This isn’t the first time I’m writing about my experience playing Vermintide. You can read my initial thoughts on the game here. Since then I’ve spent a bunch more time with it, and I think I’m ready to pass Final Judgement.
Was that dramatic enough? I think it’s dramatic enough. Anyway, words!
Vermintide is very similar to Left 4 Dead. Very, very similar. It’s sloppier and less carefully polished in almost every aspect, but the pacing and flow of the two games is practically identical, and anyone who’s played Valve’s zombie-bashing FPS will feel right at home here. This is how it works: you and up to three buddies must journey from point A to point B in one of the game’s 13 levels, and along the way nothing happens. Nothing at all. It’s mostly just about sightseeing with friends, and there’s optional hand-holding and whistling to enhance the cheery mood.
Obviously that’s a blatant lie. Along the way, BAD STUFF happens. Vermintide is a game about making lemons out of lemonade, and adapting to whatever crappy, useless, damning hand its A-hole AI director deals you. As you attempt to complete the objectives in your chosen level, hordes of Skaven (rat people, if you’re scratching your head) swing spears and swords and claws at your assorted body parts, and your team’s job is to remain as un-maimed as possible. Occasionally boss Skaven show up and spit in the face of your once-perfect plans, dismantling them piece by piece until eventually all that’s left of you and your chums is a messy stain on a nameless street. The bosses almost all follow the L4D archetypes, and you’ll quickly encounter Vermintide‘s take on Smokers, Boomers, Hunters and Tanks.
I do find myself wishing there was something about Vermintide‘s Skaven to differentiate them from L4D‘s zombies. They swarm convincingly, clambering and leaping over objects and charging at the player with the sort of hasty abandon you’d expect, but they don’t do anything that makes them any more interesting than their undead counterparts. Then again, I’m not sure there’s anything can be done to set them apart, so it’s probably an unfair criticism to level at the game.
There are five characters from which to choose, each offering different methods for dealing with the Skaven threat. My personal favourite is the Bright Wizard, a ranged spellcaster with fiery abilities capable of incinerating a crowd in no time. She’s prone to exploding (like, actually exploding) if you overuse her abilities, however, so playing as her means you’re constantly balancing your health with your damage output. Aside from her there’s the Dwarf Ranger, the Empire Soldier, the Waywatcher and the Witch Hunter. They’re all a blast to play in their own right, and learning to use each character’s strengths is the only way to succeed at beating each level’s highest difficulty settings. There’s a hefty focus on vicious melee combat, but every character has some manner of ranged weapon to employ as well.
One of the game’s key differences to L4D is the loot system. You’ve got an overall player level, and as this increases you’re rewarded with new items and weapons (and the loot you get isn’t tailored to the character you’re currently playing). Upon successfully completing a level, there’s a dice roll you do, and the results of that reward you with loot of varying rarity. Finding bonus dice during a run or carrying certain objects across the finish line afford you a higher chance of earning better gear. Better gear allows you to tackle missions at higher difficulty levels, and the higher the difficulty level, the higher your chances of getting better gear.
It’s a smart system and it encourages the same sort of replayability that still sees Left 4 Dead 2 attracting tens of thousands of players per day. It’s got an ugly side effect though, in that it encourages a ruthlessly efficient approach from players. Which means that it’s common to be attacked by strangers for wanting to take a more casual approach to hacking and slashing your way through throngs of rat folk, because they’re only in it for the Sweet Loot, Maaan. If, like me, you prefer a more relaxed, experimental experience, I’d recommend you stick to playing Vermintide with like-minded friends lest you get stabbed for stopping to look at a cool piece of scenery or something.
And there’s loads of cool scenery to stare at. I really like what developer Fatshark has done with the Warhammer Fantasy aesthetic. I’m not by any means a Warhammer buff, but everything looks and sounds as I’d expect it to, and it’s actually somehow gotten me even more excited for Total War: Warhammer than I already am. The levels are quite diverse and not confined to the medieval city streets of Ubersreik; you’ll fight Skaven on rooftops, in sewers and out in the countryside. Mission objectives are generally also nicely varied, and some of them offer something a little different than the standard point-to-point gauntlet of doom. Level layouts are fixed, but the location of enemies and goodies is randomised every time you load up a level. It’s packed with contextual audio cues that draw your attention to threats like incoming ambushes, and characters will verbally alert the rest of the team to the location of important items like health kits. This occasionally breaks though, and those audio cues will become muddled or continue looping long after the threat has passed.
At the moment I’m pretty infatuated with the game, and I imagine I’ll be diving back into it often over the next few months. Its melee combat feels swift and chunky and deeply satisfying – particularly when you’re swarmed by a pack of weaker foes and your screen quickly becomes a mess of bloody spray and liberated limbs – and I’m eager to see what sort of loot is available at the higher levels of play. It’s quite buggy at the moment though (nothing too damning, but many minor irritations exist), and it does a few things incredibly stupidly. Here’s an example: there are (fairly useless) bots to keep you company when you don’t feel like dealing with humans, but there’s no truly offline mode, which is silly. To put this in perspective, the other day our office Internet went down for a few hours, and I wasn’t even able to launch the game to keep myself busy. Boo, Fatshark. Big boo. It also means there’s no way to pause the game when you’re playing alone, which is always frustrating.
It took me a while to get over just how similar it is to L4D, but Vermintide does enough things differently that it’s its own unique thing. That, and the L4D concept is as fun and comically chaotic as ever, so I’m surprised it’s taken this long for an imitator to appear. This is the sort of game Fatshark can milk for years to come, continually adding in new bits and bobs for players to tinker with. Given that the Warhammer universe has such a rich pool of goodies to pull from, I’m fully expecting to see other Warhammer Bad Folk like the Greenskins, or the Undead, or the Chaos Dwarfs in future Fatshark games. And if they continue to offer the same amount of bloody, ruthless, endlessly tense entertainment as Vermintide, I’ll be there for every one of them.