The never-ending conflict between Warhammer 40K’s Orks and the greatest warriors of the Imperium of Man, the Space Marines, is an ouroboros that’s already trapped us all inside it. An infinite war, spawning an infinite number of smaller digital wars on our PCs, making sure we can never, ever escape.
Warhammer 40K: Sanctus Reach [official site] is the latest snapshot of the war, a turn-based strategy affair that, of course, pits Space Marine against Ork over a planet that nobody in their right mind would want to live on anyway. Here’s wot I think.
This is of course well-trodden ground, and only recently served as the premise of the similarly turn-based Warhammer 40K: Armageddon. However! This time the Space Marines are Space Wolves. Think Space Marines, but Vikings, and you’ve probably already got a vivid picture in your mind. Some of them ride wolves. They’re even more silly than their Roman fanboy equivalents, like the Ultramarines or the Blood Ravens, and using my questionable rating system, much better.
Alongside more recognisable units like Dreadnoughts and Rhinos are Space Wolf-specific ones like the eager neophytes, the Blood Claws, who charge into battle with bolters and chainswords; the aforementioned bikers, Swiftclaws, undoubtedly wearing shades underneath those helmets; and hammer-wielding Wolf Priests, capable of healing allies as well as smashing in Ork skulls. Sanctus Reach boasts an impressive roster of units on both sides, perhaps the largest selection in a 40K game, and rarely will you find one that doesn’t fit into the puzzle of creating an effective army.
Both campaigns see the Space Wolves don their bearskin cloaks, fill up their bikes and head to the titular system to protect its last world from the green tide. And with that sentence I’ve given you about as much detail as the game ever gave me. It’s unusually reserved for Warhammer, lacking characters, plot or any real hint of the universe it resides in. Even mission briefings hold back. At best they’re a paragraph long, vague, and have nothing to do with the actual battle.
Mostly linear and absent much of a plot, the two campaigns don’t really serve a clear purpose. The vast majority of missions are actually random skirmish fights, though without the myriad customisation options found in the proper skirmish mode. There are three for every main mission, recycling the same objective over and over again. Hopefully you like capturing victory points. The game limits both your roster and the amount you can spend on units depending on the size of the map, so the battles do always have a chance to play out differently, though not often enough to stop these skirmishes from turning into a chore.
The main missions let you field a larger army – sometimes chosen yourself, sometimes not – to face off against a much larger Ork horde. Reinforcements can appear too, turning these battles into gigantic brawls that play out across the entire map. Thankfully, these missions also come with proper objectives, like escorting Rhino transports or taking out high value targets. Annoyingly, however, Sanctus Reach just can’t let go of that obsession with victory points. Once you achieve your goals, the battle continues, with victory going to the side controlling the most points by the turn limit.
I got so tired of capturing those bloody points, and it started to feel like the game was taunting me. My fears were vindicated when I started getting two-part missions where the first objective and the second tasked me with capturing and holding the same points. I started laughing in the way that a person laughs when they are either about to do something terribly evil or are going quite mad. For me, it was the latter. I was far too tired to do anything terribly evil.
The main problem with Sanctus Reach’s over reliance on victory points is that it doesn’t come with any of the tension you normally get when desperately fighting over important locations or racing to get that final point. See, the Orks clearly aren’t playing the same game. They could be standing right next to a point and they’d still ignore it entirely. I recall one battle where I had to retreat from an area rich in points that I controlled, leaving an absolutely ginormous enemy horde to set up shop there. They didn’t bother capturing a single one. I essentially won the fight because Orks are lazy.
Even when they do remember that there’s an objective beyond wanton slaughter, they have such an unbreakable single-mindedness that they can sometimes forget all other concerns. It does seem like the sort of trait you’d expect an Ork to have, but it doesn’t make them a particularly effective opponent.
The first time I witnessed the green tide making a concerted effort to win a battle strategically, we were duking it out over the ruins of a sprawling industrial complex. I’d made some pretty terrible mistakes and was down to one commander unit and two badly injured Blood Claws, the Space Wolves’ basic infantry. Two turns were left, and I honestly wasn’t sure if my chaps would see the end. I put them in cover, took a deep breath and pressed End Turn. The Orks didn’t fire. Instead, they turned around and marched on the closest victory point. There was absolutely no logic to this ‘strategy’. They weren’t close enough to get to the point in time, and even if they had been, I controlled five out of five, so one wouldn’t have made a single difference. Literally the only option they had for stealing a win, they willfully ignored.
It’s a wonder that the Orks conquered the whole Sanctus Reach system before the Space Wolves arrived, because it seems like they couldn’t conquer a playground. Time and time again I watched as they ignored cover, picked fights they could never win and gleefully charged at me head on, not a care in the world. Instead of tactical prowess, the Orks have numbers and unrelenting aggression. And you know what? In the absence of competent AI, it’s a strategy that sometimes works and, more importantly, creates exciting battles.
Sanctus Reach’s main missions are overflowing with angry green xenos. To the point of absurdity. Whole maps painted in green, like every Ork ever born has decided to murder this one group of Space Wolves. From start to finish, they offer one brutal fight after another as you chip away at this seemingly endless supply of savage aliens. It’s exhausting, sure, but it’s also the source of some intense journeys across battle-scarred maps, constantly trying to stay in formation and protect the most powerful units as suicidal monsters surround you. And with each unit being able to move a fair distance and take two actions per turn, there’s decent momentum and the ability to quickly make battle-changing assaults.
What really makes Sanctus Reach’s bloody brawls satisfying, though, is the joy of watching Terminators standing up to a tank that dwarfs them, or rows of shouting Blood Claws charging at Orks, chainswords hungry, or the sheer pleasure of seeing Whirlwinds turning everything into a red mist with one volley. The game’s full off dramatic standoffs and ridiculous violence, and while I might not recall a single thing about the barely present story, battles gave me plenty of memorable moments. It’s pretty good propaganda for the Imperium, making Space Marines seem utterly unstoppable, even when facing a whole world full of enemies.
And yet I could have stopped playing by the end of the first campaign and never looked back. There was little to be invested in, and a person can only kill so many Orks and capture so many victory points before they begin to question their life choices. I try to avoid that sort of introspection when I can. Sanctus Reach’s unit and faction design and flexible mechanics deserve a much better campaign and fewer constantly recycled objectives.
Warhammer 40K: Sanctus Reach is out now on Windows via Steam for £23/$30/€28.