I feel like I’ve done this before…
Left 4 Dead is one of my favourite games. The summer of 2009 was spent staying up until five o’clock in the morning, playing the same campaigns with the same group of friends, and it was by far the most fun I’ve ever had with a game. Sadly, we haven’t (officially) heard a peep from Valve about any signs of a third iteration. So over the years, I’ve drifted from title to title, hoping to find something that would get me as hooked as those games did.
Unfortunately, while many of them are great, the sea of co-op FPS games to come out since then haven’t ever managed to scratch that same itch that L4D did. Sure, I’ve had fun with the Paydays and the Killing Floors of the world, but nothing ever quite managed to be comparable.
Be sure take that into consideration when I say this: Fatshark’s Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide is the Left 4 Dead 3 we never had, for better and for worse.
Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)
Released: October 23, 2015 (PC) / TBA 2016 (PS4, Xbox One)
Vermintide is set in the underused gothic End Times setting of the Warhammer universe, where the city of Ubersreik has come under siege from a rising army of Skaven (rat-men). Taking control of one of five different character classes, four teammates can fight their way through 13 different missions. Vermintide’s writing certainly isn’t going to win any awards: each mission is very loosely connected by a pretty unimportant story that serves purely as exposition for the level about to be played and not much else.
To take out the Skaven, each class has a huge array of different weapons and equipment to choose from. Some, such as the elf and the mage, rely more on ranged tactics, whereas the likes of the dwarf and the old mercenary are more able to get up close and personal and do some real damage with melee weapons. Each class serves their own role, and no matter what combination of the five a team has, they all mesh well together to ensure no one character is carrying the others.
Melee combat feels meaty and bloody, and despite it ultimately comes down to mashing one button until everything is dead, it feels a lot more involving than that. Once I had mastered the timing required for blocking, I was going toe to toe with even the strongest enemies and coming out on top, and god damn did it feel good. It’s nowhere near as complex Chivalry or Bloodborne, but Skaven were turning into puffs of red mist and piles of giblets left, right and centre, and for a brief time I was a rodent-killing god to be revered and feared.
There’s great variety to the different stages, and it’s obvious Fatshark know how to make use of environments to make the co-op play interesting. From trudging through the city streets, to wading through the swamps toward a Skaven camp, each level feels unique and manages a decent balance of linear chokepoint corridors with some fantastically complex larger areas to make sure no environment grows stale.
For example, one mission takes place entirely in one big area where the team are scrounging for barrels of what I assume is gunpowder. The different platforms turn the space into a vertical maze of ramps and ladders that mean they can be fatally separated in a very short distance. Good stuff. Once they’ve succeeded, the entire team are rewarded with random pieces of loot, decided by a dice roll. The character progression of Vermintide is one of the biggest differences between it and similar titles. In a way, it works a lot like Team Fortress 2’s massive array of items: much of the loot available works as more of a ‘sidegrade’ than an upgrade. Most items aren’t categorically better than an item you already have, but may mesh better with your preferred playstyle.
For example, my fire mage has two staves I like to swap between: one functions as a shotgun, with a focused beam as a secondary attack to take out further enemies; the other feels more like a rifle with faster more precise shots, and as a secondary it has a large short-range area of effect attack. Neither is better than the other, but I really have to change how I play depending on which I choose to use in a mission. There will, of course, come a point where I am vastly over-leveled for them, but by then I’ll have a whole new group of staves to pick from.
The chances of getting the loot you want in the dice roll can be improved through collecting grimoires, tomes, and extra die scattered around the mission. The catch here is that these two item types take up space that could be used for precious healing items. They add a degree of risk vs. reward to the game, as those who replay levels with a more gutsy approach will net better rewards than those who play super conservatively. It’s a cool system that can really pull teams together, knowing there will be tangible rewards for covering each other in the long run.
Unfortunately, these are just extras. When you strip away the superfluous bells and whistles and get down to just killing the shit out of a horde of Skaven, what you’re left with is a game that is ultimately treading into the same territory we saw years ago. Vermintide doesn’t wear its influences on its sleeve; it wears them as a full lycra bodysuit that leaves nothing to the imagination.
For starters, the Skaven’s AI is pretty much the same as any zombie game’s ever: they spawn, they’ll rush towards you and will keep hitting you until they die. I get rat-men wouldn’t be the most intelligent thing in the world, but if they’re smart enough to make armour and formulate tactics (stopping which is the basis for many of the missions), then surely they’d know how to freaking flank every once in a while? Most of the stronger boss type Skaven have an L4D analogue: the sneaky, pouncing Gutter Runners are practically Hunters, Pack Masters can pull players away from their team just like the Smoker, and the Ogre Rat is the literally just the Tank with a rodent face stapled on Silence of the Lambs style.
That lack of originality extends to the missions too. While the environments are brilliant, the way levels progress feels exactly like Left 4 Dead. You’re tasked with moving through an ultimately linear space while fighting back against procedurally spawned hordes of enemies, with supplies and more intense ambushes happening at the drop of a hat. Eventually, you and your comrades will come to a conclusion that generally involves holding out against an extended onslaught of enemies before escaping to an extraction point. If it’s not that, your team will be tasked with going through a slightly more open area to collect a predetermined amount of a certain material, all while surviving against the hordes of enemies.
Even the teamwork mechanics are the same as Left 4 Dead. If a teammate takes too much damage, they will become incapacitated on the floor until someone can get them up. If they happen to die while incapacitated, they will spawn a little later in the level to be rescued by the remaining members. Players can even become incapacitated by dangling over deadly drops, waiting for someone to pull them up. Identical to Left 4 goddamn Dead.
As I have said, I adore that series. It’s got hectic shooting, combined with a necessity for tight teamwork that can really pull even total strangers together. Dispatching hordes of zombies in a gory fashion with a variety of weapons and in a variety of locales always made going back into the game just as fun as the first time, and Vermintide very much feels the same way. Except Left 4 Dead 2 came out six years ago, and it shows the few improvements its made over its most obvious inspiration just aren’t enough to let it stand on its own merits.
Unoriginality aside, I also noticed a fair few technical problems with Vermintide, especially when it came to the backend server that manages the character progression and matchmaking. There were relatively frequent periods of downtime, or times where matchmaking would take far, far longer than normal. Fatshark have managed to keep on top of most problems, and seem to be fixing them quickly in the days following the game’s release, but they’ve still been prevalent enough to get in the way of me playing the game.
Ultimately, Vermintide is more than the sum of its parts. It has wonderful visual direction and level design, with a character progression system that made me want to carry on grinding for new loot just to see what options it’d open up for me. The combat is satisfying, and the way teamwork is encouraged meant I managed to connect with total strangers in ways I haven’t had the chance to for a very long time. I wasn’t getting annoyed at random people on the internet, for the duration of that mission they were my teammates, and even things like Payday haven’t managed to give me that feeling. I’ve had a lot of fun, and certainly don’t regret any of my time with it. I absolutely recommend anyone who enjoys co-op FPS to give it a try, because it might well be the best to have come out in a long time.
I just wished that Fatshark had tried to be as original in the gameplay as they have in the visual direction. At times, it just felt like I was playing a mod, and depending on how you look at it that’s either the biggest compliment or the absolute worst thing I could say about Vermintide.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]