You survived the Skaven onslaught with a razor’s margin of health left to your name. You’re teetering on the thin line where one basic attack will push you over the edge of death’s yawning abyss. Your weapon is splattered from gore and viscera after cutting and crushing a trail of destruction through tens of rampaging Skaven. The end of the map is so close, you can almost taste it. But what you REALLY want to taste is the sweet health-restoring liquid bliss of a healing draught. Wait, what’s that? It…it’s a chest! Your battered frame lurches forward and you open it, wary resignation evaporates as you see the one item you need more than any other, a decanter full of blessed healing elixir! You reach out…only to see it disappear before your eyes as Derpderp69 snatches it from the chest, drains it dry, and restores his already green health bar to the max. Your character turns to watch him run forward, you start to reactively cry out…and then a lone ratman bludgeons you from the side, you fall lifeless to the paving stones as DerpDerp69 prances away, oblivious to anything but the next chest to loot.
Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide is the latest in a number of recent and forthcoming Warhammer games. Set in the low fantasy portion of the Warhammer universe, Vermintide focuses on a mix of Tolkien-inspired archetypes crossed with the dark influence of European Romanticism. If you’re familiar with the table-top and pen-and-paper roots of the setting, you will hopefully delight in the attention to detail. If, like me, your experience with the Warhammer license comes from digital presentations of the universe, gird your loins for charged encounters with bow and mace, magic stave and shield while battling through rough-hewn stone corridors and war-torn neighborhoods that look like set-pieces from a Renaissance Festival’s village dressed up as a besieged battlefield. There’s no Space Marines or Genestealers in this fight; it’s you and three companions with magic and the crude beginnings of gunpowder tech facing endless hordes of the Skaven menace.
Vermintide’s co-op, class-based party structure, FPS presentation and objective-focused maps against waves of enemies will instantly evoke comparisons to Left4Dead, as it rightly should. The basic foundation is built on the formula that made L4D such a hit with the gaming community. Where L4D features the horror of the crushing weight of relentless undead mobs, Vermintide’s theme is the skittering, ambuscading flood of Skaven, a race of bipedal ratmen. The group of Survivors from L4D is replaced with a cast of of characters drawn directly from archetypes in the Warhammer setting, but just as in L4D, each class is represented by a singular figure with their own name and backstory. The goal of each map is to survive overwhelming odds and complete an overall objective.
The difference between the two games is that Vermintide aspires to be something more than a L4D clone. It achieves this through the same loot-driven experience that keeps people playing day after day in persistent ARPG staples like Diablo and Path of Exile. Each character represents a different class, from the tank-like physical force of the Empire Soldier to the ranged fury and massive area of effect and damage over time of the Bright Wizard’s fire-based magic. Each character has an array of weapons, and to earn the key to their arsenal you have to grind out loot, which is gained through earning experience and rolling for weapons at the conclusion of a successful mission. Different weapon loadouts result in combinations and skills unique to that configuration. Weapons have regular attacks, charged attacks and unique attack-sets when paired with other weapons or shields. Weapons also have attributes, such as Burn, which causes fire damage over time, Armor Penetration, which allows the weapon to damage armor-wearing enemies with regular attacks, and Headshot, which greatly increases damage when a successful attack to the head is landed. Leveling up will allow you access to items like The Forge, allowing you to customize weapons, and unlocking additional trinket slots, which bequeath passive buffs. All of the characters have ranged and melee combat abilities, but their effectiveness and defensive capabilities are class dependent.
MEET THE CHARACTERS OF VERMINTIDE
The Witch Hunter is known as Victor Saltzpyre. His backstory is as suitably dark as one would expect based on his name, class title and grim visage. Victor looks like the only time he ever cracks a smile is when burning heretics at the stake or striking terror into the hearts of a cast of characters drawn from a Games Workshop version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. But this is Warhammer, and you don’t want a happy go-lucky Witch Hunter, you want a dread warrior hell-bent on vanquishing foes, and Victor delivers. The Witch Hunter represents a nice balance between battlefield situational ability and access to a variety of weaponry. His signature combo is a rapier and a sword. He’s relatively nimble, and can dual wield a ranged and melee weapon, but also has the ability to equip heavier weapons such as a greatsword and the armor-piercing long range damage of a crossbow. He does not have access to a shield and his sweeeeeeeet looking hat and trench-coat don’t do much to prevent him from being ripped to shreds by the diseased yellowed fangs and claws of the Skaven adversary.
Siego Fuegonsasus is Vermintide’s mage-class character, the Bright Wizard. Victor’s last name ends in pyre and Siego’s last name starts with fuego, the Spanish word for fire. Is there a trend here? If so, it doesn’t matter, because Siego’s forte may be fire-based magical attacks, but one look at her stern face will stop any idle questions about her heritage or occupational relationship to her surname. There’s been a recent outcry from gamers and game journalists about the objectification and sexification of female characters in games. No one is going to make that claim with Siego, and hopefully Anita Sarkeesian gives her a shout-out in in a forth-coming video. As you can see, Siego’s look is a great match for her class and the setting. No gilded battle-panties or gossamer halter top for this Bright Wizard! Dressed in the traditional role-playing garb of mage’s robes (because you can’t have a character as powerful as a mage running around a game in highly effective armor), Siego is strictly about causing serious area and ranged damage with her fire magic. She can equip a sword and fight in close with her collection of staves, but why waste her true calling of ripping apart mobs of Skaven from distance with fireballs and pillars of flame? She can also damage herself with fire if she pushes her magic too hard, too fast, which makes me wonder about the 1983 Micheal Jackson coif she’s sporting…but you have been warned. Siego’s all about playing with fire, but make sure you are burning the enemy and not yourself.
The Dwarf Ranger, AKA Bardin Goreksson, doesn’t tread far from the typical Dwarven archetype seen since The Lord of the Rings first laid the foundation for this race of vertically challenged folk. He’s short, he’s strong as an ox and about as broad, and he might be a hipster favorite with his truly glorious length of neck-warming beard. Not being an aficionado of the source materiel Vermintide is based on, I think Bardin will feel familiar to anyone who has ever played a game with a Dwarf after Gary Gygax’s cultural phenomenon of Dungeons and Dragons finished the job in the 70s that Tolkien started in the 50s. Bardin’s official backstory even features the stereotypical plot device of a map! But who cares? If you are looking to start a journey that ends in cleaving heads and rupturing kneecaps, Bardin is a perfect fit. This bruiser might swing the unoriginal weaponry of axe and hammer, but he does so with gusto, especially when matched with shield or the expansive variety of ranged weaponry he has access too. The Dwarf Ranger is the second tankiest class of the game, offering a large amount of options depending on playstyle. He’s built for shredding armor and bull-rushing mobs but also has the ability to do significant ranged damage.
Kerillian the wood-elf represents the class of Waywatcher. Departing from the naming conventions of the other characters, Kerillian is the only one lacking a last name formed of some foreboding reference to fire, bloodshed or ominous depths. Is her first name a reference to Illiana, an ironic nod to the implied dark path she treads in her own personal narrative? All we can do is speculate, which is a great match for Kerillian’s character. Kerillian’s singular name, bandanna and hood swathed face add to her enigmatic presence, but there’s no mystery to what she does on the battlefield. Fat Shark may have followed conventional tropes with her class and weaponry — she falls into a very familiar fantasy archetype as an elf — but she also fits the gritty and grim setting of Vermintide. Functional armor, deadly ranged bow attacks, daggers for finishing the job up close; Kerillian isn’t some elven princess traipsing the battlefield with a radiant glow while brandishing a mystical flower. She’s a death-dealing terror more suited towards twirling her enemies intestines on her blades than spinning in oblivious abandon under a full moon, waiting for the illumination of hidden runes or the appearance of other fairy-folk to dance among the toadstools. She prefers to two-step around ammunition dumps, sending deadly volleys into the soft parts of her targets.
Markus Kruber. A solider of the empire, he’s a simple man. A man as magnificent and bold as his mustache, Markus fell into a deep depression following a bout of PTSD after emerging as the lone survivor of an undead attack on his regiment. Is it fate that Kruber means “pit or deep depression”? It doesn’t matter, because Markus Kruber IS the Empire Soldier and his brawny physique and fearless mustache are all about getting down and dirty in close-range combat. Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, Markus has seen the vast majority of my playtime in Vermintide. I suspect that the stats will show that Kerillian and Siego are the most picked characters due to their superior ranged abilities, but wading into the fray, swinging a two-handed hammer and crushing melons like a much cooler and intimidating version of Gallagher offers an attraction that can’t be topped, as far as I am concerned. Markus is the tankiest character in the game, but also has the worst ranged abilities. This is easily mitigated by his potential to solo mobs of enemies in melee combat and utterly destroy armor-wearing foes like the Stormvermin. I really wish Markus would dig himself out of his depression and build up his arm-strength so he could wield his two-handed weapons with one mighty fist while bashing away with his shield in the other, but as it stands, he is far and away the choice for those who like thick mustaches and being in the thick of the action.The Skaven roster doesn’t quite have the depth of our 5 heroes, but there are some enemies that offer more challenges than others. The normal rank and file consist of Clanrats and Skavenslaves. They make up the majority of the Skaven forces and in a one-on-one battle, a New York City subway rat is probably a deadlier foe. But you don’t fight them one-on-one, you fight surging masses that attack from all sides. The next rung up the Skaven ladder is a force of specialized troops that have one-dimensional abilities that can seriously cause issues for your party. There’s the Poison Wind Gobladier, who lob poison gas bombs that can decimate your party and their fellow Skaven alike. Packmasters utilize a modified Mancatcher that looks like it came out of the Berserk manga, with all that entails (ed. note: There are some serious similarities between the setting for Vermintide and Berserk. This is a good thing). If the Packmaster catches a character with the Mancatcher, that character is essentially dead unless rescued by another party member. Ratling Gunners will rain a hail of bullet-hell on targeted characters and can kill you in about three seconds with an unimpeded barrage. Gutter Runners have wicked green Warpstone blades and move in stealth, pouncing from nowhere while ravaging their target, only to disappear like some sort of rat-ninja in a puff of smoke. These ambushing bastards can wreak havoc on a party with a quickness. Next come the Stormvermin, armored shock troops that are difficult to beat four on one, much less in the tightly coordinated group known as a Stormvermin patrol which will utterly destroy a group not prepared to counter their melee tactics and durable armor. Stormvermin are tough, but even a patrol of them has nothing on the Rat Ogre. The Rat Ogre looks like some sort of caricature bodybuilder cartoon from an Ed Roth hotrod illustration. It is a huge, gnarly mass of almost indestructible muscle that will bash, bloody and bludgeon your characters at will. A single Rat Ogre can kill your entire troop of heroes in sixty seconds.
Surviving Vermintide’s mix of peons and elite soldiers requires coordination and cooperation. Groups that don’t work together will not get far before the Defeated prompt appears and the game resets back to the lobby. A party of four people joining in on Skype or Mumble will have a good chance of overcoming the more challenging situations and maps. Solo queue can be a different story. Like many multiplayer games with random strangers, it’s the human element that can be the most disappointing, and Vermintide is no different in this regard. Players dropping, general trollish behavior and comments, taking items for themselves when they don’t need them and someone else does, refusing or not understanding how to do their part in combat situations…this is an issue I frequently ran into in the beta and after Vermintide went retail. Hopefully as time goes on this will be resolved to a degree, but it’s always going to be a factor that has to be considered when playing without your own group of friends. Vermintide does give you the option to play solo with a team of three bots, but that situation can be as frustrating as playing with random humans. I have seen the bot AI range from mediocre to surprisingly good to downright game breaking and that’s all within one match. Bots will rush chests for healing items…and sometimes even use them on you later when you need them. But I have also watched with resignation as a bot idled serenely next to me as I died and then stood over my corpse for 30 seconds without attempting to resurrect me.
For a moment it’s calm, you move forward…then you hear the tell-tale sound of a Gobladier re-breather. You fall back, not wanting to get caught in a cloud of poison, only to run into a band of Clanrats. Weapons clash, gore splashes your screen, a Skaven head tumbles free as your blade passes through its neck…and then you are flung to the ground, helpless, as a Packrat drags you into a waiting mob clamoring for revenge.
Presentation-wise, Vermintide is absolutely stunning. The art design and graphics capture the oppressive atmosphere, the combat is exhilarating and full of tension, the balance between objectives, enemy composition and your party’s strengths and weaknesses feels like the result of careful consideration and tuning. The result is an extremely engrossing experience. Jesper Kyd’s soundtrack is a perfect complement to the grim, vivid visuals and kinetic frenzy of battles. If anything, the available screenshots and gameplay videos understate how well the game manages to convey the setting and plunges you deep into the whirlwind of the chaotic battles. I hesitate to use the term immersive because it has lost almost all of its meaning when writing about games, but Vermintide does a superlative job of placing you deep into Vermintide’s depths and holding you there until you complete a mission or die trying.Vermintide does a lot of things right. The aesthetics of the game are well done and set a high bar. The loot system shows promise and is a good avenue to ensure lasting replayability. Characters are well balanced and the game forces parties to utilize a mix of four characters, with the missing fifth setting the tone for the final composition. Every party will have a good mix of range, defense and melee capabilities. Where Vermintide shows some weakness is the leveling system, which adds little, especially when compared to the loot system. There are no skill trees, no abilities to gain or unlockable features for character growth besides trinket slots. This is disappointing and limits the return a player will get for investing time in the game. The biggest failing is the nature of gameplay itself, which relies on multiplayer and cooperation, elements the average player will have little control over. It is very frustrating to play a 30 minute match with a stranger who is more interested in looting all of the chests for himself and leaving you high and dry as you struggle to survive. This is somewhat mitigated when the party is private and comprised of friends; Leo, my nephew and I played in a three man party for several maps and had an absolutely great time, despite some issues with looting caused by the fourth random person. The fun factor dipped significantly when Leo dropped and my nephew and I played with two randoms. Coordinating battles and strategy was severely hampered and it made the experience seem more like a chore than an adventure.
In its mission to deliver a top-notch Warhammer experience and rise above the limited expectations of being a L4D imitator, Vermintide succeeds and then some. The minor failings of the game can’t be completely placed on Vermintide or Fatshark, because any multiplayer game has to deal with the weaker members of the playerbase. High replayability, the potential for a engrossing and rewarding co-op experience, persistent RPG loot system that keeps you coming back for more and a presentation that surpasses the competition are enough reasons for me to recommend Vermintide without reservation. But I only ask one thing: Don’t be a jerk and loot chests unless you need to. And don’t revive me in a cloud of poison gas. If you can meet those two simple requests, send me a friend request on Steam.