Note: this review is for the PC version which has been extensively patched since launch. This review was written after the May 24 Patch; some of the patches have even included significant changes to the gameplay and balance. For example, at launch the resources for the building phase dropped instead of being given directly to the player(s). At the time of writing this it is unknown when the XBLA version will be updated, if at all.
In 2011, Coffee Stain Studios released a first-person shooter/tower defense game called Sanctum. I really enjoyed that game and had a lot of fun playing it with my friends; so I was pretty excited when they announced Sanctum 2. The sequel differentiates itself from the original with a few interesting changes in the design, some of which are improvements that I’ve come to appreciate while others feel unnecessary.
As in the first game, you pick which weapons and towers to take with you into each mission. Sanctum 2 adds three characters to the original game’s Skye, each one with unique abilities and a unique primary weapon. I think it’s a neat decision to separate the four major weapons into their own characters with abilities best suited to those weapons, but then it also means that you can’t really mix-and-match weapons and abilities. For example, my favorite character Skye can double jump but the shotgun and sniper rifle are restricted to SiMo and Haigen Hawkins, respectively.
A new addition to Sanctum 2 is player level which unlocks weapons, towers, and perks as the player gains XP at the end of each mission. This progression system doesn’t really add much to the game. As is the case with the other first person shooters, watching a bar fill up and numbers change doesn’t make the core gameplay systems any more fun, and it feels unnecessary to me.
Once you pick your secondary weapon, some towers, and some perk(s) to take with you, you can begin the actual mission. Like the first game, you alternate between a building phase and an extermination phase. The building phase in Sanctum 2 is very different from the first game because defense towers and basic building blocks use up two distinct resources instead of one. Furthermore, gone is the upgrade system from the first game. Before, players were able to upgrade their weapons during the building phase using the same resource as defense towers. This created an interesting risk-reward decision system, and I miss it in this game.
The extermination phase has also gone through some big changes. The basic building blocks (which make walls) are a lot smaller now and can be jumped up on. This enabled the developers to get rid of the teleportation towers from the first time. However, those were very useful for traveling between two far away areas. There are some levels in Sanctum 2 that make traveling between enemy spawn areas very difficult and not fun at all. Another big change is that the enemies can damage the player and even step outside of the designated path in their pursuit of the player. This means that the player character can die and then has to wait to respawn (although there is a perk which enables instant respawn). I have mixed feelings about this. I like that I can draw enemies away from their path (and consequently the core which I am tasked with protecting), but I don’t like being surrounded by monsters, getting stuck in corners, dying, and then being useless for 10 seconds.
The real fun of doing all of that in Sanctum 1 was doing it with friends, which wasn’t the case for me this time since nobody on my friends list bought Sanctum 2. Although the new improved multiplayer makes it so that players can easily join each other’s games, playing with strangers just wasn’t that great. The biggest problem with strangers is that everyone has different ideas for the layout of the building blocks and the placement of the towers. One player’s layout idea may not necessarily be better or worse than the other player’s, but you can’t really mix and match layouts, so one player has to be the dominant builder. In a co-op game, an inter-player relationship shouldn’t involve dominance, yet here we go.
It just feels like so many of the design decisions in Sanctum 2 were arbitrary additions as opposed to carefully through-out improvements on the design of the first game. A while back on Twitter I was saying how indie developers should iterate on their games more often, rather than making a thing that is flawed in some way (as everything always is) and then just abandoning it and its ideas. The multiple characters and the player level system don’t seem like the results of designers looking at their original work and asking themselves, “What did we do well and didn’t do well? What can we improve on to make this a better game?” Sanctum 2 is a good game, especially if you have friends to play it with, but if there is a Sanctum 3 in the future then I hope the developers take a more critical, iterative approach to their craft.