Sanctum 2

With big gaming franchises there is always the fear that sequels will be “The same, but MORE”.  Shooter franchises add in new guns, fantasy games have more loot, and MMO’s pack in redundant classes with each new installment.  But with indie games “The same but MORE” is often a great way to go with a sequel. The first Sanctum game had a clever idea; combining Tower Defense with First Person Shooters.  A bit unconventional, but the development team made it work.  The main complaint from players was that they wanted MORE!  Sanctum 2 arrived this week delivering that Moreness.

Sanctum 2 doesn’t try to reinvent either the shooter genre, or tower defense.  It takes the best mechanics of each style of game and thoughtfully splices them together.  Players are put on an open battlefield with a large glowing “Core” on one side of the base, and they need to defend it from waves of attackers.  Most levels have a few natural walls or barriers, but it is up to the Player to construct defenses as they like by using giant blocks to make walls, then mounting automated gun turrets on them.

The typical set of towers is available: Slow-but-powerful, Weak-but-fast, and support towers that slow enemies or provide items that the Player can deploy (Like mines).  Enemies are each vulnerable to certain kinds of towers, just like in most other tower defense games, and clever players can try to create balanced defense to fight off everything.

However, Sanctum 2 also lets players directly control a soldier on the ground.  No matter how great players are at planning defenses, some of the enemies are bound to get through, and that means killing them the old-fashioned way.  With guns!

The shooter mechanics aren’t trying to be innovative.  The characters control like in any other shooter and Sanctum 2 is balanced so that trigger-happy players can’t just rely on shooting to survive beyond the first couple of waves.  A combination of strategy and reflexes is mandatory.

In the first Sanctum game there was only one playable character.  In Sanctum 2 there are four, plus a Perk system.  Players will gain experience with each match and unlock new guns and Perks for their characters. There are four classes, each with a default special weapon, and a unique ability like double jumping or setting enemies on fire. Players can only carry two guns at a time, one is always the default weapon for their class, but they can choose from a selection of unlocked weapons to help round out their abilities, or to focus on one particular tactic.

It is set in a science fiction world where a squad of space soldiers is defending a series of locations from a horde of space bugs.  Sorytelling obviously isn’t the franchise’s strong suit.  In fact the story is told through still images and text that appear on the load screens.  It’s the barest minimum to explain “Bugs bad.  People good.  Go shoot”.

But the true story to Sanctum 2 will be the emergent tales that players create for themselves as they play.  By giving players the ability to build their defenses how they like, and to customize their character, they will be creating their own story for each level.  Will this mission be about a ruthless sniper who funnels enemies into a heavily fortified choke point, or is it about a cunning strategist who sends the enemy on a winding path of carefully-balanced defenses, slowly whittling away at her foes with a machine gun?

While it can be played as a single-player game, it supports multiplayer co-op with up to four people.  It uses a drop-in drop-in system, and the default settings are to allow multiplayer with anyone looking to join.  Enemies grow stronger with each new player who joins, so the challenge remains the same, but the ability to use teamwork helps a great deal.  Enemies can spawn from different start points, so it’s handy to have a friend or three to cover all parts of the battlefield.

Between each wave there is a drop of two kinds of resource.  One creates walls, and the other is used to build and upgrade turrets.  Whatever player grabs them first gets to deploy them around the battlefield.  Players can recycle towers and move items planted by other players, so this can sometimes result in conflicting strategies.  As of this writing, the community seems very friendly and cooperative, but the system does leave itself open to malicious players deliberately screwing around with other people’s bases.

Regardless of the possibility of griefing, the co-op is one of the best features of the game.  Teaming up to cover weak spots, or helping someone rearrange their walls in a more effective way is what co-op is all about and Sanctum 2 rewards good-spirited teamwork.

By using this sort of random co-op, players can exchange tips on how to build defenses too.  There are plenty of “Oh!  I didn’t think of THAT” moments, along with the opportunity to show off crazy schemes.

Aside from new features, and more characters, Sanctum 2 is also a good deal longer than the original game.  With the four characters and wide variety of perks, players will get a lot of play time out of Sanctum 2.  It’s addictive and it becomes very challenging early on (There a big difficulty spike about a third of the way through, though).

Making it even tougher is the option for “Feats of Strength”.  After beating a level, players can replay that level and activate special mods that increase the difficulty, but also increase the Experience Points earned.  This is a customizable Hard Mode, essentially.  Players can increase the damage, movement speed, or hit points of enemies, plus some truly dangerous options like disabling respawns in the middle of a mission.

This franchise is a model for indie developers who have a good premise for a small game.  Doing the same thing, but bigger has worked out very well for Sanctum’s developers Coffee Stain Studios.  It is available now on PC as well as Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.