In stark contrast to all the attention Messiah received between its announcement in 1997 and its release this spring, Shiny kept Sacrifice out of the media spotlight as long as possible. But when we first saw the game at E3 in May, we were amazed that the developer could have kept such an impressive-looking game under wraps for so long. Sacrifice pairs a unique real-time strategy concept with an updated version of the technically advanced Messiah 3D engine. The dramatic landscapes, wacky creatures, and unique game design intrigued us at first sight, but our brief encounter left us wondering how it would really play. Now that the game's release is little more than a month away, we've taken the chance to explore the game more fully.
Sacrifice combines elements of action and real-time strategy games in a very unusual setting. You play as a wizard who can summon armies of fantastic creatures and cast spells of tremendous power - all you need is the blessing of one of five competing gods and a number of willing souls. In fact, souls are an essential resource in the game. To summon new creatures for your army, you'll convert the souls of heathen opponents by sacrificing them at your god's altar. Furthermore, the definitive method of killing a wizard is to desecrate its altar with a sacrifice of one of your own creatures. The game's other resource is mana, which is required for summoning, building structures, and casting direct spells. Altars and mana fountains only emanate mana within a limited distance, so to keep your magic in constant supply you'll need to keep a few mana-channeling creatures around. Unless its altar is under attack, a wizard will be resurrected, if it can get to a good source of mana.
Sacrifice's gameplay borrows much from conventional real-time strategy games, yet the game's emphasis on action and one central unit is most reminiscent of Activision's first-person 3D real-time strategy game, Battlezone. The biggest difference between Sacrifice and most RTS games is that the third-person camera is locked in orbit around your wizard, which is intended to give a more personal tie between you and the wizard. You'll run around the battlefield, deploying units and launching spell attacks from this mobile perspective. Summoned creatures will form the bulk of your offensive might, and to help you control your forces, there's an intuitive contextual interface, which comes with six formations as well as escort and waypoint commands. Yet you won't want to move your units too far out of sight. With the camera fixed on your wizard, there's little indication of what's happening to units that are maneuvered via the minimap around other parts of the main map. Also, the high-level battle magic can be tremendously potent, so it's actually wise to keep your army within your wizard's protective reach. As your wizard gains experience levels from combat, you'll gain access to more powerful spells, such as one that will make a volcano erupt beneath an opposing army.
Sacrifice is a game that makes for fantastic high-resolution screenshots. The engine uses the technology that debuted in Messiah to adjust the level of detail displayed on the screen in order to maintain a constant frame rate on any PC. Sacrifice doesn't use arbitrary fogging effects to keep it from needing to render distant objects, so your view is clear and sharp all the way to the horizon. This can have a very real effect on gameplay, since a wizard looking down from a tall peak could very easily spot the units an opponent has summoned and build up his own forces accordingly. The other real advantage this engine brings is that it can support a high number of very detailed units on the screen at the same time. While many 3D games limit the number of animated character models that are shown on the screen, Sacrifice is very capable of simultaneously displaying more than 50 units at a time. When you take a close look at the game, it is possible to see where the engine is adding and subtracting polygon detail. But during a real game you'll only notice that your machine never stutters or slows down in the middle of heated combat.
Yet Shiny hasn't used all this polygon-pushing power to just reproduce the sci-fi look that's been so popular with this year's wave of 3D RTS games. Sacrifice's character design is imbued with a fantastic look all its own. Earthworm Jim and MDK, as it turns out, showed only the first signs of Shiny's potential for outlandish visuals, because there are so many unusual-looking creatures in Sacrifice. In addition to the wide range of bizarre wizards you can choose to play - from a whip-wielding centaur to a one-footed hopping creature - each of the five sides has a distinct theme for its units. There are more than 50 different units in the game, including such powerful creatures as storm giants and dragons. Yet the team responsible for designing this menagerie has managed to maintain a cohesive artistic style despite all the eclecticism.
Sacrifice takes place in a world ruled by five squabbling gods: Persephone, goddess of life; James, god of earth; Stratos, god of air; Pyros, god of fire; and Charnel, god of death. The game starts out just as a catastrophe has hit the world, and your missions reveal various bits of information about the catastrophe as a series of flashbacks. As a wandering wizard, you will choose to serve one of the gods at a time, and each will offer a variety of spells and creature-summoning abilities to lure you to its aid.
The solo campaign is structured very flexibly; between each mission you travel in ethereal form to the gods' plane where you hear their latest pleas for help. Your choices here will determine which of the game's 46 scenarios will make up the ten-level campaign. Along the way it can be very useful to switch gods to vary your mix of spells. Persephone can give you some very powerful healing spells but little in the way of offensive magic, whereas Charnel and Pyros have some very impressive direct-attack spells. The wide variety of options available gives the single-player game a good deal of replay value. Shiny will also include a few extra independent scenarios as well as a full editor for the game, so you can look for user scenarios to be available after the game's release.
Of further note, Sacrifice is being designed by a team that includes some of the creators of one of the greatest real-time strategy games of all time, Starcraft. James Phinney, who was the lead designer and producer of Blizzard's Starcraft and associate producer on Diablo and Warcraft II, has been contracted by Shiny to write the story for Sacrifice. Eric Flannum, who was the lead level designer for Starcraft, is working on Sacrifice's levels as well. Lastly, Sacrifice's artificial intelligence tools are being programmed by Dan Liebgold, the same person responsible for code work on Starcraft, Diablo, and the Battle.net online-play service.
Shiny expects the multiplayer component to be a strong draw for Sacrifice. The game's resource system is designed to encourage you to fight early and often. Without harvesting the souls of an opponent's creatures and villagers early in a game, it's impossible to be competitive - something that should make three-way fights much less defensive. Mana collection is also much less effective when you are a great distance away from your mana fountains, so you can expect violent battles over control of these strategic points. Up to four players can play Sacrifice in multiplayer. The game will support team alliances and several game modes in addition to deathmatch.
After spending a good deal of time playing Sacrifice, we're as excited as ever about Shiny's latest opus. It's refreshing to see a developer that is committed to inventing innovative settings for its games. Unfortunately, Sacrifice will be Shiny's adieu to the PC, at least for the time being: Company president Dave Perry has made it clear that he wants to focus his efforts on developing solely for the next-generation consoles after Sacrifice. The game is nearly finished, although much of the music and voice was still incomplete in the version we played - so we're very much looking forward to seeing how all the aesthetic elements will finally fit together. Shiny is taking a chance with Sacrifice's genre-bending gameplay, but it seems clear that with a little more work, it will be a very fun, great-looking, and fast-paced game.