The Greatest Game You Never Played

2010-08-25 by . 1 comments

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I love that quote

If you’ve never heard of Sacrifice, the title should be a bit of a dead give away.  If, by some miracle, you did hear about it, or even play it once or twice, it’s probably only a vague memory.  To those few of us who played and loved this game, it holds a special place in our hearts.  If you are one of those lucky few, you may skip this article and go with the sound knowledge that you did right.  On the other hand, if you never heard of Sacrifice, or did, but never played it, I have a short exercise for you.  I want you to raise your right hand (or left for those of you lacking a right hand) and in a strong slapping motion, I want you to slap yourself in the face.  If, for medical reasons, you are incapable of slapping yourself, find a near friend and have them slap you.

How does that feel? Does it sting? Well it should, because you missed out on God’s gift to gaming.

To help you understand what you missed, allow me to take you back in time to the year 2000.  George W. Bush had just been elected leader of the free world amidst a giant scanda,l and Saddam Hussein was denying weapon’s inspectors access to Iraq while mocking the plurality (good thing ol’ Dubya’s not the vengeful type…).  People still thought the Wachowski brothers were good film makers, and Palm Pilots were still “cool” (or at least as cool as Palm Pilots ever were).  If you were a Console gamer, the Playstation 2 had just launched and Sony was enjoying its heyday.  Final Fantasy VIII had come out the year before with its pre-rendered graphics which had left everyone hopeful for the future of computer graphics, as most things still looked like VII.  If you were a PC gamer, you were probably still playing Brood War or Counter Strike (which was just about to go retail).  If you were a Mac user, you were still reeling over the news that Microsoft had purchased Bungie and now Halo would not longer be Mac’s premier game.  It was fall, and everyone was waiting for the Christmas lineup.  I suppose it’s understandable that you missed it  You missed Sacrifice… what were you thinking?

I suppose I shouldn’t blame you too much; no, Interplay and Shiny deserve just as much blame.  They were too concerned with promoting a game called Messiah to notice the diamond right in front of them.  We all know how that ended:

A picture of Shiny's Follow ups (ie. not good games)

Was it Really Worth it?

I’m not sure how you expect me to explain what you missed.  It’s like the Second Coming happened while you were in the bathroom, and then afterward, you asked someone “What’d I miss?”  “The rapture, that’s what you missed.” “Was it any good?” “Yeah, we all got to go to heaven and see our loved ones again.” “Darn.”

The story of Sacrifice is an amazing one, and why shouldn’t it be? it was written by James Phinney, who was hot off finishing the story of Starcraft.  But Phinney wasn’t the only former Blizzard employee; Eric Flannum (Warcraft 2, Diablo, and StarCraft) was the Lead Designer.  Of course, the inspiration for the game came from Martin Brownlow, who was a big fan of Chaos: The Battle of Wizards. This small team of top notch game builders conspired to put together one of the greatest games ever made.

Drawing on the Messiah engine, the designers expanded upon a simplistic technology of tessellation, the process of producing more edges from a given model.  The makers of Sacrifice were restricted to the, then state of the art, GeForce 2 which had little more than transform, clipping, and lighting.  Where as Messiah had designed tessellation to allow a given model to increase or decrease its polygon count based on distance, Sacrifice applied this technique to the entire world.  Instead of reducing the draw distance, objects further away would receive fewer polygons.  As these objects came  closer, more polygons could be filled in through tessellation.  You may have heard of this technology recently, as it is one of the core enhancements in DirectX 11 (the geometry shader).  Only this was released 7 years before DirectX 11.

In addition to an innovating graphics engine, Sacrifice also decide to change the nature of the UI through Gesture Control technology.  Black & White is often credited for the first major integration of gesture control in a video game, but Sacrifice predates it by almost 6 months.  Instead of requiring the user to memorize an arcane set of gestures, Sacrifice uses a simple anywhere-on-screen  menu.  This menu is brought up at any part of the screen with a single click and is navigated by hovering over the menu items in each of the cardinal directions.  Sub-menus appear on hover, with releasing indicating selection.  While this may seem just like a fancy menu, the reality is that placing menu and sub-menu items in cardinal directions results in selection through gestures.  What’s more, your fall back (if you don’t know or remember the gesture) is a legible menu.  Perhaps Peter Molyneux should have taken more notes when he was “inventing” gestures in video games.

Of course, interfaces only go so far, what you really need to take off is looks, and boy did Sacrifice ever have them.  Shiny Entertainment is best known for the Earth Worm Jim series, and in Sacrifice it really shows; who else would create a God of Air with a balloon for a head?  Every unit had to be able to tessellate from a tetrahedron so some of the strangest designs imaginable arise.

Yes, this is your army. No, it's not a painting by Salvador Dali

To add to a beautiful visual aesthetic, Phinney wrote one of the most interesting original stories.  You play as a Sorcerer, former emperor, who has escaped death to come to some new world.  Arriving here you find yourself amongst 5 gods… who are bickering.  Now the Christians will tell you one god is a hassle, the Muslims will tell you the trouble of two gods, but the Greeks will tell you how 5 gods bickering is just gravy.  Seeing your opportunity, you decide to “sell your sword” as it were.  Unlike games which boast multiple paths, but  really only have one story, Sacrifice actually has multiple paths.  Each time you choose to side with one of the gods, you’re giving up the opportunity the other ones are offering you.  What’s more, there are at least 7 different endings, not including the good/bad final choice.  To add to that, every mission grants you a new unit, and which mission you choose dictates which unit (strange how Blizzard latched onto this idea 10 years later).  As a result, your choices are not only affecting the story, but changing your unit composition as well (RPG aspect anyone?).  But even that wasn’t good enough for Shiny, they went ahead and hired Brad Garret and Tim Curry.  Perhaps you’ve heard of him?

But all that is good and everything, but what a real gamer cares about is the game play.  What is the game play like?  Well I’m glad you asked, faceless audience member who I use to advance my discussion of the game.  Sacrifice occupies that Holy Grail of gaming the RTSFPS genre, and it does it in spades.  RTSFPS is a very funny idea in video games and it generally grows out of: I like RTS and I like FPS, if only I had some game which combines both, that would be awesome.  In reality, it is hard, and almost impossible, to execute.  In fact, I’ve only seen it done well 3 times, Sacrifice being one of them.  How’s the cheek feeling? Does it still sting? Well it should.

Sacrifice accomplishes this feat by using a Mercantilistic resource system.  Where most games have a theoretically limited amount of resources in them, Sacrifice takes this to the extreme.  In most games, you’ll never have more resources than you start with.  The basic resource of Sacrifice is the Soul (what did you think gods were fighting over?).  You can spend souls to summon units and you start with a small amount (~20).  When your units die, you have a chance to reclaim their souls and spend them again.  What’s more, when your opponent’s units die, you can capture their souls and sacrifice them on your alter to claim them permanently.  Unfortunately, your opponent has the same opportunity.  This basic struggle, combined with a small maximum force size (a dozen or so units as most units cost more than one soul) leads to a very enjoyable experience, completely divorced from a game like Savage.  Your second resource is Mana, which is the polar opposite of the first.  Even if you do nothing to gain more, you’ll constantly produce more mana (up to your maximum) and store it in your reserve.  There are a number of ways to increase this gain, such as building Manaliths on Manafounts and channeling it through Manahoars (no, I didn’t misspell any of those words).  Mana is used to summon your units (in addition to souls) as well as cast spells.  Ill give you a sample of what your spells are: one of your spells is called Bovine Intervention and is essentially The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch meets a cow on a diving board.

Sadly, Sacrifice was considered a financial failure glare.  After the backlash from over hyping Messiah, Shiny decided to go with a minimalistic approach to marketing Sacrifice.  The result: the Greatest Game of All Time, and you never heard about it before today.  You know what? Slap yourselves again.

For those of you seeking to make amends, $10 buys a lot of forgiveness.

One Comment

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  • TheQ says:

    I still miss this game. I have it stored away in my bags somewhere and bring it out to play every now and then. I’m regretful that the multiplayer experience is barren due to the lack of attention the game received.

    The single player campaign, however, remains fun to play to this day. I’m glad I’m not the only one who found this game extraordinary.

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