Warhammer is an expensive and time-consuming hobby. Getting an army together will set you back hundreds of euros and that entire army is going to show up on your doorstep in the form of little, plastic bits that require assembly and painting. It’s not unreasonable to wish for a digital alternative, but while many games will let you experience the world of 40K, few of them attempt to actually match the mechanics of the tabletop game. Sanctus Reach makes a valiant attempt and gets a lot right.
Space Wolves vs Orks
The game’s campaign takes players to a planet occupied by Orks and has them command an army of Space Wolves in a bid to liberate the planet district by district. Storytelling is sparse and, while a few missions will reference characters and events, the campaign as a whole is more of a slightly non-linear mission select screen.
Each mission presents you with some information about the objective and, sometimes, intel on the enemies present, after which you are shown the entire army you’ll be controlling. However, in a clever twist on the tabletop points system, you have to choose which of the units lined up you’ll actually be taking along. Each group costs a set amount of points, so you could take along that fancy artillery piece, but you could also have 6 groups of angry Space Wolf warriors in its place.
It might seem lame to be restricted in such a way, but I actually prefer this system over an alternative where I’d have to build armies from scratch. The missions always give you balanced rosters and provide units you’ll find useful. Likewise, there is no cheesing the missions by building overpowered armies that specifically counter what the Orks will bring. I have also never played either faction, so the gradual introduction of new units was a good way to let me get a grip on how they played.
Most missions will simply have you and the Orks compete over control points or fight each other to annihilation, but a number of stages do have special objectives like getting transports to the other side of the map or taking down specific targets. In reality, most battles are just going to be a fight to the death anyway, during which the Orks frequently hold the advantage. You are going to have to face a lot of mean, green fighting maniacs and they’ll be bringing crude robots and ramshackle trucks along with them.
However, while the game does a good job at introducing players to the units, it’s not so good at actually teaching them the mechanics. A link to a bunch of videos and a basic movement tutorial is all you get, which leaves the logic that the game operates on kind of vague. Sanctus Reach is a strategy game where no amount of observation is going to help you make a reasonable decision. Lines of sight are wildly inaccurate, units that look like good match-ups might be entirely incapable of damaging foes, and enemies locked in melee combat will suddenly turn to fire overwatch shots on units behind them.
It feels great to be moving around units on large maps filled with cover and buildings. While it doesn’t abide by all the rules and does lack elements like flying units, it captures the feeling of the tabletop game well enough. However, it feels very unrefined and inconsistent. The game gives you tooltips that show how much damage an attack is likely to do and what its hit chance is, but low damage would frequently instant-kill a foe, whereas high damage would often amount to basically nothing.
Some of the rules also just make missions a bother to work through, most prominently how often “reinforcements” will just magic themselves unto the battlefield and immediately get to move full turns. Enemies can literally spawn in next to you and start going to town. Sometimes this will include transports, whose units can immediately disembark and then also do their turn.
Everything about melee also feels off; only a part of the unit attacks even if there is plenty of room, the victims sometimes counter-attack and sometimes don’t, sometimes they counter twice, participants can blatantly ignore melee to shoot at something else, and it all just feels very underpowered. I almost never brought basic melee units with me and, if I did, I’d use them for grenades and their pistols.
But the biggest gripe with the game is how long it takes. It’s not a bother when it’s your turn and you are moving all the pieces yourself, but the AI opponent will also meticulously move each and every unit around and go through all their phases one at a time. And Orcs have a maddening number of troops, so you are left sitting there waiting for every green idiot to finish its actions, only for a magic user to summon up 6 gretchling units which then also have to do all of their stuff. After a while, I just started doing my turn and then did a chore or browsed the web for 5 minutes. The overly-generous turn limits also force every skirmish to be extended until the winning party can mop up every straggler, unless they are content with sitting on their victory points for 10 turns.
I make such a big deal out of this because Sanctus Reach comes so darn close. It nails the feeling of playing Warhammer in digital format and the missing units are an acceptable trade-off for it. However, the long wait times during enemy turns and seemingly inconsistent ruleset make it a tough sell to both fans of the wargame and those just interested in strategy games. The game’s own ideas, such as units that level up and gain perks, are great touches. The enemies are also pretty capable and punish you for mistakes like leaving fragile units standing around unprotected.
It’s a game I enjoyed playing, but only in short sessions. A fun battle on a good map could provide just as much fun as an actual game of Warhammer 40,000. However, the frustrations pile up and that left me particularly sour when strategies fall apart through no fault of my own.
Gameplay score: 6.2/10
The Orks can honestly have this planet
The game is an isometric, turn-based strategy game and thus the presentation isn’t too spectacular. The models do look nice and the light-blue of the Space Wolves is pleasant to look at, and it also clashes against the dark-greens of the Orks. Models like the Dreadnaughts, Killa Kans, Deff Dreads, and transports look good, but infantry can be hard to keep apart. Several times I’d send a melta team towards an enemy vehicle, only to then discover they were actually carrying a flamethrower.
The maps themselves are functional and easy to read, though also too samey. All of the battlefields share the same, brownish wasteland vibe. While they are nicely varied with hills, scenery, and ruins, they all feel like interchangeable battlefields without anything to truly set them apart. There are some abandoned factory maps, but those don’t offer much different in terms of atmosphere.
In terms of music and sound there isn’t much of note, aside from the pretty good battle-shouts from both sides. It’s funny to hear a unit courageously shout as they charge into battle, followed by worried Orks shouting “We gudda git outta here”.
Presentation score: 5.8/10
More battles to wage
The game has a bunch of content on the side for users to engage in. It’s possible to create & share your own campaigns with built-in editing tools and a content browser. There isn’t a lot on there, but if you and friends want to exchange levels it can be very useful. There are also 3 DLC campaigns, which center around the Astra Militarum, Orks, and chaos and thus add a lot of new units to play around with. To be honest, I’d actually consider buying them because it adds a lot of content that can then also be used in the editor and random skirmishes.
As for replay-value, I wouldn’t say there is much of it. The campaign missions feel static and don’t actually allow for much freedom. The lack of storytelling and cutscenes also leaves the campaigns lacking.
Extras score: 6.3/10
I have to admit that I was surprised when I researched this game after playing it and found out that it wasn’t a port of a mobile game as I had thought. This is a pure PC game and that does mean I have to compare it, unfavorably, to other PC strategy games. It has good mechanical ideas and it’s very ambitious, but it also feels underdeveloped. The rules consistently feel like they are almost good, only to trip up on little details. It would also have greatly benefited the game if the story was more present and its supposed heroes got more screentime.
The game is interesting for fans of the Warhammer world that would like to have a tabletop-like experience without all the hassle & setup that comes with it. For all its flaws and annoyances, it’s the only game of recent times that tries to offer such an accurate interpretation, which makes it kind of a spiritual sequel to Final Liberation, in a way.