Warhammer 40,000: Sanctus Reach is a tough game to play. It's a turn-based strategy game packed with great ideas pulled straight from its namesake tabletop game, but it buries the good bits under layers of awful user interfaces, poor artificial intelligence, threadbare aesthetics, and a ton of bugs.
On the surface, Sanctus Reach seems like it'd be easy enough to pull together. You only have two factions to manage: the iconic Space Marines and the bloodthirsty Orks. Once a match starts, each player has a preset number of points they can spend on the units and gear they'd like to take into battle. Options are varied and run the gamut between colossal Dreadnoughts and packs of Goblins. After each side picks its warriors, players take turns moving across the board with the aim of controlling as many victory points as possible. Bouts are engaging, and depending upon your initial choices, you'll have a small array of strategic options at your disposal. Unfortunately, almost everything outside of that core is painful and frustrating. And it starts with the menus.
Starting a match in Sanctus Reach is a tedious process. At a point where players should be raring to go, excited for all the possibilities to come, menus with almost nonexistent tool tips bog and frustrate. Outside of the campaign--where you're railroaded into a series of rough-hewn maps--skirmishes and multiplayer games start you off with a few options. Most of these, like the size of the map, are simple enough. Others, however, don’t make any sense unless you’re a seasoned player, as they don’t get any cogent explanation.
The game fails to demonstrate which troops do what or what types of foes they're effective against. Match length is unpredictable and the objective of each game mode is unclear. Options include "Attack," "Defend," "Meeting Engagement," and "Symmetric." None of those, on their own, explain their effects at the start.
Granted, some of that goes away with experimentation, but the bulk of the game's tutorials are in YouTube videos. They explain things in a direct, easy-to-understand manner, but they're not available in the game itself. You can access these videos from the game's splash screen, or click an in-game link that closes the program and launches your browser. Instructions within the game are insufficient as they are, and it’s unfortunate that you need to leave the game entirely to learn the inner workings of its mechanics.
Even with the video tutorials, however, you’ll encounter situations you won’t quite understand. A Dreadnought (Warhammer speak for monstrous exosuit) can stand right next to a cadre of Orks, unable to attack. You might think it's because line-of-sight is blocked, but there’s nothing preventing you from attacking. The Orks will shoot up your mechanical walker several times before you can reposition, and before you know it, you’ve lost one of your most expensive units. It’s impossible to tell if there’s some mystery mechanic that’s never explained or if it’s a bug.
Those bumps notwithstanding, matches do show some promise. Depending on the composition of your team, you'll have tactical options (though, again, you don't know what those are without experimentation) that range from area-of-effect attacks to suppressing fire to specialized melee abilities. Your only goal is to scout control points and hold onto them with your units’ various abilities. Depending upon whether you're attacking or defending, you can charge forward, blowing holes in walls and destroying your foes' cover, or you can hunker down and prepare ambushes for the invaders. Regardless, this is where Sanctus Reach's scant strengths show.
Most units have a few different means of attack. Some have heavy weapons and melee options, while others are fast shock troops that switch between pistols and grenades. Your goal is to leverage each of their abilities and organize your teams into tight groups that work well with one another in order to clinch victory. Pairing units that complement one another--like vehicles that can hit hard and move fast with flamethrowers that can wreak havoc on swarms of enemies--is crucial. And the combination of troop variations with map obstacles often creates intriguing decisions. You can hold a defensive position in a bombed-out building, whittling enemies down as they approach before you blow through a wall to continue on to the next control point.
As fun as that can be, you won't have to wait long for it to wear a bit thin. Whether you're in the campaign or in skirmish/multiplayer modes, you're always dealing with control points. Turn timers put a hard cap on how long games last, too, so rushing tactics are the only real option. There's no total elimination and no multi-part missions with creative or varied goals.
Making matters worse, the game’s AI is laughable. Often, Orkish hordes will march straight into an obvious trap, and then, once their soldiers have been reduced to mangled, bloody bodies, they'll send another detachment without any additional precautions or changes to tactics. The developers have openly acknowledged some of these problems, but at time of this review, it's a big drag on a game that desperately needs some more marks in its favor.
Sanctus Reach is frustrating enough with poor tutorials, bugs, and awful AI, but that’s all magnified by bland aesthetics that blur together. Many units look similar, textures are grainy and pixelated, and many screens have low-resolution backgrounds. It's not usually an issue, but graphical oversights of all types abound and can make it difficult to recognize units and unit types, as well as hinder the legibility of tool-tip pop-ups.
Even if you can get past its many shortcomings, Sanctus Reach has some of the weirdest bugs I've ever seen. In my time with it, I found that the game wouldn't always maintain full-screen priority. Without warning, it would shift into the background and bring up a web browser or word processor. It would also lock up on occasion, and when trying to Ctrl-Alt-Delete to close, I'd get a Sanctus Reach-specific error code saying that it had a "Fatal Application Exit." Crashes like this were rare, as was the automatically shifting window priority, but they add even more frustration to an already flawed game.
Sanctus Reach does offer a handful of decent moments. I chuckled when I reduced a squadron of Orks to bloody puddles, and again when I managed what at first seemed an impossible incursion. But these flashes of satisfaction aren't enough to hold up a game that’s mediocre at best and vexing at worst. Together with a host of minor annoyances, they add up to a long, dull stint with a bad game from a great franchise that deserves far better treatment.