Sacred 2 is a sequel long in the making. When the original game released on PC in 2004, the action RPG earned critical accolades and a cult-like following, so a sequel was bound to come down the pipe. But the sequel that CDV is publishing for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 later this year isn’t just more of the same; it’s more of, well, everything. The online multiplayer is intact, as is the hack-and-slash gameplay, but the graphics, audio and quest list have gotten bigger, badder and bolder than ever.
Although categorized as an action RPG, Sacred 2 feels for all practical purposes like a hack-and-slash game. With each defeated foe, however, players earn XP that they can use to level-up their character (to a maximum of level 200 or so) and customize their character’s attributes. The attributes are standard RPG fare — strength, stamina, vitality, dexterity, intelligence and willpower — and within those groups, players can choose to learn specific skills, spells and combat techniques.
In a nice customization nod, there’s also the option to level-up those specific attacks or defenses. So, for instance, if your High Elf learns to shoot lightning bolts from his hands, you can upgrade that skill to focus on one enemy and be stronger, or to be slightly weaker but bounce from foe to foe. Or, if that same High Elf learns to call meteors from the sky, you can choose to summon a few large meteors that cover a small area or cover a larger area with space rocks that do far less damage with each strike. This “technology tree” opens up the game considerably, and it really lets you play Sacred 2 the way you want to play it.
Technically, Sacred 2 is a prequel, as it takes place 2,000 years before the original game. Yet like any sequel, even those that don’t have “prequel” status, Sacred 2 begins and ends with its characters, of which there are six. The Seraphim, the sole returning character from the original Sacred, is an angel-like guardian who’s grown disenchanted with the state of the world and its inhabitants. The High Elf, meanwhile, is a smug, magical being who is equally efficient with traditional combat as she is with magic. The Dryad is a distant relative of the elves, an island-born warrior who has voodoo powers and uses poisonous weapons like any good Amazonian is wont to do. On the darker side of the story lies the Shadow Warrior, an undead general who’s really a big “tank” of a guy; The Temple Guardian, a werewolf-looking creature that’s part animal and part cyborg who moves like a ninja; and The Inquisitor, who’s essentially a bad Seraphim or evil wizard.
After choosing one of these six characters, players have the option of playing either the light or the dark campaign, regardless of the “intended” base, with the exception of the Seraphim and Inquisitor, which must be played one the light and dark campaigns, respectively. From there, players choose a deity to which they want to associate themselves, each of which has its own unique combat styles and quests. Regardless whether you play the good or evil campaign, the core story remains the same. For instance, the light campaign might have you protect the mayor of a given town, while the dark campaign would have a quest to kill him. Same core story, different angle.
And about those quests: Sacred 2 has more than 600 of them. That’s right, 600-plus quests. By CDV’s estimates, a single play-through with a single character/class/deity combination will take around 25 hours to complete. However, you need to take into consideration the ability to choose different deities for each character, play as different characters entirely and play either light or dark. Clearly there’s a whole lot of content crammed inside a single game disk.
This size is reflected in the game world, as well, which has 12 distinct regions spanning 22 square miles, plus two levels of underground dungeons. For those of you taking notes at home, that equates to six hours of real-world time walking from one side of the game world to the other. Fortunately, Sacred 2 also includes the ability to teleport to other areas of the map once they’ve been discovered, so players won’t have to worry about spending 20 of those 25 gameplay hours traversing the world. Sacred 2 also includes armor-capable mounts ranging from tigers to horses, which further helps with the transport time.
As you traverse this massive land of Ancaria, you’ll encounter all manner of humanoid, animal and mutated enemies. The character variation is region-appropriate, but the most impressive part about enemy encounters is that the enemy AI adjusts dynamically based on your character’s level. In Oblivion, the enemies got stronger as your character leveled up, but in Sacred 2, the enemies’ intelligence and aggression actually changes logically. For instance, if your level is too low compared to an enemy’s, that enemy could very well ignore you altogether because you don’t pose a threat. Likewise, if your level is considerably higher than a foe’s, that enemy could flee when you enter the screen. Unless they’re near a group, that is. That’s when all bets are off, as lower-level characters will cluster and attack like console fanboys if their numbers are large enough.
This dynamic AI applies to the multiplayer components of Sacred 2 as well. Whether you’re playing Sacred 2 on PC, PS3 or Xbox 360, the game supports drop-in/drop-out co-op both online and off. So, when you’re playing with friends, the AI calculates the party’s combined level and adjusts its aggression and enemy count accordingly. Things could get particularly hairy on the PC, which supports up to 16 players online or via LAN, but the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions should be much more manageable, as they support four players (up to two per console).
Aside from the dynamic AI, another nice feature about Sacred 2’s online c-op mode is that everything you unlock, earn or gather is transferred to your single-player game. Often times the hours spent playing multiplayer modes in an RPG feel “wasted,” because that time could’ve been spent augmenting your character in the single-player campaign. Not so with Sacred 2, which also includes PvP and PvE multiplayer modes.
While the gameplay is shaping up well, the graphics still have a ways to go before the game releases in September (PC) and November (PS3 and Xbox 360). Sacred 2 is running on a custom engine that’s been built during the past 4.5 years. At this point the PS3 version is the farthest behind, although its resolution is ironically closer to the PC version than the Xbox 360 build. The PC version is clearly the farthest along, but you can definitely tell the potential is there for some great graphics on all three SKUs. Some elements are already in place — dynamic lighting and shadows, textured surfaces, rain and fog weather effects and complete day/night cycles — but on the whole they’re missing much, if any, polish. The weather effects are also purely cosmetic — wind doesn’t affect ranged weapons, and rain doesn’t have an impact on your character’s speed — but the fact that they’re included at all are nice little touches for an action RPG.
Those issues can likely be fixed, but we’re less optimistic about the camera and framerate. Even at this early state, the game hiccups more than it should, leading to several comments in our play session of “this is literally hard to watch.” The camera also needs some work, as it never pans quite low enough to see what lies ahead, which leads to some untimely attacks from unseen enemies. There’s nothing more frustrating that ending up paralyzed and drained of energy by a magic-wielding yet unseen enemy. It also often seems hard to maneuver the camera into “just the right spot” — unless you like what amounts to a top-down view.
Sacred 2’s minimap and navigation should also see some polish during the next three or four months, and that’ll be a good thing. Sacred 2 tracks your active quests like Oblivion, in which one colored arrow shows on the map directing you toward the next objective. Active quest markers are also indicated on the minimap. Unfortunately, while the developers have hand-placed every element in the game world, they haven’t made it terribly easy to navigate said world, as you’ll see an arrow and know where you’re supposed to go, yet be unable to find the correct path to actually get there. Couple that with a camera that doesn’t always cooperate, and in-game navigation can be a pain.
Still, the foundation is in place for Sacred 2 to be a great action RPG, particularly if Xbox 360 owners end up disappointed with Too Human. Fallout 3, for as many people are looking forward to it, is still designed for a certain type of gamer. Sacred 2, however, seems much more approachable, with depth that’s there for people who want it but not required for those who just want to hack through some ogres, Ents and dragons. If the developers can buckle down during the next few months and address the framerate, camera and navigation — all big issues, mind you — Sacred 2 could very well be the action RPG to watch in 2008. Here’s hoping they deliver.
— Jonas Allen