It is oft said that if you are a jack of all trades you will be a master of none, and nowhere do we see this over-reaching as much as in videogame development. But that problem has always been with shoe-horning differing elements into a pre-existing game rather than having a multifaceted conceit. This is something that could have easily plagued the Sanctum series but thankfully the development team had a clear vision of what their game was supposed to be. Sanctum 2 has one foot in the first-person shooter realm and the other in the tower defense camp, and while they may not be the master of both of these arenas Coffee Stain Studios have released a game that will entertain rather than amaze.
The game is set in the future on the planet Loek III, which sees a significant human colony being established on its surface much to the displeasure of the indigenous inhabitants the Lumes. The settlements on the planet are each kept running by a ‘core’, if the cores are destroyed then the city falls and the Lumes take over. You will play as one of four ‘Core Guardians’, each replete with their own story and loadout, and you must stop the Lumes in each level from destroying the core. It’s not the greatest story you are likely to experience, and why they insist on keeping the cores in the wide open is beyond me, but it serves the purpose of the game well.
Each multiplayer game, or singleplayer level, is made up of two distinct sections: planning and active defense. Both of these sections play out from a first-person perspective. In the planning stage you are given limited resources to build your initial defenses in preparation for the first wave of enemies. As you survive each wave you will be rewarded with extra resources to bolster your defense or alternatively you can demolish parts of your defense for a reduced return of your initial investment. The play areas are basically large boards divided up into smaller squares, with each denoting a place to position a resource. These play areas are dressed up with buildings, ramps and some NPCs that will soak up a little bit of enemy attention before shuffling off this mortal coil. As you scan your mouse over the play area the game does a great job of clearly marking where you can and cannot build and a simple scroll of the mouse-wheel will run through all available options by displaying a hologram of what you have selected for that area. You initially have very few options as to what you can build, there are simple walls that you can connect together to help funnel the enemies down a chosen path which you can later add turrets to the top of.
To begin with you will have access to simple turrets, some will have rapid fire but are weak which serve the purpose of taking down runners and then heavier turrets that while slow will help remove the larger enemies. There are also special towers that will stun enemies and slow them down and there is a great freedom to change your tactics on the fly. The game provides you with a handy top-down map that shows you where the next wave will be approaching from and what current path they will take and with multiple points on ingress it helps to make the most of your scant resources. As you accrue more resources you will also be able to upgrade your turrets to deliver more damage, but would you rather have lots of medium strength turrets or a few heavy hitters? You will constantly be asking yourself questions like this and most of the fun to be had here is the frequent reworking of your strategies.
As you progress through the game whether in singleplayer or multiplayer you will rank up through a traditional XP meter and with each level-up you will unlock new items, turret types or perks to help you fend off the hordes. This adds a nice level of depth and customisation to developing your own personal play style, but should your pairing of perks and items not deliver success it is easy enough to select a new loadout and try again. It is one of Sanctum 2’s strongest successes that it makes everything about it both understandable and accessible, it may sound like a disservice but the ease of play here is reminiscent of mobile gaming. That is to say that anyone could pick this up and within five minutes have firmly got to grips with the mechanics but perhaps not the depths.
Unfortunately after a handful of hours you will have seen all that Sanctum 2 has to offer, the story mode is generic and the story itself is very much two-dimensional with connections between chapters being tenuous at best and obtuse at worst. The enemies also operate in a mindless fashion with only getting from point A to B being their focus, and while this is the wont of any tower defense enemy it serves here to make you feel more like an observer at times than an active participant. There may be the odd fireball thrown your way but there is nothing that makes the world and its inhabitants feel more like they are alive, there is a flatness at times that is as sterile as the crisp futurescapes the games presents. This is also echoed in the player weapons themselves as they lack any real sense of weight with one laser blast hard to differentiate from another and with enemies not reacting to your attacks you will feel somewhat removed from the experience.
However Sanctum 2 greatly picks up when you delve into multiplayer as the addition of another human player does enliven the experience and adds an actual sense of unpredictability to proceedings. The network coding seems to be extremely stable and there were no issues of lag or dropped sessions in the time the game was played. In many ways multiplayer is the way Sanctum 2 should be played, obviously if you are beholden to another player who isn’t strategically minded you may find a new level of frustration emerge but if you can play with a friend and organise effectively then you are in for an interesting experience.
It is hard not to like Sanctum 2, it makes everything so very easy for the player to get involved and understand the mechanics. There has been a great deal of care to make this the case and Coffee Stain Studios should be commended for making this work as in less capable hands this could have been a disaster. At times the experience may feel hollow as you attack the enemies as they trundle towards the core in an ‘on-rails’ fashion and they show little or no care for your existence. However, throw in a friend or a clued in stranger and the multiplayer can lift the game high above what the single player delivers. Sanctum 2 is a jack of some trades, and while it doesn't master them it makes them a lot of fun.