He who controls the T-Energy, controls creation. And controlling creation naturally grants a wielder the ability to inflict (on the opposite side of this powerful coin) destruction. Therein lies the dichotomy of journeys available in Sacred 2: Fallen Angel -- the path of Light versus the path of Shadow.
Role-playing gamers are perhaps overly familiar with these two well-trodden paths, neither of them feeling anymore like the road less taken. Robert Frost would be nonplussed. But after all the choose-your-own-adventure options we’ve been enjoying in games like Oblivion, BioShock, and Mass Effect, not having the disjointed options would come off as a limiting oversight. These two paths don’t converge in Sacred 2 either, so you must decide from the onset whether you’re traversing the land of Ancaria to restore yin-yang to a world stricken off balance, or to tip those scales of power in your favor. There’s no room for ambiguity in Ancaria. You’re either for it, or against it.
During CDV Editors Day ’08, I enjoyed spoonfuls of a very tasty hands-on demo of German developer Ascaron’s healthy little baby. Although “little” becomes an obvious misnomer the moment you stare at the immense map, stretching across 22 square miles (35 square kilometers). This is boldly approaching half the size of World of Warcraft’s Azeroth, but remember: Sacred 2 isn’t an MMO, it’s a single-player action RPG.
But “single-player” is also a tad misleading when up to 16 players (on the PC) can drop in and out throughout the course of my travels. In fact, Sacred 2 is heavily-geared towards seamless multiplayer interaction, allowing extra players to pop in and out on-the-fly, with monster populations and stats scaling up and down behind the scenes, playing up to its player-character competition. Sacred 2 is prepared to match any challenge you and 15 others can throw at it, allowing you to save your progress by any means necessary. Not only that, Ascaron is working feverishly to make ad hoc connections happen for online players. You might be sitting next to someone on an airplane, and be able to jump into a multiplayer match with them right then and there, as quickly and easily as other portable gaming devices like Nintendo DSes and Sony PSPs. We’ll see just how ironed-out this feature is by the time the game goes gold, or if they had to ultimately abandon this incredibly rare feature for RPG gamers.
The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions (trailing the PC’s release date by a couple months) shrink this small-form MMO action to a rate that consoles can readily handle -- due to “memory issues,” publisher CDV Quality Assurance Manager Mike Tata informs. The less beefy 360 and PS3 are limited to four-person multiplayer, with everybody restrained to holding hands on the same screen, Gauntlet-style, whereas the PC version will allow its cavalcade of players to roam wild and free across its canvas. While it would be ridiculous to have 16 players tethered to a single screen, a lot of time can be spent trying to pinpoint and catch up to one another on the PC.
As far as localization progress, only the early-game story is translated into English so far, and the rather talkative Shadow Warrior -- a bulging bicep of a resurrected fighter, and my character of choice -- was throwing out epithets in full-on German with a governator accent. I haphazardly suggested that the developers keep the German dialect for the Shadow Warrior in the English version of the game. You know, for some pride and authenticity in Sacred 2’s Deutschland roots. My request was duly noted and disregarded. Every line of text and voice acting will be carefully translated for American eyes and ears.
As my bratwurst-eating Shadow Warrior pummeled his way through an idyllic, Mediterranean climate in central Ancaria, other players made cameos with the rest of Sacred 2’s cast: The game’s iconic carryover from the original Sacred, the buxom, pony-tailed Seraphim; the lithe, magical, and snooty High Elf; the Amazonian, witchdoctor-headdressed Dryad; the erudite, dark-side-only Inquisitor; and the Anubis-snouted Temple Guardian. And of course, others tried out the aforementioned Roman armor-clad Shadow Warrior.
If this roster looks a tad unfamiliar, it should. The Seraphim, the statuesque and stiletto-wearing Fallen Angel in the subtitle, is a creature from the future … that was also present at the dawn of time. The arcane High Elves have been slinging dirty politics like HBO’s Rome, all while basking in the favored light of the Seraphim. That is, until the Seraphim stopped caring. You can picture the Inquisitor as a Star Wars-ian Emperor Palpatine that will spread an electrified arc out from his fingertips, and drink your milkshake while he’s doing it. The Shadow Warrior is resurrected and rather irate, yet can vie for the side of good or evil in his undead life. And the dog-like Temple Guardian is a muscle-tissued cyborg with one arm replaced by a T-Energy-blasting pulse rifle.
Kansas? Forget it, Dorothy. You left Kansas a long time ago. Which is exactly what gives Sacred 2 its unmistakable profile and singular character. High fantasy just got into a 10-car pileup with cyberpunk, and it’s making Stargate fans do a double-take. And that’s before you bring in the different deities to worship, all of which veer the availability of certain combat abilities and storyline quests, making an element of spirituality unmistakable as well. “Separation of church and state” Americans are going to have to swallow their atheism to get through this one.
In this 2,000-years-before-the-original prequel, I roam across the Caribbean blue coastlines of the High Elf region, grittier stone-stacked Human lands, marshlands, deserts, jungles, and wastelands. I climb the crystal-sparkling towers of the Seraphim, the pyramidal ziggurats of the Dryads, and the snow-less tundra that the Orcs call home. The landscapes are as varied as the dramatis personae, but erring more on the side of realism. And as my Shadow Warrior slays his way from corner to corner of the myriad countrysides, he also paces through intricately-detailed towns, well-populated capitol cities, and lonely farmsteads. And never once did I have a load screen impede my progress. The exploration is seamless, free-form, and hundreds-of-hours big.
To combat this architecturally-sound setup, I put the Shadow Warrior through the expected RPG paces. He fends off droves of goblins and runs along cobblestone highways with bandits lying in wait, thick as thieves. He rummages through temple ruins as hovering Chinese dragon tadpoles (as far as I could tell) swirl about the angry temple carvings and leafy fronds. He backs himself against a dark forested wall as undead skeletons trample about in full D&D armor.
Over 100 archetypes of monsters and bosses claim the land between the different races’ city-states and territories, all of them ready to accept my blood, sweat, and tears as sacrificial offerings. There’s also a triumvirate of bosses that are so massive that the game camera is incapable of fitting them entirely onto one screen: A grimacing earth elemental golem (he could’ve been bigger), a red dragon (you saw that one coming), and a 10,000-leagues-under-the-sea-sized nautilus that will re-instill your fear in oceanic depths (now we’re talking).
Regardless of whether you’re on the Light side or the Shadow side, the enemies willing to put a stop to your crusade will populate both paths. How you dispatch those enemies -- with an ever-growing caravan of skills and abilities -- will be directed by the side you choose. The developers’ original plan was to have all 20 possible abilities at your disposal from the word “Go.” But after much play-testing, Ascaron concluded that this overwhelmed players with too many choices, and so they decided to reduce the tsunami to a simpler wake of purchasable options. At the time of this writing, completing the tutorial will net you one starting ability, and enough currency to purchase perhaps two more. The rest of the 20 will trickle in gradually. In addition, these abilities are scaleable. Don’t like that widespread and weak meteor shower? Concentrate it down to fewer meteors hitting for increased damage. It’s your spell. Kill them fast, or kill them slow -- it’s your call.
And there’s four ways to kill-on-sight if you’re doing it with other players. Campaign Mode has you and your buddies trek through the storyline cooperatively; experience and loot is shared, just like you were taught in kindergarten. Free Mode tears away the main quest, and only leaves side quests to pursue -- great for opening up the entire gameworld from the get-go, and is also “ideal for power-leveling.” Plus, there’s the arena. You can have multiplayer PvE fights against waves of specific groups of enemies, or multiplayer PvP fights, where you stab other players as much as possible in order to climb the online leader board.
I’ve been racking my brain for days now, and like CDV has noted themselves, I just can’t think of any features that are seriously lacking. Sacred 2 is a no-joke full-bodied experience, with a gorging amount of meat and drink for RPG die-hards, but still starts off with a unique and manageable learning curve. You begin as a boy and his sword, or a girl and her spell -- with several degrees of variation between -- on the first step of a legendary undertaking to either keep the world’s supply of T-Energy in check, or begin funneling that supply to meet your own nefarious ends.