Review | 5/20/2013 at 12:00 PM

Sanctum 2 Co-Op Review

Light on strategy, heavy on shooting.

Sanctum got some well-deserved attention when it was released back in 2011. The unique mixture of tower defense and first person shooting elements allowed for both thoughtful gameplay and wild stretches of blasting aliens with guns. With Sanctum 2, Coffee Stain Studios decided to make some tweaks to formula, upping the action and toning down the towers. The result is a game that feels very different from the original, despite being built around the same core concept.

The basic idea behind Sanctum 2 is to defend your base from waves of invading aliens. Some aliens are tall, some of them fly, and others look like ambulatory pimples from a Dali painting. No matter what they look like, they're headed towards your core, and that's a bad thing. Your job is to place a bunch of turrets and towers in their way to try to stop them. And when that fails, you've got a decent arsenal of guns you can whip out to get the job done.

Each level begins with the character select screen where you choose one of four people to take into battle. Characters have different abilities that suggest a particular playing style. Haigen carries a shotgun, has more health than the other characters, and deals extra damage when close to enemies. SiMo uses a sniper rifle and is especially good at bringing pain to aliens by hitting them in their glowing red weak spots. Skye is the most balanced character and has a nice double jump ability, while her sister Sweet carries the massive flame weapon Rex. The character classes lend some variety to co-op games, but if you happen to be going solo, any one of them will do you just fine. New towers and weapons can be earned and equipped as you progress through the stages.

Levels are divided into waves which quite neatly separate the tower building and action sections of the game. When all is quiet on the battlefront, it's time to upgrade and build. Sanctum 2 provides two basic resource types: tower cores and currency. Cores determine how many base towers you can build, i.e. place one block, use one core. Currency is used to build and upgrade offensive towers. Once you've laid a foundation for the monster maze, start adding some blasty things at key choke points to maximize their damage. But hey, you know how to play a tower defense game, right?

Once the enemies are active, it's first person shooter time. 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. Just what you always wanted!

Here's where we're really going to start splitting hairs: Sanctum versus Sanctum 2. The original Sanctum struck an almost perfect balance between strategy and action. Your time was neatly divided into tower placement and first person shooter sections. Resources were plentiful, and not only could you give your towers a little boost, but you could also beef up your own weapons one level at a time. This created a very dynamic give and take between the genres, all without overshadowing each player's personal style.

With Sanctum 2, most of that delicate balance has been toppled over. It's a much simpler, more streamlined game, and if you're coming from a background with the original Sanctum, you're probably not going to like the changes. Towers seem almost useless in the sequel. Not only does their firepower feel reduced, but they don't provide solid player-sized blocks to create walls, just little nubs that barely protrude from the floor. While this does improve visibility and mobility, it also increases the illusion that towers are, in fact, nearly pointless.

With the focus shifted to fighting, one would think the weapons have been fleshed out into a nice arsenal of destruction. Unfortunately that's not the case. Sanctum 2 reduces weapons to a few character-specific guns, each with a regular and an alt firing mode. Instead of upgrading weapons using resources, you can equip various perks that boost certain abilities, often with a game-balancing cost associated with them. For example, Haigen has a shotgun perk that increases overall damage by 30%. The tradeoff is weakspot damage is eliminated, which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your situation. There's a little bit of strategy involved in choosing the right perks, but you'll probably stick with one or two favorites throughout the game, even when new ones are unlocked.

Resources are handled a bit differently in Sanctum 2. Instead of automatically adding them to each player's total at the end of a wave, crates appear that must be picked up by each player. When the game was first released these resources could only be collected by one person on the team, leaving everyone else to sit and watch while one lucky player got to build and upgrade. Coffee Stain Studios listened to a lot of player feedback, though, and soon released an update that made it so resources were available to everyone on the team. This quickly fixed the imbalance, restoring co-op to a more complete team-based experience. Thanks, Coffee Stain Studios!

The changes between games aren't all negative, however. For starters, the graphics in Sanctum 2 are noticeably sharper, clearer, and more lively than in the first game. There's also a story to follow, though it's minimal at best and can be neatly summed up by saying "these four people are going to kill aliens". The comic-style cutscenes are a nice treat, even if they don't add much to the game.

Summing up the Sanctum vs. Sanctum 2 debate is simple: Sanctum 2 is a first person shooter with light tower defense elements, whereas Sanctum 1 is a balanced hybrid. Entering Sanctum 2 from a background in Sanctum might leave you a bit disappointed, but if you're new to the series, Sanctum 2 might actually be a better starting point, especially if strategy games aren't your thing. It's a good game with great graphics and a good co-op mode no matter which way you look at it, but it doesn't quite reach the level of awe-inspiring entertainment achieved by the original.

UPDATE: Coffee Stain Studios released an update shortly after launch that fixed a number of issues/imbalances in the game. The changes were so significant we updated our review (and review scores) to reflect this.

This review was based on the PC version of the game provided by the developer.