It’s important to get this out of the way now – Warhammer 40,000: Sanctus Reach is a good game. It’s not quite a turn-based Dawn of War, but this is a solid, tactical war/strategy title that will appeal to a broad spectrum of people. It’s not as deep as the table-top experience or other Matrix wargames, it’s also not as streamlined or as personable as something like XCOM. It is what it is, which is a solid, surprisingly tactical experience with some teething issues.
I’ll be honest; when I first previewed Sanctus Reach I was impressed, but a little underwhelmed by how rough around the edges it was. It’s amazing how much difference a few months can make however, and it was incredibly pleasing to see how many of those edges had been smoothed for the retail release of the game.
If you didn’t get a chance to read my preview, let me recap:
This is a turn-based tactical strategy game. It is a very convincing facsimile of the table-top game – you’re given points and a pool of units to choose from, and you fight across maps that can range from wastelands to urban areas. Your Army Force list is largely fixed, although it can change from mission-to-mission with different units being available/not available at different times.
Units can fire twice and move, although you lose movement points as you fire. You can set a reaction arc to most units with a ranged weapon, which is very useful for getting in additional damage on tougher enemies. This is a game about positioning, mastering strengths and weaknesses, and making sure the right unit is attacking the right enemy. Beyond that, it’s about kill efficiency – every sprite left standing is potential damage you take in return. Kill as much as possible, as quickly as possible, all in the name of the All-Father and the Emperor.
The full game offers a lot more than you may initially appreciate. You have two full Space Wolves campaigns, which are a mixture of set-piece, story-driven missions, and then minor skirmishes that abstractly represent the Chapter’s struggle to reclaim Alaric Prime from the Orks. The set-pieces are diverse and quite tactically challenging, although the Skirmishes can be a bit hit-or-miss. Useful for gaining additional experience for your units though – your troops & vehicles can gain XP through your campaign and level-up, unlocking new abilities that will help you fight tougher enemies. There are also penalties for units being killed.
You can only play as the Orks in the Skirmish and Multiplayer modes, and of course anything you make in the Editor. How moddable this game will be remains to be seen, as despite the Editor Games Workshop’s new licensing practices are a lot stricter. Slitherine/Matrix may have to step in and remove any content which violates that agreement (like races or even chapters not covered by the license).
Playing Sanctus Reach is both enjoyable and challenging when it gets everything right – the Space Wolves are powerful, but the Orks are more numerous and have heavy-hitters of their own. The more unique objective-types really make you work for that win, and you can lose hours to this game, even if you have to replay a mission as there’s fair amount of replayability in how you approach your objective. I mentioned teething issues above – there’s plenty to be critical about, but nothing game-breaking or even that disappointing, just stuff that could use fixing. In no particular order, these are the things that stand out as areas to perhaps re-visit in future patches or expansions:
- Faction Balance – this is the big thing for me. It’s hard to balance factions that have different play-styles when they’re using the same underlying combat rules. Apparently I’m alone in thinking the Orks are a bit too powerful right now, as most of the beta testers thoughts the Space Marines were OP. It definitely needs looking at again though.
- The AI – both subtly genius and incredibly stupid, the AI is capable of really pressuring you into fighting smart, while at the same time it can be obviously inefficient in its moves. Combined with the above potential issue with faction balance, you end up having huge RNG swings match-to-match. Sometimes you wipe them out, sometimes they wipe you out, and then sometimes you have a really good engagement. I find this problem is exacerbated in Skirmish and MP.
- Generally, I’m dubious about the move/shoot mechanics as is, despite the underlying logic. You shouldn’t be able to move your full amount and still attack twice, yet are penalised for wanting to get a shot off before you change positions. This again feeds into the above points, as it’s not always a question of one faction being naturally over-powered, but the mechanics that drive then allow for OP outcomes.
- Experience Distribution & Upgrades – Trying to level up units becomes a bit more of a chore than it should be, seeing as in only units that get the kill are awarded XP. It’s unknown at this point whether the unlocks are random or fixed depending on individual units (not unit type – I’ve had units of the same type get different upgrades). Personally, I wouldn’t mind an either/or choice so that your Force List feels a bit more crafted, and you can make sure you’re plugging various weaknesses.
- Little Things – Cover/Wrecks are too hard to clear, even with powerful units. Pathfinding is a bit wonky and unclear at times (especially when you’re trying to recognise what blocks movement). Most of the weapon GFXs are still kind of naff or underwhelming as well.
Some words must also be spared for the PBEM++ system that is Slitherine’s hallmark. It’s fully functional, stable and is set-up quite well… but I worry that it’s going to be seen as incredibly archaic by those new to this company’s games. In essence, this is a digitised version of the old ‘Play By (E)Mail’ system which grew in popularity in the early days of the internet for niche hobbies like wargaming and table-top RPGs. It’s great for people with not a lot of time on their hands and for big, complex wargames that require a lot of planning and thought to take a single turn. Not sure it’s required for something like Sanctus Reach, however.
What essentially happens is that you take a turn, that turn is then sent to your opponent and replayed for them, and they take their turn, and the process repeats until the match is over. It allows individual MP games to stretch over days and weeks, although if you’re both online you can get it done in one sitting; there’ll just be extra delays while you enter/exit the match and replay opponent’s turns. It’s how Slitherine/Matrix do most of their turn-based games, and while it seems antiquated, it does what it needs to do and multiplayer is still quite fun and engaging. Really, it’s just a different atmosphere more than anything.
Make no mistake – what we have here is a very solid foundation for an interesting, tactically challenging experience that gives a very convincing illusion of the physical game. If we get more games like this or new and interesting content for this game, then wargamers and strategy gamers alike have plenty to be pleased about. The only potential down-side is how restrictive the license agreement is between Matrix and GW – something we will probably never find out.
For a debut game, Straylight Entertainment have done very well for themselves, but they can’t rest on their laurels; Sanctus Reach is by no means perfect and they need to be receptive to feedback and guidance if they really want this to shine. On Slitherine’s side, this is probably one of the best looking, most accessible games they’ve ever made, and they should be proud of themselves for it and for the fact that it still has some of that hardcore depth that is their speciality.
Warhammer 40,000 Sanctus Reach is available via Steam and Directly through the Matrix/Slitherine Stores.
The author is a full-time employee of Wargamer Ltd., and this article reviews a game published by a member of the Slitherine Group of companies. For further information on this, please consult the Reviews Policy and the About Us pages.