At first glance, and even upon the most detailed examination, Sanctum can sometimes seem like a game that isn’t sure entirely what it wants to be and so jumbles a whole host of apparently mismatched ideas together. The interesting thing about it, however, is that while the latter part of that idea is absolutely correct, the former is garbage. Sanctum knows exactly what it is, even if it is many things at once.
So, what is Sanctum? Well, it’s a first person shooter. And a tower defence game. It’s a deeply tactical singleplayer experience, as well as a fierce multiplayer free for all. It has some of the smartest, neatest additions to the genre that we’ve seen in years, despite being based on the oldest gaming traditions. It’s…well, let’s not get carried away.
Instead, let’s focus on the basics – that Sanctum is a tower defence game played predominantly from the first person perspective. How that works is that players are dumped into small sci-fi themed arenas of varying shapes and designs, each of which has a ‘Core’ at one end and one or more spawnpoints at the other. It’s up to you to defend the former from the latter, which is done both with sentry towers and your own arsenal.
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You own weapons are, unfortunately, quite limited however – an assault rifle, a sniper rifle and a freeze gun are your only choices. The assault rifle and the freeze gun have alternate fires, able to fire grenades or freeze larger areas, but beyond that you’re mostly reliant on the towers when it comes to protecting your Core.
Fortunately, your array of turrets makes up for your tiny arsenal and, when it comes to building, you’re able to place everything from mortar cannons and gatling gun emplacements to tesla coils. As is the case elsewhere in the tower defence genre, these turrets are placed on a grid where your only limitation is that you must leave a path for the monsters to proceed along. It doesn’t have to be a direct route, but they must have a way of getting to your core as the monsters themselves cannot attack your sentries.
It should be pointed out that the monsters can’t attack players either, which works both for and against Sanctum in some ways. On the one hand, the orderly and ambivalent procession of monsters, all of whom have their own strengths and weaknesses, benefits Sanctum’s tactical side. At the same time, however, it does mean some matches can become formulaic – your endlessly walking backwards through your own mazes, just ahead of the slower beasts and firing into the crowd. If they catch up, all they do is knock you about and impair your aim.
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That Sanctum quickly starts to feel formulaic is in part a fault of the rhythm that’s imposed on the action too, with enemies coming in waves that only begin when all players in a match have signified that they are ready. In singleplayer this means you’ve got eons to prepare if you want it, while multiplayer games often lull if one player is slower than the rest.
Sanctum does try to alleviate this sense of sameness in a few ways, mainly by randomising the types of monster you’ll face in each wave. Unfortunately though, once you’ve figured out a good maze design for each level the variety of enemies doesn’t present as much of a problem – nor does it remedy the issue as it applies to AFK multiplayer gamers. A difficulty option where waves start automatically after a certain period would make a valuable improvement for more experience players.