Wot I Think: Sanctum

By Quintin Smith on April 20th, 2011 at 5:56 pm.

The monsters! They’re... full of numbers!

Last week I played tower defense FPS Sanctum and posted some impressions. Since then I’ve played a bit more. And some more. And a little more still. I may even have missed a meal somewhere along the line. If you’re a fan of tower defense, having fun or missing meals, you should probably buy this game.

Almost three years ago, when I was younger and, apparently, a great deal more insane, I casually compared a game to a vagina on this very site, dropping the simile in the middle of my copy like a disgusting landmine.

Consider this, then, me completing the set. Because Santum is a penis of a game. Which is to say, the harder it gets, the more interesting it is.

When I first started playing Sanctum I had tower defense fatigue, and saw this game as masterfully assembled fluff. Yes, having to assemble your defenses out of cubes from a first person perspective felt satisfying in the manner of Minecraft. Yes, the enemies looked great, the levels looked even better and the SFX and music were just as impressive.

As for the ability to stand beside your turrets and shoot the waves of enemies as they came in, that felt like a neat twist. The guns – while lightweight in their impact – had the feel of precise tools, and it was fun to pour fire down on enemies from atop your cuboid walls.

It was all fun, but that was all. Just plain ol’ fun. It wasn’t until I played Sanctum for long enough for its difficulty to start amping up that I began to see its greatness, and started to have fun.

Fast-forward to the fight I had half-way through the game’s second map. I’m sprinting through a claustrophobic trench of my own devising, chasing a stumbling, indefatigable dog-like creature with a bright orange, tumourous growth on its back. A Soaker, to use the game’s nomenclature. With every shot that the growth takes, it both grows in size and the Soaker takes more damage from subsequent hits, meaning it’s up to me to follow the creature with my machine gun equipped and bathe it in bullets.

Finally the dog-thing crumples to the ground, as if it were unable to bear the weight of the quivering, luminous sac on its back, which by this point had grown to some six feet in diameter. I’m elated, but this isn’t over. I open my map and assess the situation, my eyes skipping back and forth over the morass of corpses and motion. Where am I needed next?

You see, to begin with Sanctum plays a little loosely. During the early stages, the decision of whether to pump your limited resources into upgrading either your defense network or one of your personal weapons is simply a matter of personal preference. Later on, with the introduction of tougher waves of enemies that come from multiple directions, and even enemies with weak spots so specific that they must be shot to pieces by you, the game’s FPS mechanics stop being a gimmick and start acting as an additional dimension to the game.

You must both create a kickass arrangement of towers that can comfortably dispatch Chargers, Runners, Tanks, Hoverers and Big Walkers (not to mention the game’s flying creatures- the agile Gliders, the hordes of Spore Pods, the artful Dodgers), and personally assist this complex. Endlessly. By the game’s third and final map the two halves of the game have fused. To progress you need to design your maze with your own heroics in mind.

While a winding labyrinth might be great at defeating Chargers, it’ll also make it a pain in the ass for you to focus fire on a single creature. And those floor plates that slow creatures down aren’t simply good for getting the most out of your turrets. They also slow down the animation of Bobble Heads, making it easier for you to get off a clean shot with your sniper rifle. Excellently, as I found out the hard way when chasing a pack of Runners, these floor plates also slow down you.

So with Sanctum you’ve got a game that’s that much more interesting than a standard tower defense game from a design perspective, but it’s only when you’ve pressed the button to summon the next wave that the game really comes to life. You might not think shooting at enemies who don’t fight back would be particularly entertaining, but what makes Sanctum work as a shooter isn’t the enemies at all(despite their ludicrous numbers and excellent ragdoll deaths). It’s your guns. More specifically, it’s how they all have quite long “cool down” times once you’ve used them, but continue to unlike an ordinary reload animation, they’ll continue to cool down once you’ve equipped something else.

It works a bit like this: Freeze gun out. Aim a shot into the middle of the pack- bang. Now, out with the sniper rifle. Pick out some big guys. Bang, bang, bang. Now the sniper rifle has to cool down too, so out comes the machine gun with the attached grenade launcher. Think, now- do you want a stream of bullets or a couple of grenades? What would be more effective? Maybe the bulle– crap! Your freeze gun’s ready again! Freeze gun out. Aim a shot into the middle of the pack- bang. You miss. Shit.

Juggling between these weapons like a pro is something you strive towards, and the skill demanded makes every wave of aliens that much more engaging and tense. It’s more than enough to eliminate that nagging feeling I usually get with tower defense games that I’m wasting my time, and it also makes for a really good fit with the maze design that goes on in-between waves. You have a great, dramatic battle, then some time to fine-tune and upgrade your design and catch your breath, until finally you feel ready to press the button that’ll summon the next panicked fight.

There’s co-op too, which I’ve only tried with randoms at present but that proved fun nonetheless. I suspect with a friend in tow and the opportunity to discuss your design for minutes on end without feeling guilty, you could be in for something incredible.

Four player co-op’s one of the promised upcoming features of Sanctum, as well as new tower types, new weapons, new aliens and new maps. That said, even with the paltry three maps it has at the moment the game should keep you grinning for some six plus hours, which to my mind just about justifies the asking price of £10. If that sounds like a lot, I’m going to hesitantly point you towards this ancient demo, which apparently is missing a great deal from the finished game. Here are the “main” differences:

* Multiplayer added (2 player co-op, and more coming)
* New build-system (check screenshots)
* Added HUD
* Three levels instead of one + difficulties
* New enemies
* New towers
* The Freezegun was added!
* Score System added
* New Menu System using Scaleform (sexy!)
* Much more options (keybindinings, graphics, sound etc..)
* Now using full UE3 engine, and not only UDK
* Graphic Optimization and tuning
* Steamworks integration with Achievements & Leaderboards

Which sound like worryingly significant additions. Honestly, I can’t imagine you regretting just taking the plunge and buying the damn thing. It’s the single best tower defense game I can remember playing since Defense Grid: The Awakening. In fact, I’m off to play some more right now. Bye!

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52 Comments »

  1. Vinraith says:

    Well, that looks absolutely incredible.

    I’m particularly pleased that it’s NOT designed for four player co-op from the ground up, as these tend to be. A game like this that supports single player and 2 player co-op is a real joy to find.

    • Jad says:

      Agreed. I read the opening and for some reason thought “FPS crossed with TD = Monday Night Combat”. I reluctantly read on, expecting to be reading about a competitive multiplayer shooter. Then it dawned on me that it was a single-player game, and I became much more excited. Then I got to the weapon bit and I realized that I need to get this game.

    • gerafin says:

      I’ve been dabbling in this for about a week now, and it’s an extreme breath of fresh air. I’ve put plenty of hours in it so far, and that’s just in single-player.

      There’s a bit of an issue with multiplayer right now – the game doesn’t have NAT traversal up and running, so you have to forward some ports on your router. All well and good, except my ISP hates me and has me behind a giant firewall. But I’ve definitely got my money’s worth just from the single player.

  2. EgoCheck616 says:

    I have been really looking forward to this game. Next week I will finally get my hands on it.

  3. Phinor says:

    I hate to be the one asking this but can you change the FOV in this game? Looks rather interesting (although only 3 maps?) but based on the videos I just watched I couldn’t even try playing with the default field of view.

  4. Sergey Galyonkin says:

    Sounds really good, but I’ll wait for either demo or 4-players coop

  5. Mario Figueiredo says:

    Not sure if I like the weapon juggling you talk about. The one thing that really annoyed me about Bioshock was all the weapon exchange going on in order to get those precious research points. I don’«t like to stick to just one weapon, no. But I like to make my own choices when to use a weapon.

    • Wulf says:

      Given that the weapons have recharge times, the weapon juggling is more about strategy than anything else. Don’t expect to be frantically switching a lot.

  6. trjp says:

    Am I right in thinking they’ve ditched the crazy idea of first-person maze building then?

    If so, colour me interested…

  7. cliffski says:

    It’s crazy that people have to defend a game as good as that for being £10. I just went to the pub for a coffee and a jacket potato, and it cost me about £10.
    It really isn’t a lot of money for a decent game.

    • colinmarc says:

      Especially considering the amount of effort that goes into a game, compared to the amount of effort that goes into… wait, what the hell is a ‘jacket potato’?

    • mod the world says:

      Quite expensive pubs you got there in your neighbourhood.

    • Wulf says:

      You’ve never had a jacket potato? They’re lovely!

      Though I can’t say that I’ve never been in this position, an American friend pulled odd faces at me when I told him that I’d never experienced twinkies or eggnog.

    • CMaster says:

      Was about to say, expensive pubs they have round your way.

      There are ones round here where you can get a pint and a meal for £4. Though it’s a pretty terrible meal mind.

    • colinmarc says:

      The internet tells me that it’s just a baked potato, which I have had. But I would get some strange looks if I asked for one in a bar, or most restaurants for that matter. Actually, that sounds like an awesome bar food.

      As for the price, Sanctum is $15 here. Which is a pretty reasonably cheap price for a decent beer ($7) an appetizer (a basket of fries, maybe, at $5) plus tax and tip.

    • Torgen says:

      $16.40USD for a baked potato and coffee? Holy Christmas!

    • Xercies says:

      Unfortunatly because of ridicolous sales our ability to see what a good price for a game and what size it should be has gone out of the window. When you can get GTA 4 and its expansions for under 10 pounds and that gives you a ridicolous amount of hours and stuff for your money its no wonder.

    • FD says:

      @Xercies: Steam sales are the death of indie developers. Even if an indie game is a ton of fun competing with a high quality AAA title at the same price or cheaper is not something the indies are going to win very often.

      Overall looks neat, I’ll wait for a demo and/or sale.

    • foobeer says:

      “Especially considering the amount of effort that goes into a game, compared to the amount of effort that goes into… wait, what the hell is a ‘jacket potato’?”

      LMAO

    • Urthman says:

      What?! Steam sales are death to indies? Try telling that to Dejobaan, Hidden Path, Team Meat, Teotl, Tripwire Interactive, etc.

      I’ve bought a lot of indie games through Steam.

    • Sarlix says:

      I think we should put this in context:

      I doubt cliffski went to any old dive where you get a dried up spud in a flimsy jacket. The place he went to probably served up a nice big spud with a generous side salad and a large filling, possibly offering a side order of bread. This will set you back £5.95 – £6.95 depending the filling. Did he have the beans and cheese? or did he have something more expensive like the prawn cocktail? This we may never know. However it’s fair to say that over half of the £10 in question went on the spud, which when you factor in the large side salad isn’t unreasonable. So lets assume the spud cost £6, thats £4 for the coffee. Now this may sound like a lot, but for all we know he could’ve had a cappuccino with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles – which would set you back £3.50? Now even if he just had a standard coffee it would’ve at least come in a large mug and have a complementary chocolate or biscuit on the side, which at any Pub will cost you £2.50. So, even if he did only pay £6 for the spud and £2.50 for the coffee – is it unfair to assume that for the sake of making a point he added an extra £1.50 onto the total to round it up to £10 – I would say not, sirs. I would say not.

    • trjp says:

      Cmon now – EVERYONE knows that sprinkles and a cookie are DLC and not included the in £10 :)

    • bill says:

      @cliffski, i agree that the way that Quinns phrased it was a little weird.

      But it’s not the case of having to justify it’s value as 10 quid compared to a (very expensive) spud. It’s a case of having to justify it’s value compared to other games that are also competing for our time and money.

      I think that, in some ways, steam indies have been a victim of their own success – in the same way as iphone apps. Steam (and other online retail services) has made making indie games so appealing that so many indie games are getting released. Most people don’t have time to play them all, so they have to choose carefully how to spend their time and money.

      The amount of work that went into it isn’t really a factor. A lot less work probably went into a diamond than a semiconductor, but one is worth a lot more than the other.

  8. Wulf says:

    I completely agree with this review. Sanctum is lovely. Defence Grid is still the best tower defence game I’ve ever played, but Sanctum is quite unique, enjoyable, and… well, give it a shot! Bloody hard, though.

  9. squareking says:

    Really enjoyed the demo. Then again, I enjoy most games were numbers fly from enemies’ heads as I damage them.

  10. trjp says:

    Shouldn’t we include the random disclaimer that Steam normally have an Easter Sale and that’s not far off and you could get it cheaper yada yada yada…???

    I agree £10 isn’t a lot to pay for a decent game tho.

  11. sonofsanta says:

    That was a particularly offputting metaphor.

  12. McDan says:

    And now I shall spend most of my evening reading old RPS articles, thank you Quinns. (no sarcasm there, I really do enjoy them)

  13. Laneford says:

    best review simile ever?

  14. Kill_The_Drive says:

    Demo link is broken.

  15. foobeer says:

    I played the beta version of this and enjoyed it, but playing the released version is a lot better. I felt guilty to all the Portal Potato Sackers this weekend when I was playing Sanctum instead of Audiosurf…well not that bad. At least I did help with a little Defense Grid.

  16. Shark says:

    Sanctum: Where YOU defend the towers

  17. shagen454 says:

    Steam has been very beneficial to indie games. Without Steam many people would never shell out their money over the net, and being on Steam makes indie games very visible to a mainstream & global crowd.

    Steam was also willing to experiment with pricing. They found that they sold so many more copies in certain instances that it is/was more profitable to drop prices.

  18. andyhavens says:

    Very good game. Been playing since Saturday. Like many TD games, until you figure out a good maze, you’ll be stumped. The 2nd level was killing me until I (basically) rotated my maze 90-degrees, making for more turns, etc. Also when I figured out that you could put teleport pads on top of base towers… very helpful. Before that, I’d been running around in my labyrinthine trenches like a mad fool. Standing up top and shooting the sniper gun directly into the faces of advancing enemies is just good eatin’.

    Third level is currently kicking my ass. Needs more levels, for sure. Or a mod kit. Or both.

    And now I want a baked potato.

    Also just tried Anomaly… another very interesting take on the TD model.

    And, btw, agreed… Defense Grid is the best TD game ever. Though Desktop Tower Defense is a close second.

  19. Kefren says:

    Sounds good, I’ll look out for it on GamersGate (if it ever appears there).

  20. Jimbo says:

    Bye, Quintin!

    • alice says:

      Wait, is Quintin leaving for some reason? Is this one of those “I got the vagina and the penis similes into articles, my work here is done” sorts of things?

  21. Sepulchrave76 says:

    Sounds like a bloody brilliant game/potato. I especially like the scope for discussing how best to tackle a map with your mates, good times

    • Wulf says:

      Will we be referring to games as potatoes as a meme from now on, then?

  22. fleimur says:

    So, you really hated the game? :P

  23. gerafin says:

    The weapons are really quite the thing. When the levels are getting incredibly hard, I get this sinking feeling in my gut every time I don’t get a critical hit. The cool-down times turn gun-juggling into an art just as important as the tower-building.

    Also, level 6 sniper rifle. First thing I upgrade – you can one-hit kill those tall armored guys with a critical hit. It’s amazing :D

  24. Ridnarhtim says:

    Three maps doesn’t really sound like much. Does it take 6 hours because the maps are that big, or because you’re constantly restarting?

  25. sexyresults says:

    Loving the coop at the moment, highly recommend!

  26. BreadBitten says:

    I’ve been playing this game on and off with my friend over the last few days–its actually managed to get me off of ‘StarCraft II’ for a while!

  27. Carra says:

    Bought it. And I’m having a lot of fun with it.

    It has the magic quality of Defense Grid. You just want to keep on playing while it never feels too hard or easy.