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Review: Sanctum

5:00 PM on 04.14.2011 // Maurice Tan

The tower defense genre recently got a nice boost in novelty with the release of Anomaly: Warzone Earth, which turned the genre on its head, and now we have Sanctum; a game that puts the player inside tower defense. Other than that both games involve towers though, they are really nothing alike.

Sanctum mixes first-person gameplay with traditional tower defense elements like building a maze full of towers, and pulls off its refreshing take on the genre rather successfully. However, the game is also lacking in a few aspects that would otherwise have lifted it to greatness.

Sanctum (PC)
Developer: Coffee Stain Studios

Publisher: Coffee Stain Studios
Release date: April 15th, 2011
MSRP: $14.99 ($24.99 two-pack)

Sanctum sees you as a female soldier/engineer whose only task is to protect a core by any means necessary. Like in other tower-defense games, you build a maze tailored to rain as much destruction down on waves of enemies who can approach from multiple directions. Building your maze is done in first-person, as you build blocks to construct your maze-structure and then build defensive towers on top -- or inside -- of them.

Different towers do different kinds of damage. Lightning towers are strong but slow, gatling guns are fast but weak (and only shoot at ground level), scatter towers are similar to gatling guns but also attack air targets and are more expensive, specific anti-air towers do more damage but can be fickle with fast-moving targets, etc.

Almost all enemies have weak spots and different abilities, like speeding up on long stretches or only receiving damage from behind, and you'll have to take the specifics of every type of enemy into account when constructing your maze wave after wave. Every wave nets you a set amount of resources, which you can either use to construct towers or blocks, or to upgrade your weapons. It's these weapons are what set Sanctum apart the most.

Three different types of weapons allow you to snipe, freeze, slow, grenade, or just blast the hell out of your foes. Upgrading your sniper rifle lets you take more -- and more damaging -- shots before reloading, upgrading your freeze gun slows enemies down more, and upgrading your assault rifle simply increases damage output.

Because each weapon has a cooldown to indicate overheating or reloading, this results in having to juggle your weapons to maximize your damage output. Luckily the controls facilitate this process by means of using your scroll wheel or the Q and E keys. Because your towers can't always deal with enemies by themselves, and especially in the early waves just don't do enough damage, you have to become actively involved in dealing out a large amount of damage yourself.

It makes the game a lot of fun, and a lot more engaging than just being a commander with an overhead map. You can still use such an overhead map to get a good view of the battlefield or to teleport around to "Televators" that let you walk on top of your maze, although you can't build in this view; a feature that beta players request often and which might be implemented at some point.

In most waves you'll try to snipe enemies as they approach from a distant inaccessible location, trying to hit their weak spots to do as much damage as you can. As they start to enter your maze you'll quickly learn to mix up the act of slowing down enemies with doing area damage by shooting grenades from your assault rifle, while your sniper rifle is reloading for more direct damage.

If you fall down into your own maze, you can either use Televators -- which you should've built strategically for such an occasion -- or just run in front or behind enemies while blasting away. In case you get hit, you just get bumped away as the only health in the game is that of the Core you have to protect.

So far so good, as the different enemy types will force you to think about what kind of towers you need to build at what locations, and require you to mix up your FPS approach with regard to dealing damage. However, even though there are plenty of enemy types, you tend to shoot the vast majority either right in the middle of their body, in the "head," or from behind. A few enemy types have bobbling heads which can be a challenge to snipe, or curl up into an invincible form if they get hit, but other than that it quickly becomes a bit familiar as you progress through the maps.

While that is not a huge concern in itself, the game ships with only three maps. One is a basic "use this rectangular field to build your maze" type, another has smaller areas to build on but offers slopes and bridges to detour the enemy flow, and a last one kind of combines the two. Singleplayer will just see you go through these maps in succession, with each map offering more waves to beat than the last one.

But when you find the "best" maze structure that works for you, there isn't a whole lot to go back to other than tackling the hardest difficulty settings. Going through the three maps will last you some 4-5 hours depending on how good you are at tower defense strategizing -- and the highest difficulty will lengthen that significantly -- but as the game is an FPS take on the genre, more maps with more variety would definitely have been welcome.

The freeze gun is also a bit useless if you don't use its alternate instant-freeze attack. Regular fire will simply slow down an enemy, but it costs too much to upgrade it to actually become useful for it to be worth the effort; you'll likely spend that money on damage output instead.

The game does look great, thanks to the use of Unreal Engine 3, and each map looks different enough artistically. Since the beta, the framerate appears to have been improved as well, so most midrange PCs should be able to handle it without too much trouble.

Two player co-op also goes a long way in adding longevity and variety where the three maps don't offer enough, and it's quite a bit harder as well because you have to communicate what to build with limited resources. Of course, you'll have to find a like-minded friend to get the most out of it.

Still, Sanctum perhaps could have done with a little more time in development to create more content. The whole concept of first-person tower defense begs for more than just having Defense Grid type of maps with an FPS twist at your disposal. Things like using verticality and utilizing the entire 3D world in particular feel like missed opportunities. There is so much potential for level design that feels underdeveloped in favor of creating a great looking game. 

It's a really fun game to play with solid core mechanics in place, and it's still unlike any other game in the genre. But it's also a game that you might finish and not really come back to if you are without a partner or don't want to bother with the higher difficulties.

Coffee Stain Studios does appear to be very open to community feedback, however, and a lot of beta players have been giving a ton of suggestions on things they'd like to see. So it's very likely that the game will eventually have more weapons, more enemy types and more maps.

As it stands at the time of release though, Sanctum offers a fresh take on tower defense gameplay that is great at its core, but would benefit immensely from more, and more varied, content. The game certainly has a lot of potential in the long run, and the harder difficulties and co-op can get you your money's worth for now.

Plus it's a cheap game, albeit slightly above being an "impulse buy" for most solo players. The best advise I can give you is to treat the game as a platform that will be more fleshed out in the future. If you are a fan of tower defense and FPS mechanics it's definitely worth checking out, although you may have to wait for the true potential of Sanctum to be fully realized down the line.



Sanctum - Reviewed by Maurice Tan
Likable - That's a seven, which is actually a different number than five. It's more than ok. We like this game. I don't want to play it every day forever and ever, but it's definitely worth the time I invested in it, and I'll be picking it up again to relive the fun sometime down the line.

See more reviews or the Destructoid score guide.

Maurice Tan,
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