Hey, you! Do ya like hardcore, turn-based strategy? Do ya think working to find the best possible combination of a buttload of units, each with unique weapons and abilities, sounds like a good afternoon? Are ya perhaps a fan of the Warhammer universe? And do ya like pretty games, by any ole chance?
Welp, if you said yes to three of those four questions, I've got a game that just might put a sparkle in your strategy-lovin' eyes.
Before we get to the review proper for this here title, let’s address the war mammoths in the room when it comes to Warhammer 40,000: Sanctus Reach, just to get them outta the way, so they can’t stomp on anyone.
First off, yes, it’s Warhammer 40K, but no, it’s not much like the recent Warhammer 40K titles with which you’re probably familiar.
It's not an RTS, like the Dawn of War series, and it’s not an FPS, like Space Hulk: Deathwing; this is a turn-based, hexagonal-grid strategy game that has multimember squads as base units (also legendary units and individual vehicles). There’s no building anything of any kind; the missions, set on maps built from premade landscape tiles used in different combinations, are nearly exclusively battle scenarios that involve you defeating the other army.
Unlike tactical titles like Space Hulk or Space Wolf, which focus more on individual units in a smaller narrative, Sanctus Reach embraces large numbers of units fighting in a greater war. Sanctus Reach does somewhat resemble older turn-based Warhammer entries, like Rites of War or Chaos Gate, but even those have more of a narrative focus than Sanctus Reach. There are two campaigns (both from the perspective of the Space Wolves), plus a skirmish mode and multiplayer (where you can be Orks or Space Wolves), but, really, gameplay centers on isolated battle scenarios that, in the campaign, are loosely linked together as a story.
Secondly, and to address that final question I asked at the start of the review.
Yep, you're not wrong; graphically, Sanctus Reach looks like it was made ten years ago, maybe even longer. It's not that it's ugly per se, merely that it's obvious, from a glance at the gameplay, that this ain't a title that's up there with the AAA titles pushing the graphical boundaries. In fact, that's a bit of a common theme, in that a lot of the game feels older, from the aged looks to the lack of bells and whistles otherwise (e.g., no cutscenes, little narrative, not much in the way of physics).
Sounds grim, but none of that matters, because what Warhammer 40,000: Sanctus Reach sets out to accomplish, it very much accomplishes, and that is to provide a pretty damn good representation of playing a tabletop game without all of the messy buying or setup – plus the ability to play anytime, against anyone. Cutting out those minutiae, for anyone who has ever sunk the hours and dollars into playing tabletop anything, is an absolute godsend. The developer’s steadfast commitment to fun, not fuss – specifically, the attention to a large variety of units and a focused and easy-to-learn set of rules for combat and environment – really works.
The badass units, in particular, might just make this game for me.It’s an outright delight to see a new, weird mech stomp around the corner and fire something freaky at your guys, or to have a squad type you've never seen before trudge up to the battle and do the unexpected. I've already seen at least fifty types of units, including a dozen or more unique “legendary” units. It felt like there was another one or two new units every battle I played for the first eight hours. And if you know the 40K universe, the units and characters found here are pulled straight from lore, so there's another added layer of fun seeing your favorites pop up and get into the action.
The first time I got my hands on an Imperial Knight and stomped the crap out of two charging Ork squads was a definite “Whoo!” moment.
Getting to custom-select the units that you want before each battle (except the first) is a blast. Each round, you are presented with an assorted list of units and their costs, and you must keep the total cost under budget while fielding a viable fighting force. Units that have survived other battles can carry over to future battles, and gained experience from kills causes them to level up and become more powerful. This means that every battlefield decision is much more meaningful that it would be in an RTS, where you'd just build a whole new army every mission. I definitely let some rookie units die in a couple of missions just to save my awesome vets, which is the kind of moment I love in a strategy title.
The maps and their terrain are pretty neat, too, with more variation than I expected as the campaigns went on. Sanctus Reach captures the feel of a futuristic, war-zone wasteland, and it often reminded me of the look from the original pair of Fallout games. A minor quibble, though, is the lack of a GUI representation for certain elements, like cover quality, arc of fire (and return fire), and damage possibilities. All of this information is there, but because it's represented with numbers that appear when you mouse over the correct tile or button, so you can only see each piece of information one at a time. It'd be nice to have all this information presented graphically, perhaps upon unit selection, or with toggled overlays.
But, honestly, once the action starts up in one of these battles, I pretty much stop complaining about much of anything. This is some of the most fun strategy combat I've had in a decade. MOBAs and the modern RTS have their place, but drawn out, epic, skin-of-your-teeth strategic battles are something I've missed since older titles, like Company of Heroes 2. Sanctus Reach has that kind of huge, lengthy battle I've been craving. It's similar to Total War: Warhammer and other Total War games in that regard, but because it's turn-based, your interaction with the battle is a lot more intimate, and battles play out over longer, more complex periods.
Where you put your front lines, and who you put on them, matters.
Tactics and timing matter: these are battles that demand that you stay sharp and make smart decisions. However, Sanctus Reach has well-balanced rules, which allows for heavy variation in army make-up and strategy; creativity is definitely rewarded. I know I'm in a good strategy game when I'm using terms like “mini-front” to describe a situation and I'm making up on-the-fly tactics, like when I used a set of Rhino troop transports to constantly ferry squads from the front line, back to my Priest for healing, and then back out where they're needed. The game didn't tell me to do that, but it worked. I love that stuff; there's no feeling like coming up with complex working strategies on your own, and I think most fans know the feeling.
Now, this is not a perfect game by any means, and there is some ugly. Leaving aside the graphics – which I tended to completely forget anyway after a short time in the fray – I did come across some minor bugs. For instance, an enemy unit just walked through my own units and buildings, and while I don't know that this wasn't some idiosyncratic rule for that unit, I'm pretty sure it was not A Thing That Is Supposed to Happen. There were a few minor glitches like this, but nothing game-breaking, and it does look like the devs are at work with frequent updates to fix any issues.
This is a good point, too, to point out that this is not a game that will walk you through every. It's easy to pick up, but it took me a while to figure out some abilities and overall strategy, and frankly, I still don't totally understand the cover system or the “overwatch”-style system for returning fire. This certainly isn't an overwhelming game by any means, but if you're not down to do a good chunk of the learning on your own, it might not be for you.
Maybe the weakest part of Sanctus Reach is the multiplayer.
I haven't yet had a chance to see how a full multiplayer session feels, because as of right now there aren't enough people online to play with. It's not for lack of players, mind you, it's that Sanctus Reach is set up so that you aren't forced to play more than one turn of a multiplayer round at once. It's similar to old “chess by email” games, or even how a lot of people used to play Civilization online, where you do your turn, send it, and then wait for a response. This is great for getting to play online at all, but it makes for a very, very slow game when you just want to combat someone. I wish there was an optional ‘turn timer,’ or a way to otherwise force both players to sit and finish a game in one session – but this situation likely isn’t a problem if you're playing against friends who are actually there and ready to make moves.
I think Straylight Entertainment & Slitherine were trying to make a serious and good Warhammer strategy game that captured the magic of having a variety of cool, intriguing units from a solid and established universe, and then having those units engage in a balanced and deep system of combat. In that regard, Sanctus Reach is as solid as a space marine's skull, and while I might wait until it was at least a little on sale to grab, it is absolutely worth the release price of $30 for all of you wannabe space-fantasy generals out there. If that sounds like you, don't hesitate: I promise you, you’ll want to check out these Imperial Knights. Dudes stand three stories tall and have damn laser cannons for arms, for Chrissake, and it is nothing but glorious.