Saturday, November 19, 2011

Review: Sanctum

PC (Steam Version)
Publisher: Coffee Stain Studios
Developer: Coffee Stain Studios
Release Date: 15 April 2011

Tower defense games are an old genre, but one that's seen a resurgence of late. Thanks to simple controls and ideas, nearly anyone can pick up and play one of these games. As such, the field is getting crowded and titles have to do a bit more to stand out from the pack. One way of doing just that is mash up two game styles and make a new one. Sanctum mixes up the tower defense with FPS action. But, is it a solid mix?

Protect your home from alien invaders

Sanctum starts out predictably enough. You are in charge of keeping the nasty beasties away from a glowing core. The core has hit points that go down with each enemy that gets to it. To stop them, you have a large grid on which you can construct towers of various descriptions. You must start each tower with a base, and then you can add an offensive function to any base. Offensive towers can be upgraded, augmented, and sold off for more resources. They come in a variety of flavours, including weak spread shots (great for groups of small enemies), work-horse Gatling guns, powerful but slow lightning towers (Nikola Tesla would be proud), and mortar launchers. You have to choose your tower load-out for every map, so knowing what towers serve your needs best is crucial. Replaying the stages with a better knowledge of the coming hordes is fun, and allows you to mix up your strategy. The enemies have some rudimentary AI that allows them to change up paths (making tower placement only half the battle), but they are still tower defense enemies: forward to your core is their only goal. While the starter waves are easy, the difficulty does spike occasionally. The waves only start when you are ready, so you can spend plenty of time plotting the enemy's demise and craftily placing towers. You also have an encyclopedia that explains each enemy type (weaknesses and all), and you are informed before each round what's coming next. When the difficulty shoots up, it can get frustrating, especially because it seems to do so randomly. It starts out as a pretty standard tower defense game with some nice editions to the enemy AI and wave knowledge. So, how does it stand out?

Help out your towers with your own firepower

Where this game carves its own path is with the genre mashing. Sanctum adds in FPS elements to the mix. Your character has free range on each map, and three weapons slots to help out. This novel feature means that your character's load-out can compliment the towers. Need explosives, but didn't opt to have the mortar tower? No problem if you brought along the REX rocket launcher! There isn't an ammo count, but each weapon overheats with use, and requires a lengthy cool-down if you hit %100 on the heat meter. The basic enemies can be taken out with towers alone, though you can save resources by doing some of the work yourself. Where the FPS part really comes in handy is when the special enemy types appear. Some are only vulnerable from behind, some have heavy armor that is broken with enough damage or a head-shot, and others still have a tendency to cluster and swarm, making a shotgun your best friend. The enemies cannot hurt you, they only cause you to wobble a bit, so there is no penalty for charging in head first. Truly, your character is more of a mobile turret with you in control of the targeting. This part of the game plays more like Quake: fast, loose and simple. This isn't a Battlefield or Call of Duty by any stretch, but it is fun to mix it up with the enemies instead of waiting for the round to end.

It is a really pretty game

While the offensive towers do most of the work, you can tip the odds in your favour by building other tower types. Each tower is based on a simple, cheap base, you can funnel enemies down paths that you choose. Since you build and face each wave from a First Person perspective, you have a better appreciation for your strategy (or lack there of). This perspective makes for slight learning curve because seeing a tower up close isn't the same as from high above. You can swap to an overhead view, but not to build. The game has towers that help you during the FPS sections while not being strictly offensive. For example, teleporter towers allow you to move about the map at any time to specific points. This can come in handy if the enemy wave takes an unexpected detour and you need to rush over to defend the core yourself. Even the empty bases of towers can serve as an elevated vantage point to snipe from or launch grenades. It's in these frantic moments that Sanctum really sets itself apart from the other entries in the tower defense genre. The option to team up with a friend online and save the day together is inviting. It's not something that will drastically extend the life of the game, but it's a fun diversion if you're getting bored of fighting solo.

Shoot that big guy. Shoot him a lot.

The graphics are pretty, though the slowdown on my PC was horrendous even on lower settings. The towers are simple, but you can tell at a glance what each one does. The enemies are simply designed and have glowing weak points just in case you are wondering where to shoot them. Everything has a “futuristic” vibe to it, but the backgrounds show a wilderness that's untamed. Sanctum looks very good for what it is and does some neat graphical tricks like God Beams and rag doll physics. I couldn't take advantage of those things, though. Slowdown hurt the enjoyment of the moment, and I had to turn off a lot of settings. My PC isn't a “gaming power-house” but it's not a cheap box either. With some of the fancy stuff removed, the game ran much better. It's a shame I couldn't take full advantage of the game's Unreal-generated graphics and pretty bloom effects.

Special enemy types require more than thoughtfully placed towers to down

Sanctum has a good concept, and it deserves a look from strategy fans. There is enough depth to keep you interested, but that depth comes from replays and using your FPS twitch skills. While some may be able to wile hours away at it, others will be sated by the taste the demo offers. I know I'll keep coming back, but only for short stretches at a time. I definitely recommend this title if you are a fan of the concept, but it's not a “must buy”. Most of the mileage you'll get from this title is replaying maps with different weapon load-outs and tower types, and maybe upping the difficulty. Also, achievement hunters will enjoy the nearly 90 possible achievements to earn. I don't think that 6s are “bad” by any stretch, but Sanctum isn't a home run title either. The initial offering is OK (6 maps and about 5 hours of content), but is fleshed out well with extra maps (that range from $1 to $2 per map). Honestly, for the price (Steam has it for $10, or with the soundtrack and 7 DLC maps for $22) it's alright and the score reflects that. The concept is solid, the game is fun, but it's just a bit much to ask for such a pretty game that may not run well on all machines. Keep a look out for this one on the Steam Holiday Sales. I got it at $5, and at that price, it's well worth picking up.

Score: 6.5 out of 10
Bottom Line: A different take on the tower defense genre that's competent and fun, especially for genre fans
Check it out if you like: Plants VS Zombies, Dungeon Defenders, Orcs Must Die

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