2004's Sacred wasn't the kind of game that sets the world on fire - and in its defence, it never claimed otherwise. It was, in essence, a Diablo clone, a 2D-styled hack and slash RPG where you picked one of six pre-rolled characters and barged around taking out enemy after enemy with judicious mouse-clicking.
The reason we remember it at all, however, is because it was a very good Diablo clone, with some great character classes, free roaming environments which were a welcome departure from the linear nature of other games in the genre, and the ability to ride around and fight on horseback. The world remained distinctly un-combusted, but the game was impressively solid and enjoyable.
For the franchise's second outing, developer Ascaron seems to have set its sights rather significantly higher. Due out in early 2008, the game will boast a next-gen console outing (Xbox 360 is planned at the moment, with PS3 not presently on the cards but not ruled out either) as well as a PC version - and with four years between the original game and its sequel, Ascaraon is definitely taking that "next-gen" moniker very seriously.
The most blatantly obvious thing which we noticed about Sacred II when we had an opportunity to watch a demo of the game recently was that it has entirely shed its 2D roots. The incredibly vast world in the game is all rendered in glorious 3D, with incredible variety and attention to detail both in the environments and the characters.
What's more, it's not just the graphics which are now 3D; the game itself acknowledges the third dimension, with rough multi-levelled terrain, buildings with multiple floors and dungeons that extend deep beneath the earth. Everything streams absolutely seamlessly, with no load delays at any point in the world; enter a building, and the roof simply becomes transparent so you can move around inside. Walk down a pit into a dungeon, and the game simply peels away the floors of the dungeon like layers of an onion, without ever pausing to load.
Sacred 2 is hardly the first game to stream its content, of course, but it all gets rather more impressive when you consider just how much content we're talking about here. The world in the game is absolutely, mind-bogglingly huge - to the extent that it would take your character seven to eight hours to walk from one corner of the game world to the other. Even compared to large MMOGs like World of Warcraft, that's extremely big, and as you'd expect, it leaves plenty of scope for vastly different types of environment, from frozen wastelands to forests to deserts, and everything in between.
Continuing the free-roaming aspect of the first game, Ascaron reckons that about 60 to 70 per cent of the world is entirely free for the player to explore right from the outset - assuming, of course, that you don't get your backside thoroughly kicked by whatever lives there. The remainder of the world is made up of dungeons and other such areas which you'll only unlock as you progress through the plot - but the vast open areas will give plenty of opportunities for players to advance independently of the storyline.
While we're talking about the expansive nature of the world, this would be a good moment to mention mounts - not least since they're a key way of speeding up your adventures around the world. Having been a major feature of Sacred, they'll be making a return in more advanced form in the sequel - and taking a cue from other fantasy games, each character class will boast its own unique mount. Our personal favourite, from those we've seen, is an enormous, beautifully animated and convincingly furry tiger which the Seraphim character can ride around on.