I tried to begin this post with a description of the FPS and Tower Defense genres having a Sanctum baby, but it just got too weird for me to continue writing it. What gender are genres anyway? And how exactly is a genre-baby born? Blarg.
Nevertheless, this post is about Sanctum, a first-person shooter tower defense from Coffee Stain Studios. You might be thinking, “Well, I know what an FPS is, and I know what Tower Defense is, but how well do they go together?”
Let me start by explaining the Tower Defense part. In the Tower Defense genre of game, the player is charged with defending an objective from waves of enemies. Typically the enemies don’t care about the defenses at all; all they do is move from their starting location to the objective as quickly as they can. The enemy is [almost] always numerous and heavily armored. The player must strategically build various kinds of towers and walls to defend against the onslaught, making patterns that force the enemies to take longer paths through the map toward the objective, and thus maximizing the amount of damage done by the towers.
The player can choose from among a handful of different tower types to build, with different types being more effective against different types of enemies. For instance, the cheap and fast-firing Gatling tower is good against swarms of fast moving (but low hit point) troops, while the lightning tower is better against heavily armored troops. The player can also choose to upgrade existing towers, which greatly increases the effectiveness of the tower.
That’s all pretty standard Tower Defense stuff. However, what makes Sanctum unique is that all of this building is done in a first-person view. You use the crosshair to point to blocks and then simply roll the mouse wheel to cycle through various tower options. It’s slick and I haven’t had much trouble with it at all.
While you do the actual building from your character’s point of view, you can also get a nice map-view with the press of a button (tab). From this point of view you can see the entire map, including the spawn locations of enemies, enemies (if the level has started), blocks, towers (with color coding that informs the number of upgrades they have), and the location of televators (points the player can instantly teleport to). Using this view is a little disorienting at first and it did take me a while to get used to it, particularly when using the televators.
Once the level starts, the FPS part of the game kicks in. Unlike other Tower Defense games, your builder is armed with a few weapons that will help her get the job done: there’s a rapid-fire gun with an attached grenade launcher, a sniper rifle, and a slow/freeze gun. Choosing which weapons and towers to upgrade is crucial to surviving, but so is having good aim and making good use of all of your weapons.
I think what makes the game so fun is that it strikes a nice balance between being a strategic game and being an action game. The pacing is perfect. The waves are hectic and stressful, with the building phase bringing a sigh of relief and the (often hollow) hope that the next couple of towers will tip the balance in your favor.
The art style is reminiscent of Final Fantasy, with futuristic/Utopian architecture coming right up against a vast jungle. Enemies have vastly different profiles, weak points, speeds, and so forth. The variation in enemies adds to the fun as well. Strategies that work well against some enemies completely fail against others, so the player must always be shifting tactics based on what comes next.
And you’ll have to adapt a lot. The game is incredibly hard in multiplayer mode, even on its “Casual” difficulty setting. While playing with my gaming veteran buddy Majiviper, we couldn’t get passed level 10 until we’d played around 7 games. Our record, again on the easiest difficulty, is beating level 25.
There are a few other issues that are annoying about the game that I thought I’d bring up: firstly, the game only supports 2 player co-op at the moment (though 4 player is promised to be coming soon); and secondly, there are only a few maps to play around with. Granted, each of the maps has its own flavor and plenty of options in terms of pathing, it would be nice to see a little more variation there.
I was skeptical too, but it turns out to be a pretty good mix of genres. I really like that you get to influence how the game is played: if you want, the towers can be a side note and you can focus on your own weapons, or you can do the opposite and try to max out your towers leaving you almost helpless once the round starts. It’s fun, fast, and highly engrossing. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes FPS games or Tower Defense, or anyone who wants a solid challenge.
Sanctum was released on 15 April 2011, and I picked up a copy on Steam for about $15.