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Decade Feature – 2000: Sacrifice

October 31st, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 9 Comments · Feature:Decade, Retro

What this is about.

The just shall live by faith and kill by hellmouths.

Sacrifice is the very definition of a cult hit. Like so many other strategy games that have come and gone through the years, it attracted a small and devoted following but never really got the traction that the Starcrafts and Warcrafts and Total Wars have.

It’s not hard to see why. Sacrifice was a bit of an ugly game, even at the time. Though the art design was stunning in some places, you spent most of your time running around a blocky looking world ordering around units that you could barely distinguish from a distance. You can see polygonal shapes dropping in and out sometimes. The universe of Sacrifice is a clear example of inspired visual concepts running into the technical limitations of the era. Seen up close, the 3D effect was impressive, but also obviously incomplete. The same art design today would turn out much different, I bet, though even this would not have turned Sacrifice into a hit.


It’s an odd game. It’s clearly a real time strategy game. You summon units from harvested resources (in this case, souls) and command them to fight your enemies. Matches end in the destruction of the enemy base and a party for everyone involved. But you don’t get the bird’s eye view you got in most RTSes. You direct an avatar – a wizard – and your view of the battlefield is largely limited by what he can see or make out from the mini-map. You can’t quick snap to a trouble spot without spending mana on a teleport spell…in all it’s a cumbersome approach to real time strategy. Sacrifice is almost an RTS adaptation of capture-the-flag, with a lot of worry about whether or not your home base has enough protection if the enemy wizard shows up first and whether you have enough mana fountains to keep things going.

This made it hard to keep an eye on what was going on where. While cat herding is inherent to the RTS world, the third person perspective made it even more confusing. Multiplayer games are always stressful – Sacrifice in multiplayer was a pounding headache because you had really very little idea what was going on with your enemy most of the time. Teleporting, binding, setting guards, killer stacks to escort your wizard…it could kill a man.

In many ways, Sacrifice lives on in Overlord, the sarcastic console action/RTS/RPG. In both you summon assistants to work with you while you do the heavy work of spell casting or boss beating. Unlike Overlord, however, there’s constant strategic thinking going on. The maps are only so big, so maybe you can stick some archers on that pass. Or bind a melee thug to a mana fountain to slow down an attack. The third person perspective just makes it even messier.

If I were a New Games Journalist, whatever that is, I could probably make the case that Sacrifice is one of the best indictments of religion available in the gaming sphere. The campaign opens with your hero gazing upon a field of fallen soldiers, wondering at all that had come to pass. Then you flash back to the beginning, with your wizard hero offering to do jobs for five squabbling gods. Victory in any battle means harvesting the souls of fallen foes and sentencing one of your followers to be sacrificed on an enemy altar. The entire game is about a holy war that your hero tries to manipulate for his own ends, i.e., your own enjoyment. Since you know from the opening campaign cinematic that this will not end well, the only real mystery in the campaign is which path you take to Armageddon and the final battle against your Real Enemy. There are no illusions that the gods will co-operate or come to some Pantheon of Harmony. Only one can rule.


While Sacrifice is justly praised for its original game play mechanics and peculiarly crafted world, it remains one of the best written strategy games I’ve ever played. The campaign is majestic and captivating in a way that few RTS campaigns are, even though much of the writing is simply one god spouting nonsense. But the five gods are so distinct, so alive, that you can see how they would attract followers. Persephone, the goddess of nature, is as belligerent in her own way as Charnel, the god of death. James, the earth god modeled on Shiny’s hit hero Earthworm Jim, is downright friendly where Pyro, the fire god, behaves like a tycoon from the Industrial Revolution. Then there’s Stratos, with the balloon head. Few RTS campaigns have had antagonists so well realized, especially when you consider that your encounters with them are limited to lectures about why the others gods are so stupid.

In a way, Sacrifice belongs more to the 1990s than the 2000s. Of course, that’s the thing with decade divisions – history doesn’t move in neat ten year bundles. But Sacrifice‘s unique aesthetic and peculiar design makes it a symbol of a design philosophy in decline, not a harbinger of strategy design pioneering to come. The last decade has – in all genres – become dominated by franchises and clones and comfortable modes of play. Sacrifice was not comfortable.

We’ve seen a lot of remakes recently, and somewhere someone is probably thinking about remaking Sacrifice. This is not a bad idea, especially since the design would be very console friendly. It had one of the earliest radial selection menus, the commands were relatively simple, and most of the action centers on your avatar making selection of targets and units easier than in the traditional RTS.

Next up, Bruce Geryk looks at Combat Mission and how it changed wargaming for him, but not the wargaming industry.

(All images courtesy of Mobygames.)


9 Comments so far ↓

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  • Thomas Kiley

    Very interesting read, really made me want to go pick it up! I haven’t played Brutal Legend, but based on the TMA podcast, it sounds reasonably similar. Have you played it and what do you think of it as a comparison?

  • Troy

    I haven’t played Brutal Legend, but Tom has made the comparison.

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  • Osmosisch

    Sacrifice is currently available from gog.com by the way for those who are intrigued and want to try it out.

    I couldn’t disagree more strongly about the visuals by the way. Together with Giants:Citizen Kabuto this game stands out to me as one that has stood the test of time through inspired design and a scaling engine. It looked great back then and I still find its presentation of the world appealing.

  • Troy

    Yes, and thank god for GoG. That’s where I found a version that worked.

    Re the visuals, I like the look of the game very much but there’s no denying that it doesn’t make things easy on you. Can you tell a sylph from a druid from 100 paces? Not easily. Control groups are not simply convenient in Sacrifice – they help you keep your units separate.

    But the colors are great, the conceptual art design is original and brilliant and no other game was quite so creative. Giants, btw, was a game that I wanted to write about for this series for the very visuals. I decided to pass on it, though.

  • Jim

    Sacrifice is my favourite game of all time for many reasons, therefore I have to disagree on a few points.

    The Graphics are / were breathtaking – the first time you see the spiralling beanstalks reaching to the strange coloured sky, you know you are in another world. There hadn’t been any game that had featured such amazing world destruction as the volcano and mole that could be cast by your avatar. The characters, for the most part, were pretty easy to differentiate, and the grouping was sufficient (not perfect by any stretch of the imagination).

    I also firmly believe that Sac proved that a strategy game could have minimal resource gathering (but what a brilliant mechanic – you could always stop the enemy’s witch doctors, and speed up yours etc) and the trade off between souls and mana (manahores) early on was always a difficult one. The third person view gave such an immediate feeling to the action – you WERE amongst it. The disorientation felt when in a massive battle was completely fitting, but if you wanted to be safer, and have more of a standard top down view, you could run to the top of a hill and zoom out.

    As mentioned in the article, the characters, especially of the gods were amazing. Tim Curry playing Stratos and also the voice work of Zyzyx (not sure the actor’s name) just made the game feel so alive.

    Yes, I am a bit of a fan boi – but for those who have never played it, and like the idea of a magical themed action RTS with great characters and brilliant story, check it out.

  • Quitch

    I think you make a good point Troy about Sacrifice on the console. I believe it could succeed there for the very reasons it failed on the PC, the interface.

    I remember playing this back when Shiny was a name to pay attention to. Yet I simply could not get over the interface, I could see it wanted me to play an RTS, but it all felt so clumsy. On a console this would be the only way to play, and indeed we’ve seen other games, such as RPGs, have success on the console by moving from an overhead to a 3rd person view.

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