"As a first-person shooter/tower defense hybrid, it immediately presents itself as an interesting prospect."
The tower defense genre has grown more popular over the last several years, as digital distribution platforms like Steam and Xbox Live Arcade have made it easier for development studios to get their games out there. But, somewhere along the way, the sense of tedium grew as the market was inundated with tower defense titles that did little to innovate within the genre. Last week saw the release of two games that provide something a little different and mix up the traditional tower defense formula. One of those games was Sanctum 2. As a first-person shooter/tower defense hybrid, it immediately presents itself as an interesting prospect.
Sanctum 2 is a game that some may struggle to come to terms with. It doesn’t fit comfortably into the preexisting molds from which it was cast. But, the resulting mélange is an exciting new toy. Half tower defense and half first-person shooter, Sanctum 2 takes a while to get used to. It mixes the two aspects of each genre nicely, but not necessarily in a way that presents itself as immediately comprehensible for the player. But more on that later.
In Sanctum 2 aliens are attacking various outposts that contain oxygen-producing cores. Your job is to fend off the advancing waves of enemies, all the while building a labyrinth of walls and turrets for the aliens to stroll through on their way to the core. You choose from one of four distinct classes, each with their own weapon and a character-specific trait. For instance, the standard assault class is given a trait that causes bullets to gain more damage with each successful hit on an enemy target; and the anti-air class uses ammo that sets enemies on fire, doing damage over time. Each class feels distinctive enough from the other. A universal leveling system gives players the chance to choose from various secondary weapons, perks, and unlocks numerous towers as you level up.
"You can also engage in a survival mode that can be played in private lobbies with friends, by yourself, or in public matches."
At the beginning of the match, the map you are playing on is void of any structures whatsoever. At the start of each successive wave, a resource and barrel pickup drops on the map. Resources allow players to purchase towers to attach to barrels. Barrels are what players place on the map to create a system of walls that act as a maze, funneling the enemies in as many directions as possible so that they take as much time as they possibly can in getting to the core. Each barrel pickup only drops a set number of barrels and resources, so the building of the maze system is incremental and happens as you complete each successive wave. Throughout the course of a match it is essential to engage in some resource management.
Sanctum 2 is designed to be played as a cooperative experience. Up to 4 players can take to the various maps created for Sanctum 2. There is a story mode—which can be played privately or in public lobbies—that has players completing maps to unlock comic-style storyboards explaining why it is that aliens are trying to destroy the cores. But, the story backdrop ultimately proves to be unnecessary. You don’t have to justify a tower defense hybrid with a storyline. That’s kind of one of the nice things about making games in the genre. You can also engage in a survival mode that can be played in private lobbies with friends, by yourself, or in public matches.
Ultimately, the cooperative experience requires a lot from the player. Playing Sanctum 2 in public lobbies is one of the most exhaustive multiplayer experiences I’ve had in a while. Allow me to explain: Tower defense games, by their very nature, have a strategic element. The strategic element in Sanctum 2 is experienced in the placing of barrels and towers in such a way as to make the enemy much less efficient in accomplishing its goals. Add to that certain enemy types with certain weaknesses and specialized towers that do everything from slow enemies within a certain radius of the tower, to towers that only affect ground forces without armor, and you’ve got the makings of a solid tower defense experience. But, an experience that begins to fall apart when the cooperative aspect of the game is introduced.
"I can’t tell you how many times I played in public matches where someone dropped in halfway through a match and went on a reclaiming-spree that ultimately led to our losing the match."
The game has a terrible tutorial that explains next to nothing about how things work in Sanctum 2. This creates a situation where players are having to experiment on their own to find out what the rules are. It creates an uninformed player-base creating problems when playing in public lobbies. People clearly didn’t understand several key aspects of the game, because the tutorial failed to introduce certain pillars in the mechanics of the game. The frustration is compounded by the decision to make resource and barrel pickups shared among players. I can’t tell you how many times people just stopped playing near the end of the wave so that they could be waiting in the spot where the pickups drop at the beginning of the next wave. Once a player picks up the resources and barrels they’re gone for good, no longer available for anyone else to pick up.
The developer tried to design around this by making any tower or barrel already placed on the map reclaimable by anyone. For instance, I dropped in to a public match with only one other person in it. He and I were playing on-mic and talking to each other to develop a strategy for barrel and tower placement. Everything was going along fine, until halfway through the match when someone else dropped in. He didn’t like the way we had our barrels positioned and so he went around reclaiming barrels from certain parts of the maze structure, leaving huge, gaping holes where there weren’t towers to defend. He then went around the map reclaiming the towers we had placed so that he could get himself some resources. Once he had the resources he wanted, he placed low-level towers at points in the maze structure that didn’t need additional tower structures. If it sounds like a troller’s paradise, it’s because it is. I can’t tell you how many times I played in public matches where someone dropped in halfway through a match and went on a reclaiming-spree that ultimately led to our losing the match.
"The gameplay itself is extremely enjoyable, feeling like an odd but ultimately satisfying combination of Minecraft and the multiplayer of Mass Effect 3."
The cooperative experience is designed in such a way that it requires you to play with people you know, people you get along with and people that you trust. As it stands currently, the public-lobby cooperative experience is a troll-fest, a frustrating experience full of players sabotaging those who they don’t agree with and backstabbing their teammates if things don’t go the way they want them to.
Don’t get me wrong, if played with a group of good people, Sanctum 2 definitely stands out as a very solid first-person shooter/tower defense hybrid—the only of its kind. It’s worth experiencing for its uniqueness alone. The universal leveling system was a smart choice, and the unlock progression is excellent. The gameplay itself is extremely enjoyable, feeling like an odd but ultimately satisfying combination of Minecraft and the multiplayer of Mass Effect 3. Sanctum 2 also gives players a chance to engage in some fairly high-level strategy for the genre. But, again, all of this is dependent on you playing with well-informed people that you know.
Review by: Jon Hamlin | Reviewed on: Xbox 360