Sanctum 2 Review27 May 2013  by
Apologies for how late this review is. In my defence, there are three reasons for this: first, I wanted to play this thoroughly, which meant going through most of it both solo and with a co-op partner… who was all-too-regularly absent. This is not a good excuse. Secondly, a patch released last week fundamentally changed some of the game’s co-op mechanics, rendering a lot of the thoughts and opinions I had completely irrelevant and necessitating yet more play. I’d like to think that this is a good excuse.
Then there’s the third, which is that – quite honestly – I’m not sure what I make of Sanctum 2. I have no plan for this review. I have no score in mind. If this winds up being a bit train-of-thought-y, you have my apologies.
So, um. Hi! Er. Huh. Okay, let’s start with a description. That’s a good way to kick things off! Sanctum 2 is a hybrid tower defence/FPS game in which you not only plonk down walls and towers to create a huge death maze, but also shoot at the aggressors yourself – and there’s a big, big focus on the shooting, this time around. You pick your loadout for each level, but this doesn’t just mean choosing what towers you want to take in; there are four characters, each with some particular quirks and a primary weapon all of their own, and you can customise them further with a secondary weapon and a pack of bonus perks that completely change the way you play them.
Personally, for instance, I favour Sweet (a teenage girl with a rocket launcher and improved air control) packed with a lightning gun for dealing with larger groups, a perk that grants bonus speed and a double jump, another perk that dishes out damage if I land on top of an enemy, and a third perk that gives my shots a weakening debuff. Well, that, or I take robotic sniper SiMo with both bonus weakspot damage and a perk that causes most of his hits to also deal damage to another nearby enemy.
So yeah, the customisation is both strong and varied. There are a tonne of ways to set up each character, either bolstering their strengths or compensating for their weaknesses, and this only gets more absurd when you start playing in co-op and everyone has a different setup. I’m not going to say “the possibilities are infinite”, but there are a hell of a lot of ways to set up your team. “Infinite minus one” ways, perhaps.
All of these goodies are unlocked via a progression system that functions as a surrogate tutorial. Okay, there is a tutorial of sorts (although not one driven by CLICK HERE WHEN DONE READING, but a short opening level that dumps you into the fray and lets you learn by doing) but levelling up gradually introduces new weapons, towers, perks, and gives you extra slots for them as you go on. While Sanctum devotees may not be entirely happy about this slowed pace, it certainly prevents you from getting overwhelmed by a ridiculous selection of perks and towers from the very beginning, and you level up quickly enough that there are always new toys to play with.
But Sanctum 2‘s greatest accomplishment is likely the level design, and – considering that this is a genre in which players are erecting walls and towers and thus to an extent designing the levels themselves – creating varied and interesting layouts which still give some creative freedom is no mean feat. Coffee Stain Studios have outdone themselves here, with each level offering something unique.
There are a few wide-open expanses that offer complete freedom. There are some maps with nasty environmental traps you might want to circle enemies through. Several have multiple spawn points for enemies, resulting in divided attention. Some are heavily enclosed, offering very few places to drop walls, and every wall you place will greatly redirect the path of your alien foes. Every level offers a unique challenge, and looking at a level and figuring out the possibilities is a genuine pleasure.
Everything else, on the other hand… hmm. That’s not a bad “hmm.” It’s just the point where I run out of things I’m entirely certain on.
The difficulty, I think, is that this is called Sanctum 2, yet it doesn’t really play anything like Sanctum, and that makes my brain creak and fall over. The original was all about building gargantuan mazes, levelling up towers and weapons, and trying to keep your core alive for 30-odd waves. Each map would take 30-60 minutes, and for better or worse, you’d usually either hit a point where your maze was completely unstoppable or a point where you just got overwhelmed. So yes, the balance was maybe a little off in places, but it was a fantastic experience and one I heartily recommend.
Sanctum 2, meanwhile, is leaner, quicker, and more aggressive, and in some respects I mean that literally. Enemies now directly attack you, chasing you down and trying to turn you to mush if you step within range. Foes don’t necessarily follow the quickest path, so they have some capacity to wander out of range of towers. Levels have a tower limit, and are generally smaller and less focused on building giant mazes. Some rounds give you a time limit in the building phase, necessitating quick movement and thinking rather than careful planning for the next combat wave. All of this means that this is a game that plays and feels very, very differently.
I think the easiest way to describe it is to say that Sanctum 2 feels more “videogame-y.” It’s faster-paced; you’re regularly under direct threat and backpedalling and firing; there are bosses capable of smashing through your carefully placed defences; levels are smaller and offer less waves. Where the first game was mostly an exercise in long-term planning and sharpshooting, this feels like more of a shooter than a tower defence game. Whether you like this or not is down to personal taste; it does what it does well, but I’m not exactly surprised by the backlash from the Sanctum old guard.
It’s also heavily geared towards co-op play. While the first game had a few levels that were total bastards for the solo player (Glade, I’m glaring sternly in your direction), Sanctum 2 ups the ante thanks to the aggressive enemies. Foes with weakspots on their back will now turn to attack you if you get close, and while co-op players can kite these enemies so that their friends can shoot them, solo players need to watch their movements a lot more closely.
I hasten to add that this doesn’t make it impossible for a solo player, or even necessarily more difficult – I went through every level by myself, my first time through – but it certainly means co-op, which ups enemy health to compensate for the extra gunfire, offers a different, more tactical, and more interesting challenge. Likewise, playing with others lets you synergise (and I apologise for using that word) your loadouts, making sure all bases are covered and making sure you’ve got someone geared for every situation. It’s a game that’s clearly designed with co-op in mind and it’s honestly a lot more enjoyable that way, but it’s still perfectly playable by the friendless.
But we need to address That Patch Change. Prior to last week, all resources were dumped by the core in one big clump and only one player could actually take them, which left these resources susceptible to ninjas and kept the other players twiddling their thumbs. While I can understand why this was done, it made the build phases a lot less enjoyable. Even playing co-op with friends, it meant that there was plenty of discussion early on as to who should even take the resources, and this slowed the pace as much as you can imagine.
Then That Patch Change happened, and now resources are split between players. The tower limit, too, has been upped, and more tower bases (your walls, essentially) appear earlier. In short: it’s now more of a tower defence game than it was pre-patch. Prior to this, there was much more of a focus on the shooting than on the building-a-giant-conveyor-belt-of-doom. The balance between the two has now shifted a bit, and although such a fundamental change is a bit odd after release, it’s one I’m happy to see. This does make me worry that this review will be completely outdated in a few weeks, though; Sanctum was built upon regularly after release, and considering Sanctum 2 has already had this rather large change, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot more complaints are addressed in the coming months.
Sigh. Had I not played Sanctum, I’d probably like this a lot more than I do; as it is, I’m continually forced to compare and contrast what it is to what I wanted based on the first game. This also makes it a complete bitch to score. So, it’s vaguely uncertain closing paragraph time! Here we go!
Sanctum 2‘s an odd beast, but – even though it’s not what I necessarily wanted from a sequel – it’s still an enjoyable experience with a friend or two, if you can get past just how different it is. There are a few missteps in the design and a few things I genuinely dislike (like the removal of the indicator that showed how much damage any particular tower did in the previous wave) but this is a decent game nonetheless. It’s just not one that’s quite as sparkling, unique, or satisfying as the first, and those looking for more of the same may be looking a bit sad for some time to come.
In short: I might not like Sanctum 2 as much as the original but it’s still a rather good game, and based on the changes this makes to the first game’s template I’m eager to see what the devs have learned and where the series goes next. If you played and loved Sanctum, you might want to be a bit wary of this and perhaps give the demo a shot first; if you don’t fall into that camp, then you’ll likely have a rather good time.