Sanctum 2 Review (PC)

That’s what I love about the indie gaming scene – they’re never content with the genres they have. “Why should Portal, Call of Duty and Plants Vs Zombies be separate games we have to play individually? Can’t we smush them up together?” And lo from this discontentedness Sanctum was born. It was a fun but flawed creation. Now developer Coffee Stain are having another go, so let’s hope Sanctum 2 lives up to the caffeine-fuelled imagination that spawned it.

If I call Sanctum 2 a cross between a first-person shooter and a tower defence game I’m sure you can imagine the rest, and you’ll be accurate. The entire game takes place in first-person. There are four characters with various perks and different weapons (and it’s an early disappointment that you can’t customise your own but hey ho). There are 16 maps and each map contains a set number of enemy waves, usually around ten. Each wave has two parts – the Build Round and the Defence Round. In the Build Round you quickly grab some resources and then start building towers and walls, and in the Defence Round the aliens attack, you hope the defences you built are sufficient to take down the invaders, but you assist the towers by running around gun in hand shooting the aliens directly. You’re basically both the builder and the most powerful moving tower in this defence game. It’s all very simple to get to grips with and designed to play as smoothly as possible.

Whether by turret or by shotgun this guy's going down

Building is a lot of fun on its own. You get two packs of resources, Blocks and Energy. Blocks are walls which connect together intelligently as you place them next to each other, and it’s a particular delight when you realise that walls will connect at 90 degree angles too so your defence doesn’t have to look like a grid. As you construct as long and winding a path as possible to the Power Core (which you have to defend), you have to also make that path deadly by placing Towers on blocks, which you spend Energy to place and upgrade. There are a fair number to choose from (unlocked as you level up) and all have various pros and cons, like a machine-gun turret that’s great on fast enemies but useless on heavies, or a ground-pounding hammer turret that causes a lot of damage but won’t hurt flying enemies at all. You can easily recycle any Blocks or Energy that you spend, so you can alter your Maze O’ Death™ at any time to suit different enemy attacks.

Shooting is very simplistic (I mean that in both a good and bad way) but has a number of clever innovations that make it more interesting. For starters you only have two guns (no, that’s not the innovative bit) which you have to reload after a certain amount of shots (not that either), but while one gun is reloading you can flip to the other one and use that until it’s empty – effective use of guns means constant flipping between them, so you never just stick with one weapon and ignore the other (even if the other is a better gun). Secondly while most enemies can be hurt by generally shooting at them they all have a unique weak point that you can hit for massive damage, which sounds easy enough to do but when there’s a dozen of these guys swarming past it gets challenging.

Me and my partner take time out to plan our defence. And steal the other’s glory

Enemies range from leech-like exploding things through tougher bruisers and flying pests all the way up to heavily armoured powerhouses. My particular favourite enemy is like an armoured giraffe with a wobbly neck, where the only way to take it down is to shoot the red blobs on its constantly wibbling head. The final wave of a level often includes a boss stomping in and destroying your carefully constructed maze, and unless you’re playing co-op you’ll be in for a really tough time. To be honest the bosses aren’t that much fun – it’s building and working around your defences that’s the fun part of Sanctum 2, and having a boss come in and wreck it all means you just have to rely on shooting it, which is not this game’s strength. I realise the challenge has to be upped, but not at the expense of what’s fun – it also doesn’t help that you can’t simply rebuild your defences in this round, and the poor range of turrets make them useless against the boss anyway. Still the rest of the alien designs are excellent, and are often combined together in challenging ways.

As are the maps, which are generally well designed to offer a range of strategies for single-player or co-op. Some are obviously more skewed to co-op than others, like one where the aliens come from two points with one a lot higher than the other – you can jump down from the higher one but it takes a crucial amount of time to get back up there, which is a particular pain when that accursed boss turns up. It’s a little bit annoying though that so much of the map is decorative and can’t be built on. It’s nice to visit a futuristic bar that Coffee Stain built but the aliens don’t come anywhere near it, in fact it just takes room away from the building area. I like exploring but there’s not enough hidden goodies or easter eggs to justify it in Sanctum 2’s case. Still, you can ignore these, but I’d still prefer more building area to play with.

Of course co-op is the main focus of Sanctum 2. It’s pretty fun but somewhat limiting in single-player, and the different character types (assault rifle, shotgun, rockets, sniper) really require a mix to get the most out of them. If you play the Campaign you can change the mode to Private or Offline but it will normally be Public, so anyone can join your game. This isn’t Arma III or anything so you probably won’t get a full four players joining every time, in fact I only ever had one other player to play with at most. It’s definitely fun with other people but only really if they play well – it’s difficult to play badly but it’s far too easy to hog all the resources. You get extra Energy if there’s more than one of you, but a single player can grab all of it. And that’s not cool.

I almost feel sorry for them

I also question the longevity of Sanctum 2. In many ways it’s a Portal 2 scenario. Once you’ve solved everything, including with a partner, it’s up to you whether you play it again... but you’ve basically seen everything. You can try different turrets, perks, or even handicaps, but you’ll still be doing the same things on the same maps with the same level of challenge. Sanctum 2 is undeniably fun in single-player and more so in co-op, but will players keep coming back? I’m not sure. I’m not sure I will.

Sanctum 2 at the very least improves on every aspect of its clunky predecessor, offering smoother and more enjoyable gameplay and living up to the great promise offered by the premise. Furthermore the visuals are cool and sleek and the techno-tunes catchy. Unfortunately if you’re not playing with a friend you’ll either have a limited gameplay experience or a frustrating one as you watch some idiot steal all the resources and use them stupidly (at least you can undo everything they’ve done). While undoubtedly better than Sanctum and its three piddling maps I’m still not sure whether the sequel has enough long-term appeal, and the bosses just plain suck. Sanctum 2 is a good game that takes a good idea and conveys it well, offering fun in single-player or co-op, but it’s still not perfect. Give it a go for sure, but don’t expect a long-lasting relationship.

Top Game Moment: Watching the aliens attempt to get through your carefully planned Maze O’ Death™ and seeing them get mown down while you pick off the stragglers.

Platform Played: PC

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