Sacrifice by Shiny Entertainment is one of the most unusual PC games this year. It's also one of the best looking, and it even sounds great. Clearly, tremendous effort went into the game's unique fully 3D presentation and into formulating the similarly unusual play mechanics. Nevertheless, at its core, Sacrifice is actually a fairly straightforward real-time strategy game, whose pitched battles can have a tendency to turn into long-lasting stalemates. But the action has a lot of variety and is paced very quickly, both in the single-player campaign and in the multiplayer mode. And since the game has such a distinctive style, you'll more than likely find Sacrifice to be at least as enjoyable as it is strange.
In Sacrifice, you play as a wizard who opts to represent individual members of a pantheon of gods. These five gods aren't just central to the plot and the setting, but they're central to the gameplay itself. Each god grants you his or her respective arsenal of magical spells, which can be used to summon creatures, attack foes, and more. To summon creatures, your wizard needs souls; and to cast any spell at all, your wizard needs mana. Souls and mana are the game's resources. You start with a certain surplus of souls, but you can otherwise collect them from the corpses of your fallen foes. Meanwhile, your supply of mana regenerates if you stand in close proximity to mana fountains, which are scattered across the land. Your rivals can also replenish their mana from these fountains - unless you erect a "manalith," a structure that will restore mana only to you. To replenish your mana when you're not right next to your manaliths, you'll need to summon creatures called manahoars. These pudgy yet quick little beings channel mana straight to your wizard, and the more of them you have at your side, the faster you'll regain mana. But you can't win battles with just manahoars - you'll rarely want many more than a few around, as each one costs a soul that you could've used to summon a stronger creature.
You can help defend a manalith - and yourself, if you're near it - by using a guardian spell to effectively chain one of your creatures to it, which in turn makes that creature significantly stronger. But in doing so, you deny that creature its mobility. Since souls are limited, you'll have to choose carefully between defending your manaliths and keeping a strong, mobile force at your side. You can summon creatures quickly - this in turn makes the pacing of Sacrifice very fast - and you'll need a variety of ranged, flying, and close-attack creatures to counter your foe's similar assortment of beasts. Eventually, if you can defeat your enemy's forces either with superior numbers or with better unit micromanagement, then you can rush toward the enemy altar - his starting point - and sacrifice one of your creatures there, thus desecrating the enemy shrine and completely defeating the opponent. Playing Sacrifice takes getting used to, but the mechanics are actually complicated just at the surface level, mostly because the game initially seems so strange.
It may be weird, but Sacrifice is also an undeniably impressive-looking game. From the fantastic, brightly colored terrain, to the bizarre creatures, to the incredible spell effects, virtually everything in Sacrifice looks great. You'll notice small details, such as individual flowers growing in the verdant plains belonging to the goddess of life, Persephone, or the buzzing flies and gnats that teem through the pestilent lands of the god of death, Charnel. The game's third-person perspective gives a close-up view of the striking landscapes of Sacrifice, and this view also lets you get up close and personal with the dozens of wonderful, intricately animated creatures in the game. Sacrifice's 3D engine does have some slight problems; for instance, you'll sometimes notice polygons being added and dropped from particular objects as you grow closer to and farther away from them. Also, some of the animations look slightly off - some of the characters seem to skate along surfaces instead of moving across them more naturally. But such blemishes are in no way significant, because Sacrifice looks so great in so many other ways. In fact, between the dreamlike environments that stretch far into the horizon and the great variety of creatures that populate them, certainly the game's graphics are one of its best features. The graphics are also highly scalable - the game plays well even on relatively slow machines, while it'll also take full advantage of the fastest systems and video cards currently available.
Not only does Sacrifice look great, but it also sounds very good. Each of the different creatures has a correspondingly unusual sound to it. Some of them actually speak, while others make noises - but in either case, the creatures in Sacrifice tend to sound as bizarre as they look. The wizard character that you control also has his own unique voice - you play as the sage wizard Eldred during the campaign, though many different wizards of every shape are available to choose from in the game's multiplayer mode. The wizards all utter strange, magical syllables in their own voice as they summon creatures and structures and cast spells, and the spells never sound quite the same way twice. Unfortunately, this variety doesn't characterize the game's narrator. While his remarks during battle are clear and informative, they can also get very repetitive. You might get frustrated as you keep hearing "Your creatures are dying!" during battles with powerful opponents. But in general, there's much variety to the speech in Sacrifice. In particular, there's a lot of talking during the game's campaign, as in between each mission you'll hear the gods bicker among themselves. This dialogue is often funny, and you'll soon grow to like all the gods' personalities on account of the great voice acting that brings each of these strange characters to life. Sacrifice even has an impressive symphonic soundtrack, which has subtle recurrent themes for each of the game's five gods.
Regardless of which of the gods you choose to serve, Sacrifice plays in essentially the same way. You control your fast-moving wizard from a third-person view, using a mouse and keyboard combination that'll be familiar if you've played a 3D action game recently. In addition to moving swiftly about the battlefield, collecting souls and avoiding attacks, you also need to cast your various spells to succeed. You can cast spells using the onscreen buttons along the bottom of the screen, but since these can be out of reach in the heat of battle, you're better off memorizing the hotkeys that correspond with your various abilities. Also, although it's easy to simply order a swarm of your units to defend you in the early portions of the game, as you face more challenging opponents, you'll need to learn to split your forces into discrete groups. In addition, you'll have to learn the various preset formations to keep the creatures in line. You can choose formations by using a convenient and unobtrusive pop-up interface or by using a hotkey.
Unfortunately, Sacrifice's third-person perspective - while it looks great - isn't very well suited to the strategic aspects of the game. Namely, you can't really see what's happening behind your wizard, let alone to either side of him. Instead, you must constantly rely on your minimap in the corner of the screen to inform you of enemies, souls, and other important features in your vicinity. The minimap is fairly informative, but you'll still have to depend upon it much more than you'd wish. For instance, the minimap provides the most convenient means of letting you issue orders to your troops; it's more difficult both to find them and also to point them in the right direction just from the 3D third-person view. It's surprising that you have to spend so much of every battle scrutinizing a small map speckled with colored dots - it's almost as if all the great visual effects serve only to distract you from noticing what's really going on.
There are other problems with playing Sacrifice, in that there's often no particular incentive to press the attack against your enemy. Specifically, the further you get from your territory, the slower your mana replenishes. And while you can readily pick up the souls of your creatures that fall in battle, to claim the souls of your enemies, you need to cast a spell that causes their souls to be carried back to your altar for conversion (or to a shrine, which you can build instead of a manalith). Therefore, the closer you get to your enemy, the easier it is for him to convert your own fallen creatures' souls. For this reason, and also since it's usually impossible to gain souls without killing enemy creatures, more often than not you'll just be inclined to wait for your enemy to come to you. Even if you don't, because it's so easy to pick up your own creatures' souls, and generally difficult to successfully convert enemy souls, you'll find that it's difficult to gain any real advantage unless you completely repel your enemy's attack. And then in that case, the momentum of the battle shifts so drastically in your favor that your opponent will likely get frustrated. Due to the nature of the momentum of the game, if you're losing in Sacrifice, it can be extremely difficult to mount a comeback.
Fortunately there are a lot of different ways to play Sacrifice, and many of them let you avoid the potentially frustrating elements of the combat. Sacrifice's single-player campaign pits you against a host of aggressive computer opponents. This campaign has a lot of replay value, as it lets you ally yourself with any of the five gods, one mission at a time, and shift allegiance between missions and play the sides against each other if you choose. Depending on your choices, you'll get different missions later in the campaign, and you'll also get a different combination of spells and creatures. This loose structure, in addition to the interesting plot, makes Sacrifice's campaign very worthwhile. You can also opt to play with up to three human or computer opponents in a skirmish match, in which you can set a number of different starting parameters and choose from a wide variety of maps. In multiplayer Sacrifice, your wizard actually gains experience as he fights, and experience levels bestow new spells, which can give you the edge against your enemy if you play more aggressively. Also, multiplayer Sacrifice has numerous offshoot modes, such as slaughter, where you aim for a high kill count, and soul harvest, where you try to collect the most souls. These variations aren't quite as interesting as the standard mode, but they still provide a change of pace.
Sacrifice supports online play and has a fully integrated player-matching service, though it doesn't have a direct-connect TCP/IP option. The game also comes with a very amusing manual that's written from the perspective of the different gods. Sacrifice even includes a powerful map builder called Scapex, which lets you easily build a great-looking Sacrifice level from a fully 3D view. Since the layout of a Sacrifice map can drastically affect the way in which you must conduct the battle, and since the level editor works so well - and, most importantly, since Sacrifice is such an interesting game - Scapex is bound to give Sacrifice a great deal of longevity. This, along with the fact that Sacrifice looks and sounds so good, is reason enough to recommend the game. It can take you awhile to learn the game, and some of the elements of the combat may occasionally prove unwieldy, but most everything else about Sacrifice is so inventive that you should be able to turn a blind eye to its shortcomings and enjoy the game for its many outstanding qualities.