The original Sanctum was praised for it’s cunning fusion of strategic tower defense gameplay with FPS action, but its repetitive gameplay and severely limited map diminished its potential. For their follow-up, Coffee Station Studios improves upon the formula while simultaneously altering the principal mechanics, making Sanctum 2 feel familiar, yet distinct.
The first thing you’ll notice that Sanctum 2 has over its predecessor is that it attempts to introduce a plot. Explained through comic book style loading screens, the story revolves around four main characters–Skye, SiMO, Sweet and Haigen–as they defend the planet from an invading horde of aliens. Each character feels different and can earn experience to unlock secondary weapons, perks, towers, and extra slots for themselves or towers. Once you’ve selected your character, you’ll create a stronghold on fifteen different locations by building and upgrading towers. These will assist in suppressing the approaching waves of alien foes that will soon be mercilessly attacking the power core you are tasked to protect.
This time around, the alien opposition are a lot more varied and tougher. Arriving in relatively small numbers, they’ll chase after you and take cover, while others take down the remaining members of your squad and start pounding away at the power core. Occasionally, waves are accompanied by bosses, which sadly are just enormous versions of the foot soldiers. These bosses can tear right through your defenses and their presence will teach you to adapt quickly.
Between waves of enemies, towers and turrets can be set. Using the tower bases, you will want to place them on the field so that they create a maze, forcing the aliens to funnel in order to get to your power core. Your goal is to create the longest possible path from the enemies entrance point(s) so that you have ample time to shoot them down via your strategically placed turrets and with your own gun. Every type of weapon and tower are suited for a specific type of enemy and placement strategy, so there is a bit of a learning curve to see what works best for each situation. You won’t be able to survive a map without intelligently constructing mazes and carefully placing your towers where they’re needed most.
Once the swarms of enemies begin to flow in, the game turns into a first-person shooter. Control your chosen character as you frantically hit enemies with everything you’ve got, swapping weapons to minimize reload delays and aiming for weak spots as best you can. It can get frantic when aliens pile up and attack the core, but if you survive you’ll be rewarded with resources. If you attempt to play the game like a traditional first-person shooter, you’ll suffer and fail when the latter half of the campaign ramps up the challenge. Experimenting with different load-outs and perks is basically a meta-game in itself and offers quite a bit of extra depth. Overall, there’s a strong sense of progression through these gameplay mechanics alone.
Sanctum 2‘s greatest accomplishment is its improved visuals and level design. This is a more varied and beautiful game over its predecessor. The lush, vibrant worlds range from technologically enhanced research facilities to surroundings basking in the sun and covered with foliage. Each level feels markedly different, some offer wide-open playing fields that offer complete freedom while others offer nasty environmental traps you might want to redirect your enemies through. Every level offers a unique challenge that calls for some quick adapting on your part yet none manage to overstay their welcome.
However, the real fun of Sanctum 2 lies in its four player co-op play. The fundamentals don’t change, but the difficulty certainly varies depending on how many buddies are join the foray. While there’s a wide variety of towers to choose from, each player may only take a certain amount onto a map at a time. The exact number increases upon leveling up, making higher-level players immediately better than lower-level players. Resources are shared amongst the players, which is great if you are playing with trusted friends yet horrible if you join a match with strangers. Random matches quickly turned ugly when players began to take apart other players towers or lower-level players took tower pieces before the higher-level players got to them. Still, setting a match in the endless Survival Mode while and fighting back the alien forces amongst a group of people presents both a welcome challenge and a quick way of earning XP.
Sanctum 2 also introduces Feats of Strength, which change certain aspects of the game such as enemy health, enemy speed, and so forth in Survival Mode. Not only do these feats make the levels harder; they also force you to rethink strategy and adapt to these new conditions. In exchange for making your life miserable, enabling Feats of Strength earns you more experience, thus letting you level up faster. With all five triggered, Sanctum 2 becomes a brutal challenge even with a full team and all available perks. It’s an ingenious system that allows you to modify the challenge to your liking.
While it isn’t without its fair share of flaws, Sanctum 2 is a vast improvement over it’s predecessor. Similar to other genre hybrids available, Sanctum 2 succeeds at creating an enjoyable experience because each gameplay mechanic compliments each other in a profoundly meaningful ways.
Editor’s Note: Sanctum 2 was reviewed using a PC copy of the game. If further investigation reveals any differences between the 360 edition and the PC edition of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences.