I played a lot of Sanctum. According to Steam, I’ve spent just over 48 hours with the original FPS/tower defence hybrid – almost all of it in two-player co-op – and there aren’t that many Steam games I’ve played more. Certainly, none that I’ve played almost exclusively with one other person.
This is because Sanctum was a sublime title that tapped right into two of the things I love to do: build gargantuan death mazes for monsters to march through, and shoot things. Both of these worked brilliantly, and each aspect played off the other. Should I build a few big towers before the next wave? Should I forgo building any towers and just use my resources to plonk down a giant maze, and take on the enemies myself? Should I make a mid-sized maze with a few light towers? Should I only partly do one of the above, but spend the remainder on upgrading my own weapons? And what’s my teammate thinking, anyway? Hmm.
So yes, I love Sanctum. It is a brilliant game and you should all go and buy it, but I’m not telling you this story just to talk about how great it is – I’m telling you this because I didn’t love Sanctum to begin with. Its true qualities only really began to shine when I started playing it regularly in co-op, and even then, it took awhile to click with me. And right now, I’m not hugely enamoured of Sanctum 2, but I’m pretty sure that’s because I just don’t quite get it yet.
See, Sanctum 2 is a very different beast. The core fundamentals – build a maze, build towers, shoot monsters – are the same, but the way these aspects work and interact are hugely different. Where Sanctum gave you one resource, this sequel gives you two: one to build walls, and one to plonk towers on top of walls. Where Sanctum had monsters just run straight through your maze, ignoring you unless you were silly enough to get in their way, Sanctum 2 has them directly chase and attack you if you’re close enough. In Sanctum, your towers were sacrosanct and indestructible; in Sanctum 2, there are giant boss monsters that can lay your maze to waste. Sanctum had you place Televators (yes, they really were elevators with built-in teleporters) to zip around the battlefield quickly and let you shoot monsters from on high. Sanctum 2 has no such tower, and standing on walls isn’t particularly safe anyway.
None of which is bad. It’s just different, and grants the sequel a very different feeling, which makes a little part of me want to scream “but it’s not the same as Sanctum,” and that makes me feel like a moron. Complaining about something because it’s not the same as before is stupid, and it feels even more stupid because I regularly bang on about wanting sequels to do something new rather than just bung in some different guns and enemies – and that’s exactly what this is doing. It’s keeping the base concept of the original game, but toying with it in a number of ways to make something markedly different. That’s a good thing. Sigh.
Anyway: the biggest upshot to these changes is that your maze design feels a hell of a lot more focused. You know, for instance, that you have five walls you can plonk down this round, and you can’t do anything with those resources but build five walls – so where would those five be most effective? Corralling the enemies at their spawn point? Blocking off all but one entrance into the core you’re trying to defend? Expanding whatever maze you’ve thus far constructed?
Focusing it further is that you can only have a very limited number of towers on the map at any given time. In most tower defence games you can build as many towers as you can afford, and there’s always a trade-off between making sure your entire maze is covered and upgrading a few select towers to do maximum damage. Here, most (if not all) levels limit you to ten towers, total.
Which probably sounds quite limiting, but again, it serves to focus your maze design. I have three walls, and enough money to put down a high-damage Lightning tower. So where do I do this? How am I aiming to build my maze in the long run? Can I put it somewhere where it’s useful now, and will still be useful in five waves’ time? Decisions, decisions.
This leads to one major change of which I heartily approve: you can supercharge your towers. You still upgrade them up to level 3, but after that, you can continue to sink resources into them, beefing up their core stats even further. Do you have a long-range Violator tower? Is it level 3? Do you want to raise its damage even more, so that it’s practically able to take down a boss on its own? You can. And because watching numbers go up is always fun in games (there’s a reason we like RPGs, after all) there’s a giddy little thrill to seeing your towers’ damage ratings skyrocket as you pump more and more resources into them.
Good grief, I’m 800 words in and I haven’t even talked about the weapons or the characters or the level design. Right: in the original game, you could pick three weapons to take with you into each level. Here, you instead pick a character out of four, each of whom has a fixed primary weapon and a selectable secondary weapon. The characters themselves have different stats: the robotic SiMo (which amuses me, as “Simo” is the nickname of the person with whom I played Sanctum) has a sniper rifle, deals extra damage whenever he hits an enemy weak spot, and suffers less recoil. The aptly-named Sweet has a rocket launcher, improved air control, and all of her shots with any weapon set enemies on fire. Etc, etc. And did I mention that there are a variety of perks you can use to customise them further? Give Sweet the perk that causes damage whenever you jump onto an enemy, as well as the perk that dishes out damage to foes within a certain range, and you’ve suddenly got a highly-controllable rocket jumper capable of leaping in and out of combat and doing constant damage the entire time. The various loadouts allow for a huge range of markedly different possibilities, and I can already see a few co-op possibilities.
And because it’s 2013 and thus it’s apparently the law to do this, there’s a levelling mechanic, which thankfully is across your profile and not across each character. Levelling up unlocks extra towers, tower slots, secondary weapons, perks, and perk slots, and I can’t honestly say I mind this. You level up at a fair rate, you’ve generally got access to whatever equipment you need to beat whatever level you’ve reached, and if you do get stuck, you can always go and do an earlier level on Survival Mode to unlock more stuff that can expand your potential strategies. I’ve yet to see an occasion where I’ve had to level up to progress, though.
Not that you really need any further incentive to want to go back to earlier levels, because the level design is just wonderful. Almost every map offers an entirely unique challenge. One, as you might expect, is a huge, blank arena, with a few environmental traps you can herd enemies into. Another is a narrow and twisty set of corridors that you can block off with a single wall, letting you completely redirect enemies with ease. A third has two cores to defend, three entry points for enemies, and is split across multiple vertical floors. These are far from the only examples of sterling design; the vast majority of the levels do something different and clever, and they’ve all got a unique visual take on the world, plus a few secrets littered about.
Going by everything I’ve written here, Sanctum 2 is shaping up well, regardless of any personal reticence I might have. It might not be what I expected, but it’s hard to see it being anything other than an entertaining game in its own right; some are doubtless going to complain about the changes, but I suspect there’ll be a significant contingent of Sanctum players who wind up preferring the more focused and variable nature of Sanctum 2. As to whether it’ll finally click with me and I’ll rack up another fifty hours of maze-building and monster-shooting… well, time will tell, but I’m certainly going to keep playing long enough to find out.
Oh, and it still reads out any text in the chat window as a Stephen Hawking voice. That’s the most important thing, surely.