I don’t remember when I heard it first, but someone at some point years ago made the astute observation that as the video game industry matures, we’ll see more and more genre-bending games come out. It was a salient point that became more pertinent as time went on. Nowadays you see RPG elements like experience points and level-restricted gear in your first-person shooters and you see extensive combat systems in your platformers. Puzzles, even, persist through less traditional enigmatic environments, and as a result, it becomes harder and harder to describe games without writing a full treatise on their intended design: third-person point ‘n click action adventure game, real-time strategy Sudoku-inspired MOBA, etc.
Sanctum 2, however, makes it simple. Take one part tower defense and one part first-person shooter and cram them together with a nice sci-fi bow on top (there are aliens that want to destroy your oxygen supplies and you have to stop them. For humanity!). It sounds simple, but the result is much more complex and altogether better for it. It is a marked improvement over the original and manages to create a fast-paced, aggressive game that succeeds in so many more ways than it fails.
You pick from four distinct characters, each with their own expertise and specialized utility (and totally badass 90s anime-style character portrait, a milieu that persists through fantastic-looking but intrigue-lacking comic bookish cutscenes). Haigen Hawkins, for example, carries a shotgun and has above average health, so he’s perfect for getting in close and punishing mobs. SiMo, on the other hand, is a sniper rifle-wielding robot who gets bonus damage for hitting weakspots. These varying attributes combine in four-player online play to create this synergistic dependency that, should people play their parts, is rather fun.
That is should play their parts because it’s not necessary; the character differences are nearly drastic enough to require class-based play. Most of my mob control strategy resulted in getting in as close as possible and dumping ammo like it was British tea in the Boston harbor. No matter how hard I tried to keep in line with what my character was best at (sniping, bashing, fire-based crowd control), it always ended up the same.
That may just be a consequence of some rather smart game design decisions, though. The framework of the game is designed to funnel you into acting fast and shooting faster. For instance, you can only set down a limited number of towers, a fact that produces two design artifacts: 1) you find yourself more inclined to restructuring and refinancing your existing towers to optimize for the next encounter, and 2) you are forced to get down and dirty a lot more often. Enemies can also be lured away from their relentless trek by getting close, which opens up new avenues for crowd control tactics. Then combine that with how your weapons recharge and reload on their own when you switch between firearms. This means that you spend way less time running between cover and open engagements and instead just have to decide on your order of operations of death.
This does take away the old drama of reloading while aliens get uncomfortably close to the core you’re protecting, but it replaces it with the anxiety of wondering if you’re maximized output can fell a foe before it reaches your ward. Enemies like the Soaker (who, predictably, take a lot of damage to kill) seem specifically geared towards poking at this insecurity and this switch-focused design choice as each hit increases the damage take on subsequent shots. This does, however, sometimes result in your having cleared out the smaller, faster fodder enemies and are left with unloading on some slow, trundling creature. That gets kind of boring after 30 seconds of nonstop firing and zero seconds of strategic contemplation.
You can fill that time, though, with thinking about tower management, which can get quite deep. Instead of discrete upgrades, you can slowly build up towards more powerful towers one coin at a time. And then you can buy the lump-sum upgrades to drastically alter how your tower functions, like turning it into a rapid fire death node. This is especially exciting in the beginning when you are also constructing the maze that the hordes will walk through so you have to decide what is important first and where it would be not only most effective later but where it can mitigate your lack of walls now.
In between levels, you pop out to where you can view your unlocked perks and weapons and build your loadout. It’s fun to see some tangible rewards for earnest progress, but everything you choose actually has a very impact on your next encounter. You choose what weapons and towers to bring with you (yes, towers, so pick wisely because those airborne enemies can get troublesome) but also combine perks to further specialize your class. You can increase your weakspot damage or boost your movement speed. These are choices that actively change the way you experience any given level. The most trivial choice you make is perhaps your weapon loadout and even that is critical.
Which actually causes some trouble down the line. With such a dependence on pre-gaming the game, you find yourself locked in trial-and-error loops more often than you’d like and thus more frustrated than you’d want. And playing online can be fun, but a commensurate amount of effort has to be directed towards effective communication since resources are a free-for-all and one idiot can ruin the entire operation for everyone.
And while it’s understandable that the towers are rather standard tower defense fare, it’s rather disappointing that the player armaments are relegated to the standard shotgun, assault, and rifle classes. The enemies, too, find themselves disappointingly uniform, like when the larger baddies are simply, well, larger versions of the regular infantry.
Sanctum 2 has a generally rough feeling around the fringes, but the core is substantial and surprisingly refined. There are niggling problems of difficulty, occasionally game-ending glitches, and frumpy aesthetics, but the actual act of playing the game is so manic and strategic and wholly a fantastic combination of things you rarely experience together that it’s easy to look past all the small stuff. Sanctum 2 takes two simple concepts and turns them into a product greater than the sum of its parts. It just forgot to sand down the edges.
+ Creating loadouts of weapons, perks, and towers have real, tangible impact on your effectiveness
+ Combat flow is refined to allow for a much more manic pace yet strategic feel
+ Crafting the mazes that affect horde movement by hand requires thought and careful consideration of the future and the present
– You occasionally find yourself stuck testing and revising strategies that result in you pointlessly replaying levels
– For all its genre-mashing innovation, a lot of the forward-facing portions feel very generic
Final Score: 8 out of 10
Game Review: Sanctum 2
Release: May 15, 2013
Genre: First-person tower defense shooter
Developer: Coffee Stain Studios
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
MSRP: $14.99 (1200 Microsoft Points)
ESRB Rating: T