[9 June 2009]
It’s one of gaming’s overlooked mysteries. How exactly did the Diablo franchise spawn an entire subgenre of games still going strong after a decade with very little refinement to the original formula?
When you get to the heart of it, the Diablo games and their clones have always suffered cavern-sized problems. There’s often no compelling central plot—just tiny meaningless side quests leading up to a duel with the ultimate evil lurking deep down in the catacombs. They’re also plagued by entirely repetitive game mechanics consisting mostly of clicking a mouse button or the A button over and over until the creature you fight dies and collecting whatever it left behind (a piece of gold or some uber-magic staff?) and repeat. There’s so little complexity to the action that a half-drunk panda bear could pick it up in matter of minutes.
Yet, the Dungeon Sieges and Titan Quests of the world still keep coming. There might not be a better example of this strange phenomenon than Sacred II. By most accounts, Ascaron’s latest entry in the Diablo wannabe universe is a terrible train wreck of a video game. Let us count the ways.
Underwhelming graphics that hiccup and slow down to a slideshow-like crawl when there are multiple enemies on screen? Check. Lame main story that reads like it was part of a Dungeons and Dragons’ module plotted via Mad Libs? Check. More huge bugs than an Amazonian rainforest in the summer? Yep. Tired kill-kill-kill gameplay that lacks any sort of nuance or platforming or puzzle elements to break up the monotony? Uh huh.
All of these things are true, but the question remains: if Sacred 2 is so bad, how come I can’t stop playing?
Perhaps there’s just something hardwired in our brains that the hack and slash action-RPG insidiously massages that makes them so damn addictive. There’s an undeniable micro-reward aspect to them that sometimes makes you feel like a lab rat. You paw away at a lever for a small piece of cheese—or as is the case with action RPG’s—a magic bow with +8 to intelligence.
In the middle of these games, I feel the incessant need to play just a bit more I just need to play a bit more until I find a gem for my socketed two handed sword or a bit more to gain enough experience to level and get my Frozen Hands skill or a bit more to get enough gold to be able to afford that rare belt that gives +7 to my agility. A few of those “a little bit mores” and suddenly it’s 7 a.m., you’ve been playing for 12 straight hours and you fall asleep at your desk at work the next day dreaming about completing your master suit of armor.
It’s certainly not the plot that will keep you up late. In Sacred 2, you get to choose from the usual cast of hulking sword-wielding warriors or hot elven mage ladies in the medieval fantasy land of Ancaria. The land is in trouble is because of the high elves and T-energy, a glowing bright blue magic fluid that serves as Ancaria’s oil of sorts.
Most of what you’ll spend your time on is the hundreds of quests that pop up along the way. Most of them feel like throwaway stuff from World of Warcraft—rescuing husbands, wives, and children from dungeons, collecting a set number of herbs, or killing a set amount of monsters—but there were a few that were a bit inventive. My favorite involves a fourth wall busting quest where you must locate the instruments of Blind Guardian—the throwback metal band that provides music for the game’s soundtrack. Once you collect the drumsticks, guitar, microphone. and bass, you are treated to an amusing cinema of a medieval rock concert that I won’t spoil.
Most of the critical thinking in Sacred II comes through the complex character building aspects of the game. You’ll be instantly familiar with the way that basic character stats and skills work as they do in any other RPG. You gain experience, level up, and assign points to attributes like strength and willpower. Then, you pick one of several skills to specialize in and choose which power to soup up on a skill tree that branches out. To make a character that excels in Sacred II takes some planning. I made a Temple Guardian that I wanted to act as a ranged fighter, but I made some mistakes and he could seemingly hardly kill a rat at level 10. My flamethrowing High Elf, however, is successful because I was more methodical with allotting points and skills.
Where the game does better than its countless peers are in its controls, which feel intuitive and simple, something that RPGs often don’t pull off when making the transition from PC to console. Instead of having to bother with cycling through spells while trying to fend off baddies, you can select actions by pressing the face buttons with the shoulder buttons used to select yet more actions for the same buttons.
The multiplayer is also a highlight considering that the single-player is seamlessly integrated over Xbox Live and single player campaigns can be set so other players can drop in and out at will when you’re online. You may also play the game at your leisure with friends in a free-play setting or take on competitors in PvP play.
At times, playing Sacred II feels more like manipulating a database than saving a world from evil given how so much time is spent searching for rare magic items and in completing interchangeable quests. But oh what a fun database it proves to be.