Sanctum 2 Preview (PS3)

If there’s one thing that’s great about indie games, it’s the occasionally insane desire to take risks when creating wildly original games. Sanctum from developer Coffee Stain is one such title, mashing up the genre of First-Person Shooter and Tower Defence Puzzler. Yes, for real. It ended up being really fun, basically a hands-on tower defence title, but there definitely were problems with it. The lack of maps and weapons at the start for example, with only three of each when the game launched, and none of the maps really made the most of the first-person 3D perspective. Well Coffee Stain’s been hard at work on the sequel, and we’ve had a chance to see if any of these concerns have been ironed out.

Now usually I’d launch straight into a run-down of the game, but screw that because I want to tell you about the robot text voice. I’d planned a normal preview and had to rewrite the beginning because I played a game of co-op on Sanctum 2 and discovered that if you type in chat comments Coffee Stain has programmed in an automatic Stephen Hawking-style voice to speak whatever you type. It may make you sound Norwegian but it’s the most fun I’ve ever had in a multiplayer lobby, so much so we almost didn’t play the game. Seriously, get two people testing the limits of a robot voice box by making it do Swedish Chef impressions or typing in the lyrics to Portal’s ‘Still Alive’ and it becomes hard to do anything else. I’ll buy the game for that if nothing else, but luckily the rest is good too. Oh okay, fine, I’ll tell you about Sanctum 2 now. Spoilsports.

Put together a base, don’t get overwhelmed by the alien menace. Just like Starship Troopers

Sanctum 2 is played entirely from the first-person perspective, and at first glance appears to be a futuristic FPS with invading aliens, smooth white Portal-like visuals, an anime style and a healthy sense of humour. Walking down corridors in the rather cool introduction feels exactly like an FPS... then you get on to the battlefield and find you can place walls and turrets using resources and the enemies come in waves. There’s no way you can repel all the aliens without help, even in co-op, and the only way you’ll succeed is through classic Tower Defence strategy. The aliens have one objective: destroy the Core at the centre of your base, and will take the most direct route there. Your objective is to make sure that route is as long and deadly as possible.

There are two types of resources, Blocks and Energy, and you can pick them up from the Core (unlike the first game) at the end of each enemy wave. Blocks default to Walls that coolly mesh together, and they also serve as the base for defensive turrets. Turrets cost Energy to build or upgrade. After each Wave there’s a timed Building Round where your gun disappears and you run over to the Core, grab your resources, then run back to put together your defences. Holding the Left Mouse Button over an area places either a Block or Turret and holding Right Mouse Button recycles one of those if you change your mind (or your tactics, which is often required). Over the course of the various Waves you should be looking to block the easiest route the aliens are taking to your Core, create a winding path and make sure that path takes the aliens past your various turret defences. And if the turrets don’t get them, shoot them yourself.

The shooting part of Sanctum 2 plays a lot like a regular FPS, with one or two minor tweaks. Left Mouse Button is primary fire for the weapon you’re holding and Right fires secondary. Ammo is infinite but guns overheat, and in a neat twist when a gun does this instead of waiting for it to cool down you’re expected to flip to your other weapon and use that until it also overheats and you flip back to your first gun (and so on). This overheating mechanic forces you to not get comfortable with a single weapon and neatly stops combat from just being a case of holding the Left Mouse Button until all enemies are dead, which would be boring. Furthermore all enemies have a weak spot which deals them more damage when shot, and aliens can attack you while their friends go for the Core. Despite being quite simple to play the shooting is actually rather tactical – do you trust your turrets to finish off a powerful enemy or should you make sure it’s dead before moving on to the next, for example – and combined with the Tower Defence aspects make Sanctum 2 very much a strategy game. A damn fun one.

There are four characters to choose from (and it’s disappointing you can’t create your own character) all with different special abilities and their own unique Primary Weapon. You get to choose a secondary weapon and turrets before the map starts, and more are unlocked as you play and your character upgrades. You can also upgrade turrets during the Build Round, although often you have to choose between doing that and building a new one. Enemies get harder as you go along, so you’ll have to have a pretty formidable defence (or maze) in place to stop them.

These guys are called ‘Soakers’, because they soak up bullets. And are probably very wet

So far all of this can be found in the first Sanctum, but Coffee Stain most definitely aren’t churning out more of the same. Sanctum 2 simply plays a lot smoother and generally seems to be more fun than the first game, which was original but a little clunky. Previously for example you had to frequently flip between first-person and the rather confusing Overview, now there’s simply a minimap in the corner with the aliens’ most direct route highlighted. There was also the danger of falling into your own maze in the first game, making you try to avoid the shooting part and requiring the cumbersome use of teleporters – now you can simply jump over walls (which are much less tall) and the teleporters are no longer needed. Coffee Stain seem to have put more FPS into this FPS/Tower Defence game, and it’s all the more fun for it. The level design is also markedly improved, with a lot more options for building and defending than the previous Sanctum. Oh, and there are sixteen maps compared to the original’s paltry three. Hooray.

That enemies regularly come from multiple entry points now not only means more hard work for your tactical brain muscles but also suggests that the up-to-four-player co-op should make things more manageable. After messing around with the text chat robot voice generator for what seemed like hours we launched the game, partially to play but mostly to find out if the robot voice chat could also be done in-game. Yes, yes it can. Fortunately we got over that fact before the aliens overwhelmed us.

While undoubtedly fun the one major downside of the co-op is that players don’t share resources, and this is a big problem. Only one person can pick up the resources each time so the other player doesn’t get to do anything during the Build Round, and while you can take it in turns any player can just grab the resources if they’re not interested in playing fair – and any player can recycle any block or turret, so you could spend all round creating a network of beautiful death and your partner could undo it entirely right before the time limit for the Build Round runs out. Working as a team is required to make co-op work, but it’s still not fun for the players that didn’t grab the resources during the Build Round. More thought on fair resource division is required here I think, otherwise those players will be completely shut out of the “Tower Defence” part of the game. And that’s not what Sanctum is about.

Hooray, rock that funky 3D perspective Mr Developer

Furthermore the game is very tight at providing those resources even in single-player. The first couple of Waves usually took place against just one or two pathetic turrets and a wall consisting of a few crates. Only by the seventh Wave on one particular map had I built an epic death maze to be proud of at last... at which point a boss showed up and tore the whole damn thing apart. If the reason that Sanctum 2 has Tower Defence aspects is to create a decent set of defensive towers then why has Coffee Stain made it so hard to do so? Can’t you guys just increase the Resources alongside the alien threat? Then you get challenge and a kickass homemade labyrinth of turret-y doom. Okay, resources do increase the further you go into the Campaign, but not enough.

Still, Sanctum 2’s not out yet, and a good thing too since apart from the resources problems there are a fair few things to iron out. Bugs, menu buttons not working, crashing, freezing, and the words ‘Press Start Button’ on the PC version’s opening screen to name a few that I personally experienced. The current estimate is Summer 2013, and if Coffee Stain can get these issues sorted out Sanctum 2 will be a truly addictive game that seemingly improves on every aspect of the original. And if you don’t get it for that reason, then get it for the Stephen Hawking text chat. It even says “smile” when I type in “:)”. I love living in the future.

Most Anticipated Feature/Element: If they can sort resource sharing out, the co-op.