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Wot I Think: Sanctum

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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