The word "epic" sure gets thrown around a lot in video game reviews. It seems like whenever somebody is reviewing a role-playing game, suddenly it becomes an epic struggle between good and bad. And it's not just traditional role-playing games, the word "epic" is often used to describe the length of a Grand Theft Auto game or the way Halo wrapped up. Yet as long as those games are, they pale in comparison to Sacred 2: Fallen Angel, the sequel to hugely successful 2004 PC game. With hundreds of quests, huge bosses and a story that will take you dozens (if not hundreds) of hours to complete, Sacred 2 is the one game I've played this year that can most accurately be described as epic.
Released six months after the PC version, Fallen Angel attempts to mix two different adventure genres. On one hand it's like your standard Diablo II-style hack-n-slash dungeon crawler. However, what Ascaron has done is mix this with the trappings of a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. You get an absolutely gigantic world to explore, all without having to worry about thousands of other people getting in your way. The game isn't completely offline; it's just not as dependent on having other players populate the world.
There's a plot here, however it's so loose that you may not even notice it at first. The story mainly involves you running errands for people and solving a lot of problems. Gamers expecting a coherent Final Fantasy-style story will no doubt be disappointed. You play one of six different characters, ranging from a Shadow Warrior, an Inquisitor, a Temple Guardian and more. I chose Seraphim, who is described as an angel-like figure who comes bearing deadly weapons. With her curvy figure (to put it mildly) and uncomfortable high heels, my warrior was ready to take on tens of thousands of bad guys and (hopefully) save the day.
The game starts you out with a traditional quest, it involves you talking to townspeople and then fighting a huge monster. However, at any time you can either choose to run through the story or sit back and take out the many, MANY side quests. In each town there are people with large question marks above their heads, you can talk to them to get quests that will earn you gold and experience once completed. There's no rush on these quests, either. You can talk to a bunch of people and take on these missions whenever it's convenient for you. All of the side quests are in white, while your main quest is denoted by orange.
It's easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of side quests early on. I spend the first ten hours of my time doing nothing more than helping parents find their kids, killing monsters that are threatening the local crops and ridding caves of pirates. However, as much fun as these quests are, it's not until you start taking on the main quest that you realize just how enormous the world is. In order to explore the rest of the massive world you are going to have to defeat bosses and advance the storyline.
The entire game takes place in Ancaria, a gigantic world full of diverse locations and plenty of out of the way areas to explore. While I don't know exactly how large Ancaria really is, I can tell you that it's significantly larger than the continent found in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Not only is it larger, but it's also a whole lot more interesting. While I loved Oblivion, I couldn't help but notice how similar everything looked. That's not the case here, in one part of the world you will be fighting through the forests, while in another part of the world you will be in the middle of a sandstorm. And that's just the beginning, eventually you'll make your way through the marshy wilderness, through volcanic tunnels and much, much more. If the game is good at anything, it's taking you to far off lands that look nothing like where you came from.
Although this type of game is normally played with a mouse and keyboard, Ascaron managed to find a way to get the most out of the Xbox 360 control. Each of the game's attacks are mapped to the four face buttons, so you can set it up in whatever way is most comfortable for you. At first you can do just about everything you want with the basic four face buttons, but after a few hours you will begin to amass special abilities, extra weapons and a few powerful magic spells. Because there are so many different spells and abilities to keep track of, the developers have added eight more face button slots. To access these you can hold either the right or left trigger, allowing for a total of twelve possible slots. What's more, you are also able to map potions and other items to the D-pad.
All this may sound complicated at first, but it's a breeze switching between slots and performing the right task. It may not be as sleek as just pushing a button on a keyboard, but this is about the best you can hope for when it comes to a console port. In fact, I would argue that this is the very best example of how to port a Diablo-style dungeon crawler to a home console. I can only hope that if Blizzard decides to port their upcoming Diablo III to a console, they pay close attention to what Ascaron was able to accomplish with this release.
For the most part the weapons and items are traditional fantasy fair. You are given swords, hammers, hatchets, spears, and a whole host of other items you would see in just about any game in the genre. The difference here is that you aren't necessarily stuck using only one weapon at a time. In so many role-playing games you have to go into the menu and equip a new weapon when you want a change, in Sacred 2 you are able to switch weapons on the fly. This quick switch reminded me of what Fable II did last year, how you can go from hacking somebody up with a sword to shooting them with your gun. In my case I had highly advanced ninja throwing stars, a weapon that made taking out long distance enemies a breeze. However, if for some reason I missed the bad guys and they advanced, then I was ready with my sword to finish them off. All this is done at the touch of a button, making the control and feel of the game very streamlined.
Like the weaponry, the enemies and bosses you fight are straight out of every fantasy MMO you've ever played. Expect to hack and slash orcs, spiders, dragons, zombies, skeletons and a whole host of other baddies. In fact, outside of having a masterfully done control scheme, there really isn't a lot that feels brand new about Sacred 2. Now granted, few adventure games are this large and of such quality when they hit the console, but it's not like this game is breaking new ground or anything. Fans of the genre will feel right at home here and if you're somebody who generally doesn't like this kind of game, then chances are Sacred 2 isn't going to change your mind. Still, there are very few adventure games as good as this on the Xbox 360, so it's worth putting up with some genre cliches here and there.
Unlike something like Final Fantasy XI or World of Warcraft, Sacred 2 is a perfectly enjoyable experience for a solo player. There comes a time in most MMO games where you need a large group of people in order to beat a dungeon or particular boss. That's not the case here. With the right weapons, armor and magic, you can kick just about any bad guy's butt. And if you can't, then don't worry, because all it will take is you leveling up a few more times and buying better equipment. The bad guys scale to your experience level, but not in a way where you never feel very powerful. It was around my tenth hour that I realized that I'm a force to be reckoned with, and from then on I felt like I was able to take down any enemy that got in my way. Unfortunately that cocky attitude ultimately got me killed a few times, but even then I felt a sense of power that is missing in Oblivion and other similar games.
While you can go through the game by yourself, the real fun comes when you and a friend team up to take on Ancaria. Sacred 2 can be played co-op both online and off, with up to four players going through the quest at once. The game is clearly built around the communal nature of the game, since even when you're playing by yourself you are still technically online. With friends the idea of having more than 600 quests to complete doesn't feel as daunting. And if you're the type of gamer who wants to get their money's worth out of every game they buy, then you can't go wrong with Fallen Angel. Completists will be hacking away at this game for months ... if not longer. I cannot stress enough how much there is to do in this game; this is a massive, massive game that I feel like I only touched the tip of. Did I end up beating all 600 missions? Of course not, but I look forward to jumping back in and helping each and every person I find out.
In case you haven't noticed, I really enjoyed my time with Sacred 2. But having said that, there are some major problems that keep this game from getting an even higher score. For one thing, the game has some severe technical problems. On my system I found the frame rate to be terribly inconsistent, sometimes slowing down to a crawl. Worse yet, the game has a tendency of crashing at some inappropriate times (as opposed to all of those times when you want your Xbox 360 to freeze up). Perhaps the biggest problem I've read about (but not experience firsthand, thank god) is the fact that from time to time your save data will become corrupted. Thankfully this did not happen to me, but I can imagine being irate if all my time in the game was erased because of some technical snafu. Your opinion of the game will no doubt have a lot to do with how well the game runs on your system, if you have limited problems (like me) then you'll come away happy with your experience. However, if the game constantly freezes and you lose your data, then I have a hunch that Sacred 2 will sit on your shelf collecting dust while you curse its very existence.
There's another problem, though for some people it may not be an issue. The problem is pausing ... or rather, the lack of pausing. It's been a long time since I played a console game where you couldn't pause the action, and I can tell you right now that I don't like it. I'm sure there are some gamers who won't have a problem with this, they'll just sit down and kick butt for hours on end. But I'm not that kind of gamer. I tend to have quite a few things going on at once, so from time to time I actually need to pause. The only respite you get is to teleport yourself to a town or find a nice hiding spot. This is doable, but even that is a pain. I found myself ignoring the phone and not answering the door because I was in the middle of heated battles, something that I shouldn't have to put up with when playing a console game. This problem also plagued the PC version, however, after much complaining, the fans ended up getting a pause button with a patch. Yet despite seeing the outrage by the PC fans, Ascaron opted against adding it to this port. Hopefully Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners will get this issue patched, but it should have been something that was included from the get-go.
There are a few other minor complaints. For example, the world can be a little convoluted and hard to navigate. This isn't a big deal in the wide-open areas, but when you're dealing with mountains and forests it's sometimes hard to see where you can and cannot go. The game has this weird thing about throwing up invisible walls, some of which don't make a lot of sense. Why much my character walk all the way around a tiny foot-high hill, why not just jump down? Why can't I seem to go through the forests? Is that really how close I can get to a mountain? These are questions I kept asking as I played through the game. These issues aren't as important as not being able to pause or having the game freeze on you, but they are issues nonetheless.
The game's graphics are deceiving. I wasn't impressed by the visuals on the back of the box, but when I started playing the game I was blown away. Yes there are frame rate issues, however when the game is moving smoothly it looks about as good as this type of game can look. You're seeing things from a slightly overhead perspective, one that you can zoom in and out of. The problem with this type of camera angle is that it's kind of hard to see what's directly ahead of you, so you don't get the sense of grandeur that you did in Oblivion. I wish I could look out and see what was in front of me, but I can't. Even with that limitation, the graphics are spectacular. The bosses are large and beautifully animated, the diverse locations are all incredibly detailed and everything looks as good as you would hope from this type of game.
With its amazing graphics, worthwhile online gameplay, enormous world and creatively implemented control scheme, Sacred 2: Fallen Angel is a real winner. In fact, the only things keeping this game from being a near perfect entry in the genre are the terrible technical issues, the lack of a pause button and a generic storyline. If you can get past those few small problems, then you and your friends are going to find a lot to like in Sacred 2. It may not have the impact of Diablo II, but Fallen Angel is a real gem worth tracking down. I love this game ... and will love it even more when somebody makes a match that fixes the technical problems and adds a pause button.