Full disclosure: I never played the first Sanctum game. I’ve previously mentioned my affection for genre-blending hybrid concepts, and the Sanctum series seeks to combine tower defense with FPS and a class-based, co-op focus. Without the frame of reference of its predecessor, I couldn’t help doing the compare-and-contrast exercise with Dungeon Defenders, another class-based, co-op, tower defense title that presents hack-and-slash instead of gunplay. I love the concept and the execution of the latter. I think I like the perspective of boots on the ground in the midst of tower defense action, rather than a detached, god-like overhead view. Sanctum 2 hits some of those same high notes as well, but is held back by some puzzling design choices and some nagging balancing issues.
The idea with Sanctum 2 is to construct walls and damage-dealing defensive towers to impede and destroy enemies who march in waves to attack your “core.” Pretty standard. The twist is that the player doesn’t sit idly by watching the towers do all the work; you must lend your character’s own firepower to the battle. Developer Coffee Stain Studios claims Sanctum and Sanctum 2 are the only such tower defense/FPS hybrid, and they’re certainly onto something conceptually interesting here. The game’s action shines during moments when a well-placed tower exploits a group of enemy’s weaknesses, setting them up to be emphatically mowed down by the player himself. A barrage of hot lead, explosions, lightning, debuffs, and so on can break the enemies on your walls like water on rock, and you get to lead from the front, in the thick of it.
Most of the strategy when it comes to structures is about arranging walls that force the incoming enemies to navigate a maze (you can’t wall off their path completely) in order for them to reach the core. It’s essential to extend their walking path from spawn to core, and it’s possible to get very creative with designing circuitous routes. However, my first criticism is that for all the capacity the players have to build walls, you don’t get to build nearly as many towers. Each map has a tower limit, and it always seems like there’s not enough to go around. I played a game in which my team had assembled walls that wound back and forth all over the map, but with only ten towers allowed, split between two paths of attack, I never felt like we could be super effective with defensive combinations and tower strategy. This is an extreme example of this particular issue, but lesser forms of it come up more frequently than I’d like.
My other major design gripe is that construction depends on available resources, which are collected during the build phase by walking over items. The problem is the resource pool is not shared between all members of the team. I really don’t get why they set it up this way. The resources aren’t hard to gather, so it’s not like they’re trying to reward skillful runners with more resources. This design just seems to be about making all the players compete for limited resources, or at least have to coordinate who’s going to take the extra step in picking them up. There’s also only two things to pick up each round – an item that gives you more wall chunks, and an item that gives you money to put down towers and upgrades – and they can’t be split or given between players. Each round, one player has to pick up all the walls and/or all the money to build. The only way for two players to have access to resources is for someone to start recycling existing structures and pocketing the change. I would have liked to be able to build at the same time as my teammates so we could create harmonious structures. Instead, we have to take turns at best, and at worst, be actively sabotaging each other’s efforts. Why not have structures contribute to a build limit maximum (say two points for a wall, three points for some towers, four points for more powerful towers, all adding up to a limit of thirty), and have enemies drop money for construction and upgrades? That’s how Dungeon Defenders does it, and it works very well.
With towers relatively few, it really felt to me like the defense was up to the FPSing of the players more than the effectiveness of the towers. In Dungeon Defenders, my pattern was to patrol my structural defenses and plug a breach myself. Sanctum 2 really needs you to get aggressive and start pummeling enemies ASAP. This focus isn’t entirely without merit, though. One of my favorite moments so far with this game was using my shotgun-wielding tank character to aggro a juggernaut boss into fighting me instead of the core, while my more damage-oriented teammates poured it on. I like tanking things in team RPGs, and this was an interesting variation in the form of a shooter. In cases like this, the game difficulty scales pretty well with multiplayer. In single-player, I struggled against enemies who were strong against my shotgun, despite my towers that should fare better. However, teammates better suited for those enemies were able to drop them, even with the hitpoint boost everything gets in proportion to the number of players (up to four) in the game. I would have liked a bit more balance between the tower defense and the FPS though, because it seems dominated by the FPS side.
Don’t expect a ton of depth to character leveling. Leveling up is more about unlocking new towers and equippable perks than it is about adjusting your strength or hitpoints. You never get to change or upgrade the stats of your gun, but you can choose to give yourself a bonus to critical hit damage, make enemies explode when they get killed, etc. There is strategic thinking that goes into these decisions, especially if you know in advance the types of enemies you will encounter. Similarly, you have to choose to equip only a few of the many towers each game, and although there is overlap of available towers between classes, not every class can unlock every tower.
I like the sleek, sci-fi graphical styling of this game. Character models are cartoony without being pure whimsy, and with all their gadgetry and white with a few splashes of bright color, look almost like some weird, asymmetric cyborgs as manifested in the Portal universe. I had a few frame rate issues, but they weren’t fatal to the game at all. For a downloadable, it’s certainly visually impressive. If you’re looking for story, I doubt this one will leave you floored. Still, if you’re into comics, there’s some fun artwork to check out at the beginning of each level, which is how they deliver the story.
I want to like this game more, especially since it’s the only tower defense/FPS franchise out there. Sanctum 2‘s design and balancing problems don’t completely obscure what I think is a sweet core concept, but that just seems to emphasize that I want a better game out of this idea. If nothing else, it’s got me intrigued to go check out the first one.
This review is based on a review copy downloaded via Steam of the PC version of Sanctum 2 developed by Coffee Stain Studios, published by Reverb Publishing.
- Sleek, Sci-fi Graphical Styling
- Competent Gameplay
- Frame Rate Issues
- Balance and Design Issues