Sanctum 2

Developed in Sweden by Coffee Stain Studios
Published by Reverb Publishing on Playstation 3, D3 Publisher on Xbox 360, and Coffee Stain Studios on PC
Released in 2013 for the Sony PlayStation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360, and PC
Reviewed on PC

Note: Coffee Stain Studios has gone through with patching some of the initial deficiencies with the game. This included raising the limit on towers, giving extra resources to players in multiplayer, and automatically giving players resources in multiplayer. When I wrote this review, it was under the impression that such design flaws would not be changed, as had been indicated by Coffee Stain Studios developers telling players to go play something else if they didn’t like it. If substantial changes are made in the future, it may merit a re-analysis of the game. As it stands, the changes were not fundamental enough to affect the score and the design flaws are still outstanding.

In 2011, Coffee Stain Studios released what they claimed to be a first-person shooter/tower defense hybrid named Sanctum. Unfortunately, a typical level could be beaten by building a long maze and running backwards while shooting through it. Enter Sanctum 2.

Where can I possibly begin? Well, I guess I’ll just start with the positives since there are so few. Sanctum 2 finally lets you jump over your maze and reposition quite quickly compared to its predecessor. The game is also jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The extremely clean environment and colors that pop out is a huge contrast to the grays and browns plaguing games these days. It looks very much like Valve’s Portal.

Then the game becomes an utter disaster. Where the gunplay in Sanctum simply wasn’t any good whatsoever, Sanctum 2 goes straight to the Call of Duty formula, perks and all. What little improvement was done to the feel of the guns (and the occasional change of sight reticule) is completely reversed by the downgrade of only being able to use two guns (Sanctum allowed a choice of any three out of six), being unable to upgrade them in any way, and a “class” system that does very little more than choose a gun for you and limit your choice.  You can’t use any combination of sniper rifle, assault rifle, shotgun, or rocket launcher because those are tied to the “class”.

Sanctum gave you the illusion of choice.  In theory, you could build a big maze and only upgrade your guns to complement the occasional tower or build a big maze and upgrade towers.  (This didn’t work, however, because of enemies with strong shields or weakpoints that could only be shot by a player.)  Sanctum 2 does away with the illusion by limiting the number of total towers that you can build to FIFTEEN. FIFTEEN TOTAL, no matter how many players are in the game.  They can also only be upgraded to LEVEL THREE compared to Sanctum‘s SIX.  (Although you can dump money for an incremental upgrade into a tower between the levels.)  Your maze and towers also get completely destroyed at any boss level so you can finally know that feel when a game developer decides to march in your house and destroy your Lego model of the Starship Enterprise.

Speaking of mazes, blocks are separate from money resources in Sanctum 2. Basically, at the end of each round you get a currency that only goes towards building blocks (which change the paths of enemies) and money to spend on towers to put on those blocks. In Sanctum, blocks and towers used the same currency, blocks were simply extremely cheap so one could build a maze before building towers. On the surface, this means you can safely refund your blocks and build completely different mazes between rounds to experiment. In reality, this is done to prevent players from building their maze before the developer intends them to, with the added “bonus” of only getting to use fifteen towers that are completely meaningless compared to your gun choice. Oh, and arbitrary waves will give you limited build time so that you don’t have enough time to properly think through a maze strategy or remake it.

The most interesting thing, though, is Sanctum 2 manages to make multiplayer co-op the exact opposite of fun. Any player can sell blocks or towers, even if someone else placed them. This makes it remarkably easy to grief (something Coffee Stain Studios encouraged in interviews at PAX East) and incredibly bad. This is about as fun as having a hostile ally. Meticulous minutes of mazebuilding can be easily and quickly ruined by a player and, when coupled with the limited build time, it completely ruins the experience. As block resources are extremely limited, a player will look for any way to save on blocks so that if even a single block is removed it would allow the enemies to make a bee-line to the typical tower defense Core that has limited health. In fact, you’re best off not playing the game with any other players. The design choices of Coffee Stain Studios makes co-op extremely hostile for players that don’t play exclusively with friends, and even then, you’re bound to have a more fun time playing any other horde-killing game like Killing Floor.

Sanctum 2 is a very interesting beast. It’s incredible that two years of development managed to make a potentially good franchise go backwards. Everything from weapon choice to loadouts to the number of towers you have is scaled back in the interest of sucking in the people that suck at games. Sanctum 2 is what EA or Activision would have made if they had been told about the concept behind Sanctum.

★★