I got married recently and, although we’re both very happy and loved-up (seriously, it’s obscene) there’s one dark cloud overshadowing everything: we have trouble finding games that we can play together. We’re both gamers, but we’re gamers of different kinds. My wife, Bekki, gravitates to god-games, turn-based stuff, and puzzles – games she can relax into and take her time. I, for my part, like the immersion of first or third-person, and a more immediate pace of gameplay.
If you wanted to use stupid labels, you might call Bekki “casual” where I’m a bit more (ugh) “hardcore”. But really we just have different interests and respond to different things.
The result of this, sadly, is that we can’t really collect studs together or stab each other to decide who washes up. The closest we get to co-op is sharing a narrative and making decisions together in games like The Stanley Parable and The Walking Dead. It’s fun, and they’re excellent games, but we never get the actual thrill of working together in real-time.
Sanctum 2 is a game from Coffee Stain Studios which sees you trying to stem the tide of alien invasion as they attack your base in increasingly difficult waves. Now, depending on what kind of gamer you are, that’s either made you think of Horde Mode or it’s made you think of tower-defence. The beauty of Sanctum 2 is that you’re right either way!
The idea isn’t totally original – Orks Must Die! works a similar way, and there’s a World War I mech game whose name escapes me – but Sanctum is the first series to mix tower-defence with an actual First-Person Shooter. We picked it up because of this unique genre-mashup, but we were surprised and delighted by the excellent game underneath.
The mechanics are pretty simple. Monsters spawn in caves around the map and attack your power-core via the most direct route. Between rounds you run about in first-person, spending points to obstruct that route with walls and weapon-towers. Press Enter, your gun lifts into view, and the next wave of aliens charge onto the field. For Bekki and I, this system provides the perfect tag-team for our different play-styles: she expertly handles the build-phase, then I do the running and gunning.
At first these two game types seem pretty disconnected, but we quickly learned that there’s a lot of crossover. It’s impossible to win this game with towers or shooting alone, so we had to get tactical.
Some monsters go straight for the core, but others run after the player – something you can use to break up the herd or, better, to keep them in range of your towers. Some aliens require more player attention than others (“Bobbleheads” have awkward, moving weakspots, and the imaginatively named “Flyers” can bypass your walls) but your maze layout will affect how much of that attention you can spare. And, of course, your character loadout always needs to complement your choice of towers; don’t build slow, single-shot Violator cannons if you’re playing a sniper, for instance.
As the game progressed, we’ve come to think of the player as a very powerful mobile tower. Build the maze to accommodate your character’s strengths, as you do with your other towers, and the separation between the two game-types just evaporates. Bekki’s not playing tower-defence any more and I’m not playing FPS – we’re just playing Sanctum! And, even better, we’re playing it together, as a unit and a team. It may be a weird turn-based sort of co-op, but it’s co-op nonetheless and it’s so much fun!
There’s a few issues, of course. It’s poorly balanced for one thing (one character’s crossbow does shotgun damage at sniper range, while another’s three-shot grenade-launcher barely makes a dent), the “story” is perfunctory nonsense (delivered only through static comic-panels) and some of the extras disappoint (Survival Mode just loops the standard level rather than adding new monsters). The only actual core problem, though, is that some levels have a time-limit on their build phase but, other than a tiny and easily-missed counter, there’s no way of knowing this until you suddenly find yourself dumped into the gun phase – unprepared, frustrated and dead.
It’s weird that this somehow slipped through QA (I’m yet to meet a single player who doesn’t find it bloody infuriating) but, happily, it’s the only thing that did. Sanctum 2 is otherwise a highly-polished experience all round, with a unique concept, solid mechanics, and exciting gameplay. There’s a surprising amount of variation, too, particularly in the level-design. There are levels with a fixed maze and a set path to defend; there are levels with multiple spawn-points and multiple cores; there are three-dimensional levels that loop over and around themselves; there are levels with massive boss monsters who just swat your towers aside. Add to that the variety of the enemies and the enormous choice of unlockable weaponry, and the game becomes almost infinitely replayable!
Sanctum 2 is a really great game all round – a perfect marriage of two different game types into something new and exciting. And, like a perfect marriage (that’s right, I’m going there) it lets two people indulge their varied and disparate interests, but still work together to become something more.
Playing Sanctum in such a strange but compelling way got me thinking, why aren’t there more games like this? Games where different types of player who are into different types of game can play together in the same environment? We’ve had, and we’re still having, so much fun with Sanctum 2 that we’d love to find other similar experiences – but there aren’t any.
The closest I can think of is something like Dust 514, where massive space MMO Eve Online crosses over into a planet-bound FPS; but even there you’re playing two entirely different games which only slightly influence each other. Far from being a co-op experience, they don’t even run on the same hardware (Eve is on PC, but Dust is on PS3). Starship simulator Artemis, on the other hand, seems a lot closer to what we’re after. Yet even there, where every player has a completely different interface, everyone’s playing exactly the same type of game.
There didn’t seem to be anything that matched the hybrid asymmetry we’d discovered in Sanctum 2, until I realised there is one game that fit the bill: Nintendo Land on the Wii-U.
It’s a mini-game collection, so it’s all very simplistic, but there’s some great mashup ideas in here. There’s a Luigi’s Mansion riff where one person plays a stealth game on the gamepad, while the others all play survival-horror on the screen. There’s a Mario Land part where everyone’s playing a third-person platformer, but the player on the gamepad is basically playing Pac-Man. Noteably, these modes are all competitive rather than co-op, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
And then there’s this. Hex Heroes is a Wii-U game, currently in development, which seems to offer exactly the kind of asymmetric fun we’ve been talking about. The player with the gamepad is playing a top-down Real-Time Strategy game, while the others play in third-person as individual units within that game. It’s the same kind of genre-combo that I’ve been playing with Bekki, requiring the same kind of tactical co-operation that made Sanctum so good. But, in Hex Heroes, you play together in real-time, not in turns. It’s a real, full-on co-op game, and that’s exactly what we’re looking for.
The Wii-U‘s gamepad offers a unique platform for this kind of hybrid game. The second screen, and the different controls that it offers, make it perfect for asymmetric play. It’s also the only console that seems to give a damn about local multiplayer (i.e. playing together in the same room) which is a plus. I really hope that, in the future, developers start to take advantage of the system’s weirder elements, and we’ll see more of these unusual games that bring together different people and different play-styles.
I also hope (and, as a dyed-in-the-wool PC gamer, it hurts to say this) that Coffee Stain, the makers of Sanctum 2, will bring the series to the Wii-U. Imagine one player playing tower-defence on the gamepad while another plays a shooter on the screen – just as we’ve described already, but without the rounds and phases the game currently has. It could be real-time; it could be true co-op; and it could be glorious!
…or they could make a game about a glitchy goat instead. That’s pretty glorious too!
Sanctum 2 is available right now on PS3, Xbox 360 and Steam. Our reviewer bought his own copy.