Retro: Sacrifice

By Kieron Gillen on October 24th, 2008 at 5:09 pm.

This is about as sane as Sacrifice got.

[With Good Old Games' launch meaning that Sacrifice is once again available to buy, I thought I'd republish this old piece on RPS. A version of it originally appeared in PC Gamer as part of their Long Play series, but it's lived at my blog for a couple of years too. This version has a few tweaks to make more time-appropriate.]

Sacrifice makes me sad.

It’s not that it didn’t get a sequel. It’s not that it didn’t sell at all. It’s not that despite its critical appeal, it’s barely referenced today despite having innovated a number of mechanics and technologies. It’s not that now, years later, Shiny are a laughing stock among gamers’ for the various Matrix misadventures when once they were this good. Hell – it’s not even that due to gamers’ goldfish memories that Shiny’s entire history has been tarnished, with them being Stalinistically revised to always being hopeless.

Sacrifice makes me sad for even bigger reasons.

It’s is an action-strategy game, a sub-genre that often received highs-core plaudits only ever found an sizeable audience in its most-militaristic first-person shooter incarnations (Starting with Rainbow Six, in a road that lead to Brothers in Arms et al). Set in a bizarre fantasy world, with five miffed deities waging war against each other, you play a wizard. Not a floppy-hat wizard – but a childhood fever-dream nightmarishly warped wizard.

In the manner directly inspired by eight-bit Spectrum classic Chaos, you’re capable not only of zapping people with thaumatological attacks but summoning followers to war for you. Freshly created, you can order them in an RTS fashion, telling them to go attack distant places, protect things and so on. Its resource-management is built tightly into the skirmish. You war over mana-fonts, which provide the magical energy to power your abilities. The size of your armies is limited to the number of souls you have – your own which can be recycled from the bodies of the fallen or the enemies harvested from his corpses by a soul-doctor spell. It’s not much of a high-level strategy game, more about group tactics and the chaotic melees. Going in with your army arrayed around you, trying to make a difference inside the scrum, summoning the sort of soldiers who’d best take down the opposition…

Yeah, this don't make much sense either.

And playing now, it’s amazing what you’ve forgotten. It’s a game which has kind of found itself in PC Gamer’s Top 100 every year through its reputation rather than an active familiarity with it. Last great Shiny game, looked really weird, blah-blah-blah. Except it’s painfully better than that. Take one obvious thing that never gets mentioned among the “Hieronymus Bosch does Command and Conquer”-isms: It’s funny. Really funny. While the similar period Giants gets remembered as being packed full of gags, the brilliantly-voice acted and sharply scripted Sacrifice gets no credit. “Of course I don’t want to destroy the world,” the Death God Charnel argues pointedly, “that’s where all the good slaughters happen”. “Haven’t we all had enough of war?” speaks James, the voice of reason in the heavens. “NO!” ripostes everyone else in perfectly-timed shouted chorus. Away from the world-play, it applies the highest calibre of slapstick. One of James’ highest level spells is an in-gag reference to Earthworm Jim, where the wizard fires a several hundred ton cow into the sky. Thirty seconds or so later it returns, a single target annihilated beneath this beef-missile.

The name of the spell? Bovine Intervention.

Technologically speaking, while it debuted in Messiah, it was the first time where Shiny managed to get their tessellation technology really working, radically scaling the level of detail in the graphics according to the distance. Absolutely standard now, but then an innovation – in fact, so well implemented that while obliviously ageing technology, on full whack is a highly acceptable visual experience.

But it’s the mechanics which throw you. Why do we credit Black & White with pushing its gesture control system when Sacrifice did a subtle, low-key version of it a year earlier? Here the pop-up menus being gradually forgotten about as you discover merely tracing a shape in the air is enough to cause the same effects, seamlessly ordering your followers into defensive positions. It’s an elegant control system, in that it supplements then supersedes rather than merely replacing a more traditional system.

With the mouse-tracing system, the mechanics of “souls” being the game’s economy, being a radical take on RTS-ideas and general timbre of unbridled creativity, the most obvious modern parallel to Sacrifice is Darwinia… and while there’s a mirror in their lack of their deserved commercial success, thinking about Sacrifice makes me sadder than Introversion’s game. Because Darwinia seems like a game with a future – that it’s going somewhere, is a role-model for a whole load of underground creators and another step in Introversion’s plan for whatever the hell it is Introversion want to do.

Sacrifice on the other hand had no future. It was an ending. It was the end of Shiny as a true creative force. It was the end of a certain period of PC games, where a budget to allow real production values was spent on something so self-evidently quirky. In other words, there’s the nagging sensation in the same was as they’ll never be another Nietzsche or Bowie or Amiga Power, we’ll never see its like again. The world which allowed its creation is simply gone forever… and the future that Sacrifice tried to foretell was a more interesting one than the one which we got.

And I couldn't find a grab of the cow.

Perversely, as the console-generation clock ticks around, a full eight years after its release it – at its best – feels more next generation than the majority of new games. The maximum level magic powers remain overwhelmingly impressive. A full active volcano erupting beneath you, ground swelling up like a boil of tectonic flesh before cracking open, shooting a hot steam of lava defiantly into the air, all and sundry running. Being snatched up by a whirlwind, spinning around in the ether while still stumblingly trying to control your forces. A towering embodiment of Death, striding the earth and killing indiscriminately. Spiked plants of death lashing out at all and sundry, impaling and lobbing them high into the sky. The bore circling away from its target, etching a spiral into the ground before the very soil itself falls away into the infinite void. We’ve seen things that have aspired to this sort of devastation in classical strategy games, but it’s completely different from the first person. Compared to this poetry of annihilation, a world where a G36 is the height of violence wrought is a little depressing. Seeing glass explode when they could use the same technology to rend mountainsides asunder… put simply, I seen scant things on the X360 that are even a fraction as impressive.

Sacrifice reminds me exactly how good, how imaginative, how brilliant it’s possible for a videogame to be and it’s clear that no-one’s going to spend serious money on making a game like it ever again.

That doesn’t just make me sad. It makes me suicidal.

[Sacrifice is available for $5.99 From Good Old Games]

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94 Comments »

  1. Pavel says:

    Never played this. Will play this.Gog.com, here I come!

  2. Downloads_Plz says:

    I’m sure the last line was meant as a pun regarding the game’s name, but the thought of a suicide note saying “There’s no games like Sacrifice anymore” made me laugh a bit.

    But regarding the topic at hand, agreed. Though I’ve never played Sacrifice myself, I feel the same way when I go back and play the classic Monkey Island games. Knowing that those type of games are likely gone forever, at least from any sort of mainstream attention/release, and that there will almost certainly never be a Monkey Island 5 so long as the Star Wars franchise keeps printing out free money to LucasArts, depresses me to no end.

  3. Jim Rossignol says:

    This game is one of the all-time greats. Everyone should play it.

  4. jalf says:

    I didn’t actually like it that much. Or rather, it’s one of those games that I thought looked cool, played, and *wanted* to like, but ultimately, never really got hooked on.
    I’m sorry, please don’t flame me, everyone. I wanted to like it, I really did! :p

    (Incidentally, TF2 falls in the same category. I was super-hyped up about it before release, and was nagging all my friends who’d never played TFC about how awesome TF2 was gonna be. Now it’s out, and it’s everyone else who are playing it non-stop)

    Not sure *why* I lost interest in Sacrifice. I seem to remember it getting frustrating and somewhat repetitive after a while. Dunno. Maybe I should buy it again and give it another chance.

  5. shinygerbil says:

    Have played this, but not much. Will play this again. Gog.com, here I come!

  6. Colthor says:

    Sacrifice is brilliant. GoG is brilliant. Everything’s brilliant. Huzzah!

  7. Azhrarn says:

    Hmm, thanks for reminding me of that one, I should have an original disc of it here somewhere. :D
    Been ages since I played it.

  8. Mark-P says:

    I didn’t like the actual gameplay of Sacrifice all that much. It was all too hectic, with too little control and only one real slow, attrition-based strategy that I could find to repeat on each level.

    But gosh darn, the visual and audio design and overall ambience was fantastic, and still without peer.

  9. gulag says:

    If somebody decided to make a game based on the Magic: The Gathering meta-setting, ie. Planeswalking magicians summoning monsters and casting spells, then it would look a lot like this. Cracking game.

  10. Jakson Breen says:

    This brings me back to the days when I was a avid subscriber to CGW, and it was plastered with ads from this game. I remember seeing them and first thinking, “What the hell is this?”, and then looking again, and thinking, “…Sweet…”. Alas, I was never able to play it, but I will soon correct that indiscretion. But not before I finish another “oldie” that I’ve wanted to play: “Siege of Avalon”.

  11. Frag.Stag says:

    I only ever got to play this because it came with a video card. I still remember getting the mother of dragons. (“Yes, little one?”) Now I have to track it down.

  12. VladTheInhaler says:

    I was so psyched to see a post yesterday about Good Old Games and rushed over right away to get a new copy of Sacrifice. I actually still have my original disc but could never get it to work on up-to-date systems.

    Played for hours last night and the game holds up even 8 years later. Definitely an overlooked classic. Visual design, voice acting, story, presentation, game mechanics – all top notch even by today’s standards.

    And the Scapex editor was one of the first easy to use level editors. I’m gonna download the map collection linked from the GOG site today. Maybe some of my old maps are in there? :)

  13. CrashT says:

    Sacrifice was my first purchase when I got into the GoG Beta.

  14. Pags says:

    I can’t help but agree wholeheartedly with your point about maximum level powers; even the games that cast you as ubermensch nowadays (Crackdown, Crysis, etc.) don’t give you the option to create a volcano beneath your very feet. Shiny seemed to have a knack for creating games where it felt truly joyous to be mighty, rather than be po-faced about it all. Messiah and Giants are the other two obvious examples of this knack.

  15. Flint says:

    I greatly enjoyed the idea, the free selection on who to work for and the wackiness of it all but then my RTS allergy striked again and I could never complete the game because the missions just became too much for my pathetic RTS commandeering skills.

    Shame.

  16. matte_k says:

    Gave this a spin a few months back; still as enjoyable now as it was back then-being able to pick who to work for of the five gods in different orders resulting in different spells/creatures each game is still a joy.

    Stupidly bloody hard last level though, that’s my only complaint. Respect to GoG for making it available to a horde of people who may have never checked it out.

    (I’d also forgotten it was the only game I know of that let you spawn up to four copies for LAN multiplay (only) from one disc-not a bad idea…)

  17. BrokenSymmetry says:

    Another classic Kieron Gillen piece. Bravo!

  18. eyemessiah says:

    One of my favourite games. Its worth mentioning that the voice acting is generally quite good and there is some nice writing in there too.

    It had a difficult patch history though, with newer patches breaking the game for some people. At the time it was quite painful because although the need to patch certain CTD’s and glitches was quite pressing, each of the three patches seemed to drive another batch of people away from the multiplayer to the point where my flatmate accused me of being the only person playing Sac online.

    Great multiplayer too! Coop against the computer was fun, and large scale freeforalls were the most agreeable form of psychedelic tactical chaos.

    And yes, finding yourself in the middle of an ongoing Bore “spiral” was pretty dread inducing – leading to some exciting last minute teleport escapes, saving your valuable high-soul creatures from plunging into the abyss.

    Summoning death was always something of an exciting gamble too, being that he slaughters your own units as casually as your enemy.

    Admittedly some of the units were a bit obtuse and there were some balance issues with the multiplayer, but imho these were minor blemishes.

    Good times!

  19. Dolphan says:

    Does the $5.99 include tax? I’m budgeting furiously at the moment but RPS is tempting me again …

  20. M_the_C says:

    As I mentioned in the GOG article, I’ve already bought this and recommend it to people who want to try something different, and don’t mind that the game is getting on a bit now. Although it still looks perfectly acceptable to me, almost certainly because of the brilliant style.

    Did anyone else watch the credits all the way through? This and Portal have the best end credits in my opinion.

  21. Pags says:

    Funny how the passages of time have made me forget the severe, debilitating troubles I had with the patches. I seem to remember I may have even cried when one patch stopped the game working for me altogether (I was 10 at the time, hush).

  22. Al says:

    I was one of the few that actually bought a boxed copy of it. I think there’s less than 20,000 of us lucky souls.

    A superb game. Must dig it out again.

  23. Diogo Ribeiro says:

    “Why do we credit Black & White with pushing its gesture control system when Sacrifice did a subtle, low-key version of it a year earlier?”

    Why do we credit any game for pushing certain features when other games prior to it were the real innovators, really?

  24. NNeko says:

    Sacrifice lead to Overlord more directly than Dungeon Keeper did and anybody who says otherwise clearly hasn’t played one-or-more of the listed games.

    But the thing I really remember Sacrifice for was that it actually handled the possibility of player failure in a graceful way almost on par with Dune 2 or Wing Commander (where there were actual failure branches instead of just “You Lose. Retry?”)… See, Sacrifice is all played from a retrospective told as a story where failure results in a “But of course that’s not what *really* happened… here, let me tell it again…” cutscene that is brilliant in its combined simplicity and effectiveness.

  25. cyrenic says:

    This caught my eye yesterday when I was looking around at GoG. I’m very tempted to check it out now, likely I will.

  26. Andrew says:

    It’s really bloody hard but excellent despite that.

  27. Quater says:

    Yeah Overlord is definitely Sacrifice + Pikmin rather than having much to do with Dungeon Keeper (beyond playing as the ‘bad guy’).

    I have to say I never really got on with Sacrifice that well. I played the early stages a few times but I just felt somehow that it was being a bit obtuse in some ways – weird just for the sake of it. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it does make gameplay rather unintuitive in places and I often found myself wondering why all my guys were dying when I didn’t feel like I was doing anything wrong.

    Still, it had great charm. My favourite unit was the weird flying-mouth sort of thing that had sonic scream attacks and spoke with a rather suave deep Kelsey Grammar sort of voice. You’d order him to go somewhere and he’d say, “With a song in my heart!”

  28. Gorgeras says:

    Whilst perfectly respecting Jaff’s right to an independent opinion PREPARE TO DIE HERETIC!!

    Attrition gameplay is the bane of all RTS single-player. But it’s mainly caused by a very lazy design choice to always give the CPU pre-built structures and units. This means it is natural to assume you must turtle for ten minutes and then do one massive zerg. Even in Starcraft, you didn’t have to be Zerg to be heavily encouraged to use Turtle- then-Zerg strategy.

    Sacrifice though was one of those games where this wasn’t completely neccessary, but it took some bold experimentation to see it.

    The multiplayer was heavily bugged and always crashed and you could rarely get a game. But when you did, it was glorious. It was my first experience of the concept of ‘different kinds of experts’. In most RTS games there are experts that always own you with a Marines-type race, experts that always own you with some kind of Robot-type race and those good enough to get you with Random.

    But Sacrifice was one where there were no Charnel experts, no Stratos experts or Random experts. Completing the game meant you could play online with the configuration of spells and units you earned in the single-player, the later patch removed this meritocracy and let you fully customise your online toon easily as long as you were restricted by the same level Spell-Monster bracket. To have the devastating Volcano spell, you had to have the fragile Pheonix unit.

    There were some wonderful match-ups. How do you win by bringing six level 1 units to a FFA fight against three other players with about 15-20 higher level units? Choose James’ Troggs as your level 1 unit of course: they are completely immune to all wizard damage spells, even with friendly fire turned on. Your volcano wipes out all units except your Troggs and anyone elses; but you only summoned six and kept the rest of your souls in reserve. Once the volcano has finished, call your manahoars to res you, set your Troggs on any surviving wizard and start summoning Air units like crazy to wipe up all the enemy Troggs while they are busy picking all their souls back up.

    To people who haven’t played Sacrifice, this would have been insane nonsense.

  29. terror says:

    Does it have skirmish mode vs AI?

  30. tom@nullpointer.co.uk says:

    I loved sacrifice a lot. I was a sucker for the realtime in the fray direct your troops sort of rts (battlezone etc), but it was the willful psychadelic imagery that made it so exciting. Proof again that just because 3d can look realisitc doesnt mean it has to be. In sacrifice it felt like the engine was a tool to express the vision rather than the other way around like we see so much of today.

  31. Kalain says:

    Great game and I agree with everything. In this latest age of next-gen games, i’ve yet to see anything come close to this game. It was superb from start to end and had me enthralled for hours at a time.

    Think it might be time to dust down the old box and replay it again and bask in it’s beauty.

  32. flow nazi says:

    all and sundry twice

  33. Gorgeras says:

    I can’t remember anything about skirmish, but I’m 80% certain there was one because the CPU AI in the single-player was quite advanced and pulled some pretty extraordinary tactics out.

    Unfortunately the one thing an AI wizard didn’t do was organise his/her units into formations, send them out to scout(they were ridiculously schizophrenic about their souls; using ALL of them when summoning an army but never splitting them up, which was the most sure-fire win button) or deliberately send any to be slaughtered in order to secure a victory.

    Formations were more useful than people understood, especially when friendly fire is on by default. People were losing their entire armies in seconds because their units were shooting each other in the back, melee wasn’t screening the ranged and the ranged wasn’t far back enough.

    Tip: Ignore what the tutorial says about putting manahoars in phanlax formation on you: they are going to die in big fights. Put light ranged in Phanlax, heavy ranged in Line, heavy melee in Skirmish where they have big gaps for ranged to shoot through, air in a Semi-Circle and leave out Bombard-artillary completely except to help defend manaliths with the Guard spell and some Heavy melee.

    Any remaining units should be fast light units set in the same pattern above but centred on a medium melee unit that won’t out-run them but won’t take away their speed advantage. This second group of units should be used to flank using their superior speed, stopping a wizard escaping.

    This all assumes the enemy wizard won’t use or has access to their level 9 ‘destroy everything’ spell.

  34. Gorgeras says:

    Some bad news courtes of Wikipedia: Interplay still holds the rights to Sacrifice and their current CEO is the ex-CEO of Titus, who bought a controlling share in Interplay and badly mismanaged it into irrelevence. They are only just managing to attempt a comeback because they sold the rights to Fallout to Bethesda.

  35. Pidesco says:

    Are unique, innovative big budget games dying? Or are they dead?

  36. Heliocentric says:

    I own 3 copies of Sacrifice, the most recent from gog. Now i can relax about my discs decaying. I am maybe one of a hundred who played this online last year. Lets see this year have more. The ai is nothing compared to starcr- i mean, compared to the versitility of a human player.

    I disagree with the main sentiment of the article. Technology is meaning you no longer need massive budgets to make games like this. Sure an indie-sacrifice wouldn’t have top of the range graphics but really thats not what we are talking about. Big publishers must be terrified of the pc, just as the big music companies are. They are no longer needed for anything except the most hyped extremes of the medium and that territory wont be theirs long. Sacrifices future has been delayed.

    It cannot be stopped.

  37. Seniath says:

    Good game, went back to it about a year ago (I think after reading this article) and completed it again. Great game, and a vertiable who’s who of game voice acting; Tim Curry, Jennifer Hale, Rob Paulsen, Tony Jay, Neil Ross… the list goes on. Top notch stuff indeed.

  38. Subject 706 says:

    Hope never dies RPS! These are the kinds of games the PC should return to.

  39. MetalCircus says:

    Well written advert for GoG!

  40. Ergates says:

    I can still remember the voice of the God of Air (Helios?) – the one with a helium filled balloon for a head.

    I can’t remember anything he said, but I can remember his voice. Odd.

  41. thesombrerokid says:

    ABSLOUTLY BLODY FANTASTIC GAME!

    could never get any one to play me at it though :’(

  42. Werty says:

    Ergates says:
    I can still remember the voice of the God of Air (Helios?) – the one with a helium filled balloon for a head.
    I can’t remember anything he said, but I can remember his voice. Odd.

    “I am Stratos, god of air and supreme lord of the heavens, bringer of storms, the mover of the firmament. Ah let’s do be honest, shall we? In any halfway civilized world I would be the only god.”

    I still remember many of the lines, the voice acting was excellent and the story too. It really is a shame what happened to Shiny after MDK and Sacrifice.

  43. baf says:

    I picked up a remaindered copy of Sacrifice many years ago, but never managed to get it to work. It told me the registration key was invalid. Glad to hear I’ll finally be able to get the chance!

  44. Sandoval says:

    I adore Sacrifice for its art direction, technical achievements, voice acting, and writing–I’ve played through it at least five times. But frankly, the gameplay ain’t very good.

    The designers committed themselves to two features–soul-snatching and a hero-centric gameplay–that ultimately couldn’t be reconciled with good gameplay. The problem with the former is that there is no delay in picking up blue souls, but a huge delay in extracting red souls–which furthermore must then be brought back to an altar. I’m not sure if anyone ever played this game multiplayer, but if you did, you know how next-to-impossible it is to ever successfully take souls from the other player. (It’s slightly, but not greatly, easier to do so from the AI.)

    The only way to really capture souls, then, is to kill the enemy wizard and army at the same time. The problem is that the hero-centric gameplay means that reviving a wizard is ludicrously easy. To kill him, you have to wipe out his manahoars *and* keep him from any neutral or friendly mana wells. Of course, he can summon manahoars as fast as you can kill them, so you really need to get him and the ‘hoars in one fell swoop. And then you need to kill his army, harvest their souls, and get them back to your base before he can reach a friendly well and revive.

    And that’s just to tip the balance of power SLIGHTLY in your favor.

    The second problem with the hero-centric gameplay is that in order to offer some combat other than hero-blob versus hero-blob, the game let you tether units to mana wells, making them somewhere in the range of 5-10 more powerful. Only with a massively superior army could you overcome a tethered force, which meant that against another player, matches almost always wound up a stalemate with the weaker player totally tethered to the well near his home base. Stealing his souls at that point is simply impossible, so you can never really get an army large enough to dislodge his smaller force.

    All this is off-set in the single-player game with area-of-effect insta-kill spells, which are the only way to get enemy souls in large battles (sometimes you can get souls when the enemy has tethered a small force to a well a long way from his hero).

    Every single-player game I played degenerated into me using the long-range artillery (the only unit that can really break tethered enemies) and AOE spells to trench-crawl from my base to the enemy’s.

    All that said, I love the game as an overall package, but I’m not totally sympathetic to cries that it failed commercially because it was too innovative or too quirky or not in a Tolkien-derived setting. That may be true, but it DESERVED to fail commercially for being, at bottom, a poorly designed game. All the wonderful window-dressing in the world can’t fix that.

  45. Will Tomas says:

    Bought. GOG is wonderful.

  46. Heliocentric says:

    Sandoval. You are doing it wrong. And in the game? Your arguement seems to be, its too balanced and too easy to win/lose. Some units can move at incredible speed others can be invisible. Grinding in fights is certainly not the only option.

  47. Erlam says:

    “I was one of the few that actually bought a boxed copy of it. I think there’s less than 20,000 of us lucky souls.”

    I have one too!

    I had mixed feelings about the game. I guessed the ending in the first video, like when you start a new game, and the last level is just retarded hard. It’s a breeze if you have certain spells/units*, but if you mixed your stuff up in a non-power gamer way, you were pretty fucked.

    The visuals were stunning though — and not in a ‘super new graphix!!11 check the bloom!11111one’ way, but just that it had such unique character and feeling.

    I found multiplayer to be a little too much ‘whomever wins the first battle wins’ for my tastes, but fighting the computer was some pretty great fun.

  48. Bobby says:

    “Why do we credit Black & White with pushing its gesture control system when Sacrifice did a subtle, low-key version of it a year earlier?”

    That one’s easy: Black&White had a long dev cycle and announced its gesture system near the beginning of development. Sacrifice’s mention of the system came later, and most people assumed (possibly rightly so) that Shiny had just borrowed the idea from B&W’s announcements.

    @Sandoval: tethered creatures could be taken more easily than you seem to think, with the right creatures on your side. Everything followed a rock-paper-scissors pattern and it was rare for people to tether a really significant force because of the loss in offensive mobility.

  49. Sandoval says:

    @ Heliocentric: No, my argument is that it’s too *HARD* to win/lose in multiplayer, and too easy to *GRIND* to victory in single player.

    @ Sandoval: It depends what’s tethered. As long as you can outrange the tethered enemies, you can take them somewhat easily. But who ever tethered anything other than the longest-ranged unit they had at the time?

    It’s possible that I missed some more flexible strategy, but I’m skeptical that I did. I don’t see a way to take souls without having total domination of the battlefield, which means that surgical strikes are far less valuable than mass power.