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Sanctum 2 blends the strategic challenge of tower defense with the twitch reflexes of an FPS, and it does so masterfully. It’s hard to call the game novel, – it is a sequel after all – but the series is definitely an innovation in the field, and Sanctum 2 even incorporates elements of RPGs with the all-new character leveling system. Sanctum 2 is an all-around good time, with only minor faults keeping it from being the perfect experience.

Sanctum 2 is a relatively simple game with a similarly straightforward storyline. Your team of soldiers must protect your base – more specifically the Core – from alien assault. Why the aliens are attacking is never really made clear, nor is it obvious what, exactly, the Core does that makes it so invaluable. Though the premise is fairly shallow, the story of your crew is told cleverly with comic strips between stages. As you move from one stage to the next, these strips will give you the gist of what’s going on at that moment, but it tells you little else that might give context to the situation at hand. That, the exciting, fast-paced gameplay more than makes up for the lacking story.
At the beginning of each level, you’ll get to choose which of four characters you’re going to play. Each character has their own primary weapon and special ability, such as SiMo the robotic sniper, wielding its trusty rifle, and having an inherent bonus to accuracy. As you play missions, you’ll gain experience, which applies to you as a player, rather than a single character, meaning that you don’t have to level up each character individually. As you level up, you’ll gain access to new secondary weapons, tower types, and perks, as well as unlock additional tower and perk slots, which allow you to equip multiple types of towers and perks for the mission at hand. You’ll get experience even when you fail a mission, so even when you’re stuck, there is the important sense of progress, which keeps the game from being too frustrating on the harder levels.

Once you’ve selected your character and chosen their weapons, towers, and perks, you’ll be thrown into the map near the Core that you’re attempting to protect. You’ll have to go pick up the building materials that drop from the sky at the beginning of each build phase, which will give you a number of walls which you’ll place on the ground to guide the path of the enemies, as well as an allotment of tower resources, which you’ll need to build the towers themselves. You’ll usually have unlimited time to plan and build your defenses, but occasionally there is a timer to keep you on your toes. This adds a bit of excitement to the build phases, but can occasionally be an annoyance in those instances where you were hoping to use the timed build phase for an overhaul of your defense system.

Using your walls and the path indicator, which tells you what route the enemies will run, you’ll create something of a maze for the bad guys to run through, ideally creating labyrinthine paths that offer your towers as much face time with the enemies as possible. Creating choke points for the baddies, lining it with towers, then triggering the next wave and watching the mayhem is immensely satisfying, especially if you’ve done well enough that you can sit back and enjoy the show without having to dive into the action yourself to clean up the stragglers.

Sanctum 2 Screenshot 08 embed

The tower options are fairly diverse, offering everything from generic gun turrets and lightning towers to drone towers, which actually send out a small fleet of drones to whittle away at the tougher bad guys over time. The more complicated defensive positions will need to incorporate towers that slow enemy movement, giving your other towers more time to deal with the swarms, as well as buying you precious seconds to take out the survivors yourself. Choosing which towers to take with you on a new mission is nearly as fretful an experience as pressing the button to spawn the next wave, as you’ll have no idea what to expect, which means you’re taking a stab in the dark as to which towers will be most helpful. Once you know what’s coming, however, the tower selection becomes less interesting, since you’ll already have an idea of exactly how you want to structure your defensive position.

For FPS players, the most fun you’ll have in Sanctum 2 is during the waves of bad guys, as you’re dodging attacks, aiming for weak spots, and running around wildly protecting your Core. Sanctum 2 incorporates an aggro system, so the aliens don’t always just rush straight for the Core. If you get too close or deal too much damage to many enemies, they’ll turn and chase you down, with some of the breeds of aliens having special abilities to make them even tougher to deal with. When they do manage to take you down, you’ll have a 10-second respawn timer (unless you take the instant respawn perk) after which you’ll be able to jump right back into the action. Other than the 10 seconds, there is no penalty for dying, so don’t be afraid to get up close and personal.
Sanctum 2 is a challenging experience with a brutal difficulty curve. The first four levels or so are fairly easy to get through, but once you hit the fliers, it gets abruptly more difficult. This sudden change in difficulty is a little jarring, as you’ll likely be able to breeze through the first few stages without ever having to redo a mission, only to get caught up endlessly repeating the first mission with fliers as you try to craft the requisite defenses to stem the assault. Fortunately, Coffee Stain Studios had the foresight to implement “Easy Mode,” which will allow you to breeze through the rest of the game just as readily as you got through the first stages. Of course, if you’re talented enough that the game seems too easy, there are also “Feats of Strength,” which power up the aliens with extra damage, health, or speed in exchange for a small experience boost at the end of the mission. You’ll find that even a single buff makes what was once an easy stage insanely difficult, which can be thrilling for the challenge seekers out there.

Finally, there are boss aliens which show up every few levels. These guys are brutal, as they have the ability to destroy your walls and towers effortlessly. When you get a boss notification, you’ll want to drop whatever you’re doing and get to shooting, since any aliens coming behind the boss will have a clear path to the core. Bosses are not only enormously large, but they have a huge pool of hit points as well, so it’s imperative that you get to blasting immediately before they cleave their way through your entire defense system. The bosses are a challenge to take down, but they seem sufficiently balanced, so they’re still fun to deal with. Watching these behemoths plow through your defenses like a sand castle is both thrilling and disheartening, but given that you can repair your walls and towers for free in the next build phase, it’s not too painful to see..

All told, Sanctum 2 is a ton of fun to play, offering 4-player drop in/drop out online co-op, as well as a rich single player experience. In co-op, you’ll have a shared tower limit, as well as the ability to grief your teammates by recycling their towers to build your own. The blend of FPS and tower defense is a stroke of genius, giving players on both sides of the strategy/twitch spectrum something to enjoy here. The RPG elements are scant, but they give a much needed sense of character progression when you’re stuck replaying a level for the fifth time.

Bottom Line: Sanctum 2 is a thrilling, fast-paced tower defense game, which keeps things interesting with the FPS gameplay during the assaults. The RPG elements add to the total package, making even the single player feel like a complete experience.

Recommendation: Sanctum 2 is a must-play game for tower defense fanatics, but will hold a little less sway with the FPS crowd. At its core, this is a tower defense game, and the first person perspective doesn’t change that.

[rating=4.0]

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Game: Sanctum 2
Genre: Tower Defense/Shooter
Developer: Coffee Stain Studios
Publisher: Reverb Publishing
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: GameStop(US)

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