Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Sanctum Review

Sanctum, developed and published by Coffee Stain Studios.
The Good: Mostly unrestricted path design, good selection of defensive towers, large variety of enemies support various tactics, two-player cooperative mode, weapons level up with experience
The Not So Good: Limited personal weaponry that overheat quickly, only three maps with few differences and repetitive tactics, cumbersome first-person construction, no tense time limit when building, checkpoints don't save after every level even if you exit the game, unchanging wave composition and fixed available turrets in single player mode
What say you? A tedious tower defense game with first person shooting and flexible maze layouts involving many turrets and diverse enemies: 5/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

There are alien invaders on your doorstep! What will you do? What will you do? Obviously, create an elaborate maze populated with powerful turrets to kill them all! But what if all that tower defense is not enough? Well, sometimes you just have to grab a rifle and do it yourself. That’s the premise of Sanctum, a marriage of tower defense and first person shooter. Does this marriage result in unending bliss, or horrible divorce?

Sanctum uses the Unreal engine for its graphics rendering, and the game looks quite nice across the board. The aliens all have nice designs, complete with glowing lights of life (at least until you murder them) and good animations. The towers also are distinctive in their appearance and easy to identify at a distance; the game also employs subtle shading on the base of each turret to indicate its level, which is a nice visual cue. The weapon effects are also great fun to look at as they dispose of the invaders. Despite there only being three levels to choose from, each map looks great and serves as a nice backdrop for your killing. The ragdoll physics are also effective in a visual sense, and it’s cool to see all the alien bodies pile up. Sound is a standard affair: appropriate weapon effects with a mix of subtle voice announcing the next incoming wave of enemies and very subtle background music you hardly notice. For the relatively limited amount of variety present in Sanctum, the game’s graphics do look good.

Sanctum is a tower defense game that allows you to jump into the action and defend your shiny, glowing core from a first person perspective. The game only features three maps, and the towers you can use on each map are locked. In addition, you will encounter the same exact enemies during the same waves for each map, seriously reducing the replay value of the game. There is more randomization and openness in cooperative multiplayer, so you can use the game's server browser to find other players (or your Steam friends list). Sanctum has four levels of difficulty, but they are inconsistent: “normal” on the first map is significantly easier than the other two (making me think the first is meant as a tutorial of sorts). Your progress can only be preserved using auto-saves, which is fine (I guess), except that Sanctum only saves after every other level (I think). Not only that, but the game won’t save your progress if you are between automated saves when you quit the game. That’s really terrible. You are also given only one save slot, yet another limitation that has no justification. The tutorial is decent enough, and the encyclopedia (accessed when the game is paused) shows descriptions and tips for the next wave of enemies: quite helpful.

You are given up to eight towers, as different maps give you access to different towers, reducing your strategic options a bit. One of the strong points of Sanctum is the ability to freely place blocks almost anywhere on the map, allowing you to construct a maze for the alien invaders instead of simply placing towers along a pre-determined path. That’s pretty cool. You aren’t allowed to block access to the core you are defending, but the aliens will pick the quickest path to the goal, so you can predict which way they will head. You must place your blocks and turrets in first person, even though there is an overhead view available that would make things a lot easier. There is no time limit for building; while this might appeal to more casual gamers, not having any pressure makes Sanctum a bit too relaxed between waves. I’d like to see a time-limited mode that adds bonus points to your score. The different towers are appropriate for the range of aliens you will encounter: basic guns, random lasers, powerful lightning, long-range mortars, anti-air, and speed reducers. You can also place teleporters that allow you to quickly traverse the somewhat large maps.

Another high point of Sanctum is the twelve varieties of aliens you will need to deal with on a personal basis. They come with a range of abilities, from the typical grunts to big guys to small guys (found in large numbers) to airborne units. More specialized (meaning difficult) units include those that can only be damage on the head or back, those that become stronger with every hit (requiring the use of slower, more powerful weapons), some that are invincible for a short time, some with erratic movement, and fast units that are fragile or only run in a straight path. Each alien type has an optimal tower recipe for defeat, and part of Sanctum is figuring out this formula.

A disappointing aspect of Sanctum is the first person shooter mode, ironically something that sets it apart from more traditional tower defense games. First, you are only given four guns: an assault rifle, sniper rifle, freeze gun, and shotgun that shoots three shells at once. You have unlimited ammunition, but all of the weapons overheat very quickly and require significant cool-down times before they can be used again. This means relying on your weapons is a bad idea until you have leveled them up using funds acquired between waves. However, weapon upgrades are very expensive, so it’s almost always a better idea to upgrade six turrets instead of one gun.

Because of the limited weapon options, a very viable tactic is to simply hold down the fire button and pause between cool down periods: not exactly stimulating gameplay. You can perch yourself up on the blocks you have constructed (since the enemies will never go up there), though you can do down into the trenches if you wish; you can’t get hurt if you are hit by an enemy, but it does knock you around, preventing you from firing for a couple of seconds. Sanctum becomes pretty repetitive with only three maps with selected available towers and four guns that are only slightly useful. The game would be more entertaining in a cooperative fashion, but the developers have put up roadblocks here by not including matchmaking capabilities. Sanctum also lacks time acceleration, usually not a big deal since the action is intense once the aliens arrive, but some levels have a lot of waiting for the enemies to reach your maze of death. Having the same resource bonuses between levels, same wave composition, and same available turrets means reduced replay value in the long run, which makes Sanctum an interesting but ultimately unfulfilling innovation in the tower defense genre.

A growing theme of the onslaught of indie games I review, Sanctum is another title that’s a good idea executed with several shortcomings. The game does feature a lot of towers with varied abilities to deal with each of the game’s unique enemies. However, there are some restrictions: you can only use certain towers in each of the game’s three levels (as determined by the developers), and the incoming aliens will always be the same for a specific wave number (at least in single player mode). An excellent aspect of Sanctum is the free maze design: you can place blocks anywhere (as long as you don’t cut off a path to the end; that would result in an easy win), giving you great flexibility in dealing with the incoming enemies. However, you must build your defenses in first person mode (despite having an overhead view, which is used only for teleportation) and there is no time limit to keep the pressure on. Once the waves start coming in, you have only three weapons with limited ammunition (technically, they overhead very quickly) and expensive upgrades, so you really have to rely on your tower layouts to be successful as the weapons are really a last resort. Sanctum does support cooperative play for two people using the server browser, which does open up all of the towers on every level. Finally, you can’t save your progress manually, and Sanctum only saves every couple of levels, so if you exit the game between saves, you’ll have to do some levels all over again. Sanctum needs more well-rounded features to stand out and be successful, despite it’s relatively unique combination of first person shooting and tower defense.