Compared with its far future counterpart, Warhammer Fantasy rarely seems to get a lot of love, especially when it comes to video game adaptations. With the bitter aftertaste of Warhammer Online, Wrath of Heroes and Age of Reckoning lingering in the minds of many, even after all this time, it’s not hard to see why. However, along with Mordheim, Vermintide might be the one to finally break this curse and show players just what the setting is capable of in the right hands.
Set during the apocalyptic events of the End Times, Vermintide follows the efforts of several heroes to stymie the hordes of skaven threatening to overwhelm humanity. Fighting their way through several major cities, swamps and corrupted lands, they are tasked with wading through a sea of skaven bodies to annihilate them entirely. Really though, it’s all an excuse to kill as many foes as possible with a variety of interesting murder tools.
While this sort of horde focused co-op experience is hardly unique, Vermintide does two things exceptionally well to help itself stand out. The foremost among these is the weapons on hand and the perspective. First person melee combat is hard to accomplish at the best of times, and outside of a few successes such as Shadow Warrior and Chivalry, it’s a gimmick all too often mishandled. Vermintide thankfully manages to nail it. It can be easy to turn such combat into mindless, skilless, hacking and slashing, or make the skill ceiling so high the weapons become unwieldy. While you can still wade into hordes of foes, cutting down dozens at a time, timing and striking foes in the right location are core to quick victories; primarily thanks to the balanced mix of short combos and balanced attacks on offer. This proves to be especially true with the heavier weapons, often of the two handed variety, and against the much more damage spongey foes who arise among mobs.
The second major selling point is the variety of classes on hand, consisting of the Empire Soldier, Witch Hunter, Bright Wizard, Wood Elf and Dwarf Ranger. Each is outfitted with their own unique equipment to begin with, and fitting into a niche role with the Elf and Wizard becoming glass cannons, the Witch Hunter a mix between crowd control and support specialist, and the Soldier and Ranger being semi-tanky heavy hitters. As you can imagine this leaves the likes of the Soldier armed with a very meaty warhammer and blunderbuss for rapid alpha damage, while the Witch Hunter wields a brace of pistols and single handed sword. While there is a degree of crossover between each, and no character is going to be utterly useless at either ranged or melee, it means groups are forced to rely upon one another to reach the end objective. Losing one person can be accounted for by the rest, so you’re not stuck in an Evolve situation of being screwed the moment you lose one person, abandoning people and pushing ahead will make things vastly more difficult for you.
Each character’s attacks and styles vary from one to the next, especially when it comes to charged melee strikes. The Witch Hunter in particular has one especially useful one against single targets, a armour pierching stab, but combined with his more fragile nature means he usually needs to have groups distract his targets first. The Ranger’s combination of hammer and shield meanwhile is more generally group focused, smashing groups of foes back when charged and creating some breathing room in the nearby area. Speaking of the shield, the block system means that players can’t simply be left hiding behind it during whole sections of the game. There is instead a separate meter representing how many strikes your guard can take, draining more rapidly depending upon the strength of the foe trying to take your head. Once it’s gone, you’ll be left unable to use it for a short while and likely running from the enemy. It’s a more elegant system for this sort of game than the more common method of both attacks and defences draining a stamina meter, as doing so would hamper any progress through levels and leave the group bogged down in one area.
The level design of each environment is especially praiseworthy, managing to strike the perfect balance between being obvious to follow while remaining open to crowd combat. Even in the streets of cities, you’re never left stuck on an overly linear path or trapped down narrow back alleys. Focusing upon the docks and sticking to the major streets, the group is left sprinting over scaffolding, half-finished streets and wooden platforms as they fight the skaven, occasionally entering through civic buildings. Even the areas you’d expect to be remarkably bland such as the swamplands retain some surprising diversity, branching out between semi-submerged environments ripe for ambushes to teeming forests.
Progression in the game isn’t performed on a character by character basis, but instead each victory contributes to an overall account level. As a result of this, any experience you earn can be pushed into accessing new weapons and features for all characters, meaning you can upgrade each as you personally wish. While it’s still a grind to be sure, it’s a more manageable grind than you might find in other games, and can be used to influence everything from attacks to certain drops. As some materials are needed to forge certain weapons, you can earn these at the end of every level via a minor game of chance. This is performed through effectively gambling via dice, and your performance during the prior level can help to influence your chances of greater success via additional dice or items such as tomes. It’s certainly a thematic way of tipping the hat to the tabletop origins without being overly intrusive in any way, and means much of the progression is focused more upon loot grabs than skills.
Now, despite the progression system it does need to be stressed that the game hasn’t been tiered to allow over-levelled players to outrun newer characters. Barring certain extremely hard to get weapons, you’ll never find something doing eight times the damage of anything else. More often than not they’ll instead feature different effects influencing how you harm foes, from faster swings to some of the more obvious factors.
While likely not representative of the final product, the Vermintide did suffer from some rather glaring technical issues. Chief among these was the poor optimisation, causing severe graphical issues at times and problems running the program alongside a lack of SLI support. This went hand in hand with some rather severe frame rate problems, leading to sessions inexplicably dropping to five frames per second or less, seemingly at random. While quick to find games in progress, you could all too easily spawn in, freeze up, and then promptly get mobbed by enough ratmen to take out a small army.
Balance between the classes could also use more than a little tweaking, especially in terms of overall durability. With its mix of classes, it seemed that there would be a solid series of choices on offer for people to play, and who would best suit their overall style. However, the options you might expect as tanking classes (the Dwarf Ranger in particular) came across as overly fragile, without enough damage output to truly justify being a glass cannon. They’re not without their uses to be sure, but the lack of a definite choice to get stuck into fighting can result in the entire group making hit and run attacks, rather than just wading into a fight. As such, while it certainly encourages dull if safe tactics it hamstrings the opportunity to resort to bad but exciting ones, and let’s face it it’s the latter choice which made the likes of Left 4 Dead so fun.
The enemy variety in itself did also seem oddly lacking. While it might be thanks to the sheer volume of rat related monsters on screen at any one time, specialists such as Rat Ogres seemed to be overly rare. At best they seemed to appear only in ones or twos, never providing all that much of a challenge, with little variation offered in the constant sea of grunts you were facing down. While this might be not too dissimilar from other games, they tended to have a little more variety on hand visually. With the zombies at least you could rely upon clothing or their wounds; yet with the skaven though, all too often one ratman looks all too much like another, despite the efforts to vary armour and weapons among them.
Another definite problem was how often foes seemed to spawn in right in front of the players en mass, swarming them at the drop of a hat. While this was relatively subdued in certain sections or relatively well hidden, other areas of certain levels suffered from rampant monster-boxing and popping out of thin air. This not only turned certain sections into fighting an unending tide of creatures dropping on the player’s head, but it broken any semblance of suspension of disbelief. While this might be a Beta test and such problems might be sorted out before release, these are nevertheless issues which hampered the overall enjoyment of progressing through this game.
Vermintide is definitely rough around the edges with some obvious room for improvement, but at the same time its quality is undeniable. This is easily one of the most fun horde based co-operative games released in the past few years, and its emphasis upon more unconventional weapons helps it to stand out among the crowd. Should Fatshark be able to deal with these issues before its release later this month, we’ll have a new classic on our hands.
WARHAMMER: THE END TIMES - VERMINTIDE / DEVELOPER & PUBLISHER: FATSHARK / PLATFORM: PC, PLAYSTATION 4, XBOX ONE / RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER 23RD