Sanctum 2 Review: First-Person Tower Defending Done Right

Completely oversaturated with titles, the tower defense genre seemingly prides itself on copious amounts of games of all kinds. High fantasy, science fiction, medieval times, even games where you take the offensive against the towers, the genre has practically done it all – until Sanctum proved otherwise. Introducing the world’s seminal first-person tower defense title, Coffee Stain Studios original game was a college project that took off quite completely. Learning from all that they’ve done, Sanctum is back with a beautiful sequel that feels both completely different and yet, oh so very familiar.

As we approach the two week mark of its initial release, I decided to hold off this review until I was able to fully experience the game with actual players instead of fellow journalists. Great as my colleagues are, Sanctum 2 contains a very different feel in comparison to its predecessor and it’s rabid player-base needed to be experienced. When your game fills up with three more players who are just as or more eager to inflict pain upon the dreaded Lumes, you know your choice in waiting was correct.

Usually when a sequel comes out to a game I fully enjoyed, I’ll prepare by going back and firing up the first game just to work the kinks out of my system. To my surprise, venturing back and playing the original Sanctum did little to prepare me for the altered beast that is Sanctum 2. While they both exist in the same world, share the same tower names and foster the same ideas, the execution of Sanctum 2 is on a completely different level than the first. Don’t worry, that’s a good thing – for the most part.

Take for instance the core of any tower defense game – building towers, mazing and, for Sanctum, placing the all important blocks and upgrading weapons. The original Sanctum had one form of resources that allowed for weapon and tower upgrades – it also took exactly one resource to place a block, which acts as a foundation for your towers of doom. Sanctum 2 scrambles your mind and gives each player blocks AND resources in two separate categories. By limiting the amount of blocks you receive each round, Coffee Stain is able to more fully regulate what’s coming at you in a fast, alien rage.

The environments are absolutely gorgeous.

The environments are absolutely gorgeous.

However, the limitation of blocks also means that the vast, expansive stages of the original don’t fully exist in Sanctum 2. There are a few large stages that dump massive amounts of blocks on you, but for the most part the stages are slimmed down for a more focused experience. The idea behind it is great, but with a limitation on the amount of towers you can put down as well, it does make me miss the fully decked out halls of the first game which contained no such limits. Whether these constraints exist because Sanctum 2 is also out on the Xbox 360 and PS3 remains to be heard.

In the first game, you could hold three weapons that were all fully upgradeable, but Sanctum 2 implements the gold standard FPS formula by bringing that count down to two held weapons. Crazy as it might sound, the move to a couple of weapons makes perfect sense and augments the fast-paced, concentrated gameplay that makes Sanctum 2 fun to play. Though you can’t increase your weapon’s level anymore, you can gain three different perks that all but transform your character into an even more potent alien slaughter machine. You gain these different perks by earning experience, which is gained by simply playing the game. There’s 20 levels in all, with some incredible perks and weapons just waiting to be unlocked.

How can you not enjoy a weapon that literally takes up half the screen?

How can you not enjoy a weapon that literally takes up half the screen?

One of the most notable differences between Sanctums is the addition of a story through loading screen comics. The art style is well done, but the story itself is as mysterious as it is cryptic. As a matter of fact, the very first level of the game has you wading through a single-player level that introduces you to the whole conflict and literally walks you right into a tutorial map. No one should expect a full-blown, epic narrative from a tower defense game, but the ideas and execution Coffee Stain put into place here should be commended.

Continuing the theme of drastically, but familiar differences, you can choose from one of four different characters that all harbor special abilities as well as unique weapons. For instance, Sweet Autumn sports the REX, a weapon so massive in scope that it takes up half of your screen when firing it. Anything she hits catches on fire, meaning she’s innately a monster at decimating Soakers. Haigen Hawkins has a ton of health and carries the shotgun, which is insane at taking out Armored Heavies and other Walkers who need to go down fast. The addition of these new characters and a couple more adds more personality to the game as well as another level of team strategy on the higher difficulty levels.

Being a FPS tower defense title, one of the draws of Sanctum 2 is getting into the middle of the fight and blasting away at the demons trying to murder your family. Thankfully, the alien Lumes you’re trying to slay look glorious. Wholly, Sanctum 2 is beautiful and by beautiful I mean gorgeous. The visual difference between both games cannot be compared and for an indie title, this is about as nice as you’d want any game to appear.

The story is conveyed in these comic book loading screens. The art-style is nice!

The story is conveyed in these comic book loading screens. The art-style is nice!

While you’re filling the xenos full of your futuristic ammunition and observing your beautiful handiwork, it’s also worth noting that larger, angrier creatures exist in Sanctum 2 and they will not give you a second chance. In Sanctum, you had the safe satisfaction that no matter what happened, your maze of towers would be relatively safe from harm; not in Sanctum 2. With the addition of Super Heavies, Walker Patriarchs and Hoverer Queens, paying attention to positioning and personal tasks has never been so important. Think you can just sit back and camp while your towers do the dirty work? Well, when that Super Heavy points that laser at your towers and destroys them all, you can only blame yourself.

Unfortunately, Sanctum 2 isn’t without its own set of bugs. The best part about that though is Coffee Stain has been on the ball with implementing fixes and taking suggestions directly from the community itself. Before, resources and blocks would drop in on the cores after every round, making whomever wanted the blocks to go back to the start to pick them up. Worse than that, other players could pick up blocks that didn’t belong to them, creating hostility within the games themselves. However, due to Coffee Stain’s dedication and forward thinking, they’ve already made drastic changes that have fixed these issues and augmented the game in the process.

The Violator is an enormous, high-powered rifle tower of doom. It's also massively slow.

The Violator is an enormous, high-powered rifle tower of doom. It’s also massively slow.

Sanctum 2 will run you at least 20 hours and that’s if you’re speeding through and never fail on any mission, ever. With survival mode, four player co-op and feats of strength that make the stages even more difficult, there’s plenty of reasons to go back and play long after you’ve finished.

Sanctum 2 is an evolution of a formula that’s commonplace in contemporary gaming. By taking what worked and shifting it into a more concentrated role, Sanctum 2 is a success in every way. While I wish some of the things from the original carried over into the sequel, it’s tough to argue that Sanctum 2 would have been better than it already is. At a $15 price tag, do yourself a favor and get in on this multiplayer first-person tower defense mayhem.