E3 2012, day one: vermithrax pejorative

, | Features

E3 has always been about the people who make videogames controlling the message. Which is probably as it should be, given the financial stakes. It takes a special kind of irrelevance to ignore E3. This noisy concentrated blast of messages sprayed over a willing audience like chunks of watermelon at a Gallagher show is an important tool publishers use to sell their games. But since I’m not really in that line of work, and since my boss (i.e. me) isn’t paying me to pass along the controlled messages this year, I’m going to talk about what I did today instead of going to E3.

Because, frankly, I’d rather talk about a great ten year old game than a potentially great negative one year old game.

After the jump, I exercise my own special kind of irrelevance

I spent day one of E3 playing Sacrifice, an RTS made by Shiny and published by Interplay in 2001. Unlike many games published in 2001 — such as Halo, The Sims, Grand Theft Auto III, Tony Hawk 2, and Max Payne — Sacrifice is as tremendous today as it was the day it came out. It has not been replaced or displaced. It has not been surpassed at what it does. Frankly, I’m not sure it’s even been attempted. It’s a fine fine singleplayer game and an even finer multiplayer game that you can still play online with a friend and that you can still play on a LAN with only one copy.

In fact, it might be one of the finest single player RTS campaigns I’ve played. I hate single player RTS campaigns. I hate stories shoehorned into games where they don’t fit. I hate scripted missions stacked against me. I hate having to play these scripted missions in a scripted sequence. I don’t care if I can level up my marines between missions because the missions are still going to be tightly scripted hoo-ha.

But Sacrifice lets me pick my missions as I go, selecting among five squabbling gods vying for my help. My choice for any mission determines the next unit and wizard power I’ll get to use for the rest of my campaign. Some choices even give you unique hero units. The result is a DIY army and spellbook as the game progresses. Some RTSs have dabbled with this concept, but as near as I can recall, no RTS has thrown it as wide open as Sacrifice. For instance, Age of Empires III lets you develop and configure aspects of your home city as you play, which is a great way to customize the civilizations. But it doesn’t let you mix, say, Turkish janissaries with British redcoats and French villagers, using the special ability of the Indians to age up and the unique Chinese recruiting system. By giving you so much meaningful choice, Sacrifice is one of the finest single-player RTS campaigns you will ever play.

A big part of what makes it good is that the five gods are so distinct, and not just for their unique units. Their squabbling has personality thanks to the solid dialogue and superlative voice acting. I think everyone knows Tim Curry is one of the voices — wasn’t that one of Sacrifice’s bullet points back in the day? — but he doesn’t stand out, partly because he’s being so droll and partly because everyone else is so good. You can hear Cortana and Commander Shepard in Jennifer Hale’s voice, but maybe that’s because Mass Effect 3 is so recent and Cortana was such a chatterbox compared to Master Chief. The old sage, the ubervillain who shows up halfway through the game, and the wacky owl familiar Zyzyx all have distinct and memorable voices. Especially Zyzyx. I think he’s frozen in my head as what all tutorial voiceovers should sound like, not to mention all announcements of bad news. Once you’ve been told “all of your mana hoars have been slaughtered”, you’ll never forget the exact delivery of that line. It can be applied to everything from “it seems you credit card has been rejected” to “the judge has sentenced you to 20 years without parole”.

The visuals are fantastic. Crank everything all the way up. And then some! Go ahead, do it. There isn’t a computer today that can’t run Sacrifice at full detail and blindingly fast. In fact, I’m pretty sure Sacrifice would run on the LED display of your microwave and still look fantastic. The secret of the visuals is two things. First, tremendously imaginative artwork. I mean, duh. This was Shiny in all the weird glory of their funky heyday.

The second secret of the visuals is motion. The creatures in Sacrifice will not sit still. They gyrate and squirm. They flap and lumber and writhe. The shift from leg to leg and wriggle their hips like they have ants in their pants. Shiny brings this world alive through the animation of fidgeting. Compare this to one of today’s most beautiful RTSs, Sins of a Solar Empire (newly energized both in terms of visuals and gameplay with the upcoming Rebellion add-on!). In Sins, the ships are basically static shapes, but the textures are ungodly amazing. Check out the new Akkan battlecruiser:

Here, I’ll even zoom in a bit:

Sacrifice doesn’t fare nearly so well in static screenshots because you have to see it in motion to appreciate its loveable innate freakiness. This mana hoar is nothing to write home about when you look at a snapshot.

But when you see his weird little dance and the way he flaps his wings. Wings? Arms? Ears? Who knows what those are. Who cares? They’re awesome. A mana hoar is like a cross between a mutant penguin, a flappy eared beagle, a burning pikmin, a frightened Oompa Loompa, a pigeon-toed robot kupo, and one of those weird guys in Star Wars who hangs out with Lando Calrissian. Everything in Sacrifice is that weirdly adorable.

But probably the main reason I love Sacrifice is because it expresses all the hardcore finicky RTS wargaming wonkery with zero of the actual wonkiness. If I were to explain Sacrifice to you, and we were to then sit down and play a couple of games, you would accidentally learn about territory control, interdiction, reinforcements, supply lines, flanking, and combined arms. You might not realize it for a while. You might just think that you’re watching weird things beat each other up, and you are. But as you best learn how some weird things better beat up other weird things, you’re playing a pretty serious tactical wargame about territory control.

If there’s a problem with Sacrifice, it’s that you really can’t play it without learning hotkeys and reading the manual to figure out the units. This is a game about organization and positioning. Since your view is that of a commander on the battlefield (one who fortunately has some awesome spells to contribute to the fight), you can’t just click on everything from the usual god’s eye view. There’s serious crisis management involved, especially when an encounter doesn’t go your way. The ultimate goal is to control the territory so that you have the advantage in a battle, and to then cash in on successful battles. It’s a unique take on what RTS wonks call micro and macro, or the tactical level and the strategic level, or the arts of warfare versus the art of economy.

I mean, it’s still mostly weird things beating each other up. But the point is that it does very well what all RTSs do. In fact, few RTSs do it as well as Sacrifice.

I was watching a battle unfold, and there were losses on each side. Little souls appeared on the battlefield, some my blue souls, some his red souls. Souls are the primary resource in Sacrifice. To add a creature to your army, you must use a soul. The question is when to push the advantage and try to capitalize on the losses I’ve inflicted? Because I can then use those souls to increase the size of my army, and also decrease the size of his army, which will no longer be able to benefit from them. Do I move forward now and start trying to steal souls from him? Or do I let him push forward and try to take him out when he tries to steal souls from me? And what game did I just play where I was facing the same dilemma? It was something recent. I think it was an online thing. What was it? Maybe a shooter? Not an MMO, surely. I haven’t invested in an MMO in months. What game was it that Sacrifice is reminding me of now as I watch a pitched battle and wait for the right moment to go to gain a little patch of ground?

Ah, now I remember. In the larger scale realm vs. realm combat in Guild Wars 2, anyone can resurrect anyone else. So when you fight larger scale battles, it’s partly about pushing back the other mass of players so they can’t resurrect their friends on the ground. “Push them back off the bodies!” was how someone put it over the voice chat. Alternatively, we can lure them in to resurrect their friends and then kill them. It was much like the decision I faced about my wizard collecting these souls on the battlefield to swing the balance in my favor. Is it any surprise that both Sacrifice and Guild Wars 2 have the same lead designer, Eric Flannum, formerly at Shiny and currently at Arena.net?

Tomorrow: exclusive coverage of day two of E3!