a slew of maps, supports a few different game variations, and retains the manic pace of the single player game. There's even a skirmish mode and a complete—and documented!—level editor in the package.

Sacrifice looks great, plays great, and sounds great. In short, it's great. As long as you can accept the fact that it's more about frenetic mayhem than careful planning, you should be just fine. Broaden your expectations, get a white-knuckled death grip on the mouse, and enjoy something a little different for a change.

Gameplay: 5
Graphics: 5
Interface: 4
Multiplayer: 4.5
Depth: 5
Stability: 3
ESRB Rating: Mature
Upside: It's like the critically acclaimed Battlezone, but with better graphics, a cooler concept and more action-oriented gameplay
Downside: The game's high level of chaos and its fixed viewpoint may anger already-cranky strategy gamers
Pentium II 300, 64 MB RAM, 3d Accelerator 2-4 players; Internet, LAN

click to enlarge

Beautiful troops guard a beautiful altar. Note beautiful sky. One spell summons Death, and he's fifty feet tall. It's probably not even worth mentioning that that's really cool. A Sac Doctor sucking the soul from a corpse.
Now here's that same Sac Doctor back at the altar cleansing the soul. Sending a group of Brainiacs to assault an altar way, way off in the distance. You wouldn't actually want to do that in the game, but it looks nice. There's Death again.
With Sacrifice, you can create museum quality artwork like this. And this. This next shot isn't a still life. It's still pretty, though. Those wavy purple lines are beautiful but deadly, like Audrey Hepburn if she somehow got lodged in your throat.
The tornado spell in action. You're probably bored of these panoramic vistas, but notice the ring of villagers in the lower right corner... This is what happens when you cast a volcano spell on them.
©2000 Strategy Plus, Inc.
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