We're not sure how deliberate the choice of venue for our second look at Ascaron's forthcoming action RPG, Sacred 2, has been - but we're quietly impressed nonetheless. We're in a bar just off Oxford Street called Jerusalem; a city most notable for being, well, sacred, to three of the world's biggest religions. Nice touch.
Inside, the latest build of Sacred 2 is humming away on a bank of PCs, with the Xbox 360 build being demonstrated at one end of the room. Ascaron staff are on hand to present the game, glowing with pride at how far the game has come since its prequel was launched in 2004.
They have a point, on that front. Sacred 2 is a vast, generational leap ahead of its predecessor. Visually, it offers up a colourful, beautiful and incredibly detailed 3D world which stands proud amongst some of the nicest looking games of the last 12 months.
In gameplay terms, the range of character customisation and development options on offer helps it to stand out nicely from everything else in the genre - while the multiplayer options here may finally be the holy grail for which action RPG fans have been hunting in vain.
Two Steps Forward, Two Thousand Years Back
For such a vast leap forwards, Sacred 2 starts with an equally vast leap backwards; 2000 years, in fact, setting the series a whole two millenia before the events of Sacred. This is a sensible move - although Sacred was very popular within the action RPG genre, Ascaron is hoping to reach a whole new audience of gamers with Sacred 2. Setting the storyline so long before the original game essentially means that there's no need to know the first thing about what has come before.
The basic story is, at least, something of a departure from the usual Farm Boy Accepts His Destiny And Fights World-Threatening Evil schlock. The idea is that a divine power called T-energy has accidentally been released into the mortal world, giving its users the capacity for great technological advancement - but also causing nasty, dangerous mutations in areas where the power is tapped from underground and bubbles to the surface.
As a result of this power's emergence, the world is ruled by the High Elves, who have utilised it to build a technologically advanced society. Living alongside them (and often subservient to them) are more medieval, feudal races like the humans and the orcs, who don't use T-energy to the same extent, if at all.
There are six playable characters in the game, and interestingly, only two of them have their main storyline set out for them from the outset. There are two major quest lines that run from start to finish of the game; the Light campaign, which sees you returning the power of T-energy to the gods and removing it from the world, and the Shadow campaign, in which you harness the power to become a powerful ruler.
The Seraphim, who is the only character to return from the first game (she's the ludicrously pneumatic and badly made-up lass in the screenshots - very popular with fans, we're told, which suggests unfortunate things about how long it's been since those fans knew the touch of a woman), must follow the Light campaign - after all, it's her race that were responsible for screwing up and unleashing the T-energy in the first place, and she's been sent to clean up the mess. The Inquisitor, meanwhile, is part of an organisation devoted to using T-energy to create a new society, and must follow the Shadow campaign.
The rest of the characters, however, can pick and choose - even those whom you might expect to be "Shadow" aligned by nature, such as the Shadow Warrior. He's an undead knight, a human who served the High Elves in life and was brought back as a sword-wielding, necromancy-practising servant after his death. We approve. Various other fantasy staples populate the game, and unlike some action RPGs, there are some nicely balanced looking magic-users in the mix.
Moreover, Ascaron has focused heavily on customisation. Never mind the choice of which quest to follow with your character, the choice of how to develop your character's skills is the real meat on Sacred 2's lovely bones. As in many other RPGs (WoW springs readily to mind as an example), there are three key areas in which each character can be develop their skills, and how heavily you focus on each one is entirely up to you.
Sacred 2 goes beyond most such games by also giving you choices about how you progress individual spells and attacks. The aim is to create a game with so many combat options that it'll be rare for any two players to have the same character and play style; the developers are somewhat disparaging, in fact, about games where there are obvious, universal strategies for each class in the end-game.
The common example of how they're combatting this is the humble fireball spell - a staple of action RPGs since time immemorial (oh, alright, the mid-eighties - but can you remember much about the mid-eighties?). In most games, you can boost this spell's power as you progress; in Sacred 2, however, you can make choices about how you do so. One player may choose to advance to a fireball that shoots out three fireballs in front of you; another may opt for a single, powerful attack; a third may decide to invest in the homing capability for the attack.
Place of Worship
Other new systems introduced in Sacred 2 ably demonstrate Ascaron's determination to deliver a game which actually innovates, rather than just slapping a layer of glorious digital polish on its existing gameplay. It's fairly rare to hear action RPG developers talk about AI in glowing terms, but Sacred 2 seems to have some pretty complex systems in place to deliver interesting encounters. Groups of enemies will promote a "leader" from within their ranks, and taking out the lead monster will send them into disarray - even sometimes prompting a temporary retreat while they find a new leader. Pressing the advantage in these situations will be a key tactical option.
Bands of monsters, of course, are generally precursors to absolutely giant bosses in games of this ilk - and Sacred 2 doesn't look like it'll be disappointing anyone on that front. The enormous game-world (it would take six hours to walk from corner to corner, if you set out on foot) is divided into 12 very distinct environments, each of which has a major boss monster. One we saw was a giant, stompy demon, all angry horns and gouts of flame; we also caught a brief glimpse of an enormous kraken-style monster floating in the shallow water of a bay and waving its vast tentacles salaciously.
Admittedly, Sacred 2 doesn't seem to have solved the ages-old problem associated with monsters on that scale, namely that you mostly end up fighting with their ankles - but that doesn't take away from how impressive they look. We also noted to our great displeasure that the game includes some of the most hideous, realistic-looking, giant spider bastards, scuttling around like ten foot high Daddy Long Legs before capturing you in their hairy limbs and hauling you into their ichor-dripping maws to impale your flesh on their foul, quivering fangs. (Note to game developers: STOP THIS. It's not nice.)
Mentioning the size of the world - whose graphical beauty and incredible attention to detail doesn't seem to have suffered at all from the vast scale - necessitates a quick discussion of just how much content Ascaron has crafted to fill that world. The team has retained no fewer than six fantasy writers to work on the storyline and quests for the game - with the result that there are over 650 side quests to be uncovered and completed in Sacred 2. That's not counting the two major campaigns, either. NPCs have over 200,000 words of random dialogue for you to listen in to. You're unlikely to get bored in the world of Ancaria any time soon.
Moreover - and this is, we suspect, where you should really be sitting up and taking notice - you won't have to explore the world on your own. At the outset, we made the rather large claim that Sacred 2 could be the holy grail which RPG fans have awaited for years; well, we're not entirely sold on that ourselves just yet, but the reasons to be optimistic are certainly stacking up.
The game has, you see, been designed as a multiplayer game from the ground up - to the extent that when you're playing single-player, you have effectively started a Sacred 2 server on your own machine, on which you're the only player. The good news? At any point in the game, you can invite a friend to bring his character over and join you - perhaps to defeat a tough boss, or just to blast through a dungeon together. Finish up the quests, divide the loot, and your pal (or pals - this works with up to six players) can head back to his own version of the game, having gained XP, gold and loot in your world.
This, we'd argue, is exactly what we've wanted from an action RPG for ages - a fully featured, dip-in, dip-out co-operative play mode, which takes place in a completely fleshed out game world rather than in restricted co-op specific maps. The game auto-balances to take account of your levels, much like Oblivion did (you may love or hate this - we're agnostic on that front), and also reworks the balance when you add more players to the mix, so there should always be a challenge there.
In addition, there are also some more traditional online modes available - various Player vs Player or monster slaying arena games, for example. Across all the modes, PC players can opt either to play "open" games, with their offline characters, or to play using characters stored on Ascaron's servers, which are guaranteed to be cheat and hack free. Xbox 360 players will, be default, store their characters on Xbox Live - and will be able to download them to their friends' consoles to play 2-player co-op on a single machine, in addition to the normal online co-op modes.
Ah yes, the Xbox 360 version. We confess that we didn't get as much time to look at the console edition of the game as we did with the PC version - but we were inherently suspicious of Ascaron's move to console, especially in light of the utterly botched job that was made of Two Worlds in its move to the 360 a few months ago.
Ascaron, however, is making all the right noises. The content of the two games will be absolutely identical, we're told, but the functionality will be tweaked for Xbox 360 owners. The camera is a little more over-the-shoulder, and the control far more direct - with special attacks tied to the face buttons. 2-player co-op on one machine is unique to the 360, and the inventory and menus have been extensively reworked for the joypad controls.
Graphically, the Xbox 360 is expected to be a touch ahead of the PC in some regards, due to its multi-core architecture, which Ascaron is spending a lot of time optimising - but both versions of the game look stunning, and it's very promising that even at this early stage, both of them have very acceptable frame-rates. The code we saw was, we were told, about two months away from being Alpha; with all the spit and polish we'd expect to be applied in the months between that and launch, this should be a very impressive game on release.
That, of course, is one question that many people who played Sacred will be asking - can Ascaron really polish its games properly? Sacred was noted for being shockingly buggy, especially at launch - a fate which would be incredibly painful for the PC version of Sacred 2, and complete suicide for the Xbox 360 version.
We won't know how that has turned out until much further down the line - but the company's attitude to polishing the game is promising, as is the fact that it seemingly "gets" the complexities of the console port, rather than simply wanting to dump the game unchanged onto the Xbox 360.
Most of all, though, Sacred 2 simply looks beautiful. Detailed, varied, gorgeous environments, along with lovingly hand-crafted animations by the bucketload, make this into one of the most glorious looking games on the slate right now. With its promise of solid action RPG gameplay and stunning online functionality, this is rapidly heading to the upper reaches of our watchlist for the first half of 2008.