Developer: Coffee Stain Studios
If the original Sanctum was a brave yet flawed experiment into blending cerebral tower defence with FPS elements, its sequel is the main event. Sanctum 2 has been rebuilt from the ground up, polishing the mechanics that worked and refitting those that fell flat. It looks better, plays better and features a suite of improvements both subtle and sweeping.
The net result is an impeccable fusion of the two disparate gameplay styles; an exquisite balance between intelligent forward planning, tactical nouse and desperate no-holds barred gunplay as the ravening hordes close in. Like the best genre hybrids out there, Sanctum 2 succeeds because neither the strategy nor shooting aspects of the experience feel compromised, and they compliment each other in profoundly meaningful ways.
Perhaps more importantly, though, it's also seriously good fun.
The premise, such as it is, sees Sanctum veteran Skye Autumn tasked with defending some more oxygen-producing cores from vicious aliens. Joined by her spirited sister Sweet, robotic sniper SiMo and gangly point man Haigen, the team are all that stands between a colony and total annihilation. Sanctum 2 rattles through a perfunctory storyline told through brusque comic book panels, which is sometimes both a little confusing and overly simplistic (not to mention oddly-punctuated), but thankfully Coffee Stain have kept it to a minimum to as not to impinge on the gameplay.
Viewed entirely from a first person perspective, Sanctum 2 falls back on the tried and tested build and action phases we're used to from the Tower Defence genre. You'll start off in the build phase before a wave begins, a period of calm during which you're granted some resources to build static defences and a number of tower bases that double up as impenetrable walls. After assessing an enemy wave's strength and numbers, you're then tasked with turning open ground into a nightmarish labyrinth of killzones, corridors and mazes to slow the incoming forces down. Walls and towers (a powerful yet situational gamut of crowd-control, DPS and auxiliary facilities) can be summoned by simply holding the left mouse button, making assembling mazes a breeze, while a handy on-screen map gives you an overview of the situation. Since the enemy's direct route is dynamically projected onto the hud, creating your killing fields is an absolute snap.
A tight resource and tower limit (recently increased from 10 to 15 in a hasty fan-driven update) stops you from just spamming towers along the route, and instead think about where best to position your defences for maximum effect. Sanctum 2's enemy roster is incredibly varied, from tanking armoured walkers to burly brawlers and tricksy hovering horrors that can only be damaged from behind, meaning that setting up balanced overlapping fields of fire is absolutely paramount. Since towers and bases can be recycled without penalty, or upgraded gradually with leftover currency rather than requiring an up-front payment, the amount of tactical flexibility is a welcome addition to the tower defence genre, and means that each level can be completed in numerous different ways rather than a singular "correct" solution.
The tower defence half of Sanctum 2 is locked down nice and tight. But then you'll trigger the wave, and the real fight begins.
Once the horde starts its inexorable assault, you'll fight them off in real-time first person combat; frenetically sprinting around the map to reinforce weak points in your defences, prioritising particularly tough enemies by targeting their vulnerabilities or desperately taking down massive bosses as they stagger towards your vulnerable core. Foes will now engage you if you if you get too close, ground pounding, clawing and spitting at your character, adding a much-needed extra sense of risk and the ability to cleverly aggro some of the more dangerous monsters to draw them away from your core. Compared to the original, Sanctum 2's action is a breathless and visceral affair as enemies knock you out of position, push the advantage and ultimately explode into chunky kibbles.
Each character packs a situational weapon that suits your particular play style or level geometry - SiMo's sniper rifle is perfect for maps with lofty vantage points while Haigen's shotgun and increased health suits tight quarters - alongside an optional secondary weapon that can be chosen before each match. A persistent levelling system also provides a selection of perks that can completely switch up the way you play, everything from increased damage to the ability to crush enemies underfoot in a fun homage to Mario. Like the tower defence, Sanctum 2's FPS sections are versatile and encourage you to develop your own playstyle.
Both sides of the coin are intensely enjoyable, but balance is the key. Unlike the original Sanctum, which was very much a tower defence game that just happened to feature a first person perspective and a little shooting, Sanctum 2 is a genuine hybrid where no one element outshines the other. You won't be able to survive a map without intelligently constructing mazes and carefully placing your towers where they're needed most. If you attempt to play it like Call Of Duty, you'll suffer and fail when the latter half of the campaign ramps up the challenge. However, your trigger finger will often be the key to winning the match or saving a core, especially when one of the rare boss monsters emerges and smashes through your painstakingly-constructed defences like so many cereal boxes. It's neither a tower defence game with FPS elements or a shooter with a strategic edge, rather it's a true fusion of the two; a true hybrid. The satisfying moment-to-moment joy of taking down foes in first person compliments the tactical tower defence perfectly.
Sanctum 2 is an absolute riot in co-op, but only when you're playing with people you know. Resources are shared between the team, which is perfect when you're cooperating with some trusted friends, yet absolutely falls apart when a less experienced player or malevolent griefer joins your match. There's nothing more galling than a randomer dropping into your game, only to remove your tower bases, recycle your towers and deploy their own fortifications. Personally, I feel that co-op is best enjoyed with friends, but it would be nice to choose whether or not to share your limited resources with others or lock the host's towers in position.
Sanctum 2 brings it all home with a gorgeous artistic reboot that resembles the lovechild of Torchlight, Portal and Borderlands, sporting crisp visuals on PC (the XBLA version hasn't released in Europe yet, though the PC's gamepad controls are very intuitive and I suspect that it will be eminently playable). As mentioned, a functional levelling and unlock system provides some extra replay value and compulsion to crush earlier levels. It feels like a complete package... or at least it would, save for one annoying irritation.
Beyond the potential for multiplayer griefing, my only major gripe with Sanctum 2 is an odd lack of remixed enemy waves. There's no hard mode beyond some optional modifiers that strengthen the opposing forces for extra experience, and from what I can tell, the endless survival mode tends to spawn stronger versions of the exactly the same enemy patterns you've already fought. Some randomised waves or a remixed extra difficulty mode would have packed an extra punch and given Sanctum 2's cooperative modes some extra legs. A season pass is already out, so we expect an enormous amount of post-release content if the first Sanctum was anything to go by.
Ultimately, though, it doesn't really matter. Sanctum 2 still does more than enough to warrant its inexpensive £11.99 price tag and deserves your immediate attention if you're a fan of either genre.
- Tight, tactical and versatile tower defence strategy
- Visceral, satisfying and desperate gunplay
- Perfectly balanced gameplay, eyecatching art style
- Compelling persistent unlocks
- Shared co-op resources can lead to multiplayer griefing (play with friends!)
- Brusque, poorly-written but ultimately inoffensive storyline
- Lack of remixed or randomised enemy waves hurts long term appeal beyond the lengthy campaign
The Short Version: Cerebral tower defence meets visceral FPS action in this exceptional genre hybrid. Sanctum 2 marries its two gameplay elements brilliantly, resulting in a package that should please all comers.