Sacred was one of the better action role-playing games to come down the pike in recent years. Released in March 2004, Sacred delivered solid, Diablo-inspired gameplay along with a few innovations thrown into the mix. Approximately 18 months later, we now have Sacred Underworld, the expansion to Sacred. As expected, Underworld delivers some high-level gameplay for Sacred fans as well as a few tweaks, though everything that we liked and didn't like about the original game remains pretty much the same.
Picking up immediately where Sacred left off, Underworld introduces a new threat, as well as new environments to explore. Basically, Prince Valor was killed in the Pyrrhic victory of Sacred. At the beginning of Underworld, his widow, Vilya, is kidnapped by a monstrous demon. Before you know it, you're off once again to plow through a ridiculous number of monsters, pick up mountains of gold, and collect a bewildering amount of equipment, all in the name of slaying the latest evildoer.
Since Underworld was designed for high-level characters, you can import your existing Sacred character (so long as he or she is at least level 25), or you can select one of the two new characters introduced in the expansion, the daemon and the dwarf. As with the characters from the core game, the new characters have predetermined genders (the daemon is female, the dwarf is male), but they also start at a very high level, allowing newcomers to jump into the fray immediately without having to build up a new character from scratch. Don't worry, though--you'll still have plenty of opportunity to customize your character, thanks to the wide range of equipment and skills that you can select from in the expansion.
One of the nice features of Sacred is the fact that it's set in a predefined world, unlike the randomly generated levels of Diablo. There's a real feeling that you're exploring a coherent world, though you'll be far too busy slaying monsters to admire the scenery. As with Sacred, everywhere you traverse in Underworld outside of a town is crawling with monsters, ranging from large worms and gigantic mutated antlike creatures to insect-like demons and more. And then there are the humanoid opponents, clad in arms and armor, though it makes no difference, because virtually every type of enemy is able to drop various types of loot. Before you know it, you'll pack around hundreds of thousands of gold pieces, as well as a several pack mules' worth of gear.
In a way, Underworld almost goes out of control in terms of scale, though if you like gathering stuff, then this is your game. Since you start the expansion at level 25 or higher, it doesn't make sense for the loot or experience to start small. So, before you know it, you're dishing out hundreds of hit points of damage for every hit, and amassing hundreds, if not thousands, of experience points for every minor kill, though you'll certainly need them, since it takes a mountain of experience to level up. And virtually every item in the expansion packs a slew of modifiers that can affect any of your character's abilities, meaning that you can spend a lot of time analyzing which combination of items to go with. Items can be upgraded or enchanted through the use of sockets, or by finding the nearest village smith and getting him to improve an existing piece of equipment.
Alas, the combat system is still a bit finicky in Underworld, particularly when you're trying to engage a flying unit. Basically, it's hard to line up an attack properly, and it's easy to lose track of what's going on in a fight. A bigger issue is that you still can't walk 10 steps without getting caught up in yet another melee with a half-dozen opponents. This makes getting anywhere in Sacred almost like a chore rather than an adventure, and you'll get to the point where you will simply want to bypass most opponents. You can purchase and ride horses to get around the world, though it's still not much faster than walking, and you have to dismount every single time to pick up an item. And judging by the rate at which monsters drop loot, it's probably more efficient simply to pass on the mount altogether.
Graphically, Underworld does introduce a few new interface tweaks, but it's still got the pretty 2D graphics engine that blends in 3D lighting effects. The game still runs at a fixed resolution, and you can still zoom in to get a close-up view of the action or zoom out for a big-picture view of the world. Meanwhile, the animations and creatures remain strong. The multiplayer is pretty much the same, though it does feature some tougher dragons to make team play much more important. When you get down to it, if you enjoyed Sacred, then you'll no doubt enjoy Underworld; it pretty much offers more of the same, but at a ramped-up level.