Sanctum 2 is a tower-defense first-person shooter. Note the order of those genres; Sanctum 2 has a lot of shooting in it, but it’s not about the shooting. You can play with guns and lasers and rockets, but that’s not the point of the game; all these things are just various means to the same end: Protecting the core (your tower).
To that end, the controls are satisfactory and never strive to be anything more. I played with a gamepad on the PC, and Sanctum 2 follows the standard button layout for shooters: Left trigger zooms in, right trigger shoots, A jumps, X reloads, and Y switches weapons. The rest of the buttons are used for tower-defense stuff.
Enemies have weak spots, but those only really matter on the big guys. Killing enemies isn’t hard, you don’t have to worry about bullet drop or any of the other things normal shooters add to combat to make their shooting mechanics interesting. Taken on its own, the shooting in Sanctum 2 feels good, not great, but the great part is how the shooting supplements the tower-defense action.
There are two general types of tower-defense games: Ones where you make a maze for the horde while dropping towers, and one where you just drop towers. Sanctum 2 falls into the first category, which means you’ll be doing a lot of construction work between waves. Thankfully, the construction controls are easily mapped to a gamepad, making for a surprisingly intuitive game all around—save for one moment where the game tells you to “press” when you really need to “hold.”
You can add and remove turrets and walls on a whim; rearranging your entire maze is as easy as holding the B button, so you’re never dedicated to a single layout. In fact, the game encourages you to rearrange things every wave. It tells you what enemies will be coming from what direction, and this is important information. Put the rapid-fire guns near the hole where tons of weak monsters will spawn; put the heavy lasers near the hole where the big, lumbering, metal spider walkers will spawn. No tower is permanent; the battlefield should be constantly changing, moving, and growing.
This is where Sanctum 2 excels as a pure tower defense game: You never stop thinking tactics, you never stop planning, and you never get complacent with your maze.
You never get complacent with the shooting, either, thanks to the simplistic-but-just-complex-enough-to-be-exciting enemy AI. The monsters aren’t smart, but they don’t need to be. They run at the core when they can, or they run at you when they can. That latter bit is the part that makes combat exciting.
In most cases—save for some of the big guys—enemies will attack you over the core. This adds a rich tactical layer to combat since you’re constantly using yourself as live bait to keep the beasties away from the core. The game takes advantage of the fact that you’re playing as a being on the battlefield, not as an ethereal specter hovering above everything. The first-person perspective isn’t a gimmick just to make Sanctum 2 stand out from the tower-defense crowd—it’s a genuine on-the-ground tactic. If an alien gets through your maze, you can grab his attention and actually get him to turn around back into the maze, but doing so puts you in danger since you’re running into a gauntlet of other aliens that are now trained on you as well.
In short: You can’t relax. If you’re chillin’, you’re losing. The shooting may be simple, but since you’re encouraged to put yourself in harm’s way the combat is still consistently intense.
Everything is expendable in Sanctum 2. This is driven home when the first boss shows up and starts rampaging through your maze, making a point to stop and destroy every turret in his way. The solution: Put more turrets in his way. Set them up to be sacrificed. Set yourself up to be sacrificed; after all, every hit you take is hit not going to the core, which is all that matters.
These are the fundamentals that Sanctum 2 gets so right: It knows how to balance the shooting with the tower defending to create a game that’s intensely satisfying.
Even if everything outside the gameplay was awful, this would still be a fun game. Thankfully, everything outside the gameplay is not awful; I couldn’t find any online games pre-release, but the menus were slick, readable, and intuitive with a controller, and that certainly bodes well for the future of Sanctum 2.
Developer: Coffee Stain Studios
Publisher: Reverb Games
Release Date: Summer 2013 for PC, Xbox 360, and PS3