While there have been a plethora of 40k titles over the past couple years, Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide is the fear real Fantasy offering since the now defunct 2008 MMO Age of Reckoning. In spite of its clear inspiration by the likes of the Left 4 Dead franchise, including similar FPS gameplay and special enemy mechanics, (there’s even the same easily overlooked plot hole of “why are we immune to X infection that’s devastated millions?”) it’s so, much more than just a L4D clone.
Vermintide takes place in The End Times setting in the Warhammer mythos. As the name would suggest, it features a rising tide of the proud Skaven(mutated rat men), ravaging what’s left of the Empire of Man that was not destroyed in the Cataclysm that brought about The End Times. With the Chaos Moon rising, and all records of the Skaven and their previous conquest of Human lands more than 1500 years prior being lost to the ages, it falls to a group of five unlikely heroes in the overrun (and beautifully realized) port city of Ubersreik to take up the gauntlet of rallying what little of the world remains in defense against an unrecognized threat. Those who forget the past, and all that…
While there’s no knowledge of Warhammer lore required to dive in, there’s an overwhelming amount of fan service tucked into the game, and anyone familiar with Left 4 Dead will be immediately at home with Vermintide. Four-man (and women) party, loosely narrated levels, hordes of enemies, multiple difficulties, it’s all there. Where things really change are with the notion of combat and progression. Vermintide is very melee-heavy, with ammunition being a precious but powerful resource. In addition, rather than finding a random assortment of weapons strewn throughout a level, your loadout is your own, consisting of various different equipment options (both ranged and melee) with randomized traits, and can be switched at any time up until the start of a mission, leaving equipment more in line with that of Payday 2. This means that Vermintide—where L4D focuses on unlikely survivors making due—chooses to focus on unlikely survivors using their personal expertise. Each of the five classes—Bright Wizard, Waywatcher, Ranger, Soldier, and Witch Hunter—has a slew of different equipment options allowing them to fulfil various different roles as needed. This all culminates in Vermintide’s defining feature: its extremely high ceiling for personal skill in regards to ability to progress in harder difficulties.
Rather than playing as one of four characters who’s the same as all the others, save for voice and skin, Vermintide’s characters play wildly different (except for the Dwarf Ranger and Empire Soldier, but the Dwarf is clearly superior because he’s a better tank and he tastes good). In addition to leveling and randomized loot on level completion—which is heavily influenced by your completion of optional (and ruthlessly challenging) objectives—the varied playstyles of the different classes means that Vermintide can boast something that few other games of its type can: external motivation to continue playing.
Let’s face it; we live in a world where, whether rightly or wrongly, we favour Skinner box gameplay. We love games that reward us with shinies, even if it’s unnecessary. So when a game comes along with a core mechanic of “smash enemies until you finish a level and then do it again,” adding static progression and shinies is a welcomed addition in my books.
But that’s not all that Fatshark have done to keep you (read:me) playing; of the five difficulties, the last two have friendly fire enabled. On Nightmare and Cataclysm mode, ranged attacks and explosives will do damage to your party members. This means that the Bright Wizard and her massive AoE fireballs suddenly present a whole new layer of challenge, and grenading around a downed ally to clear the area and help them up is no longer a viable tactic. It also means that those of us who play the Dwarf Ranger or Elven Waywatcher get blapped a lot on account of our short, rat-like stature and gray fur coat respectively—something I can’t help but laugh at when it happens.
And that’s been my lasting memory of my time with Vermintide. At the time of writing this—thanks to the head-start access—I have more than 50 hours logged, almost exclusively on the Dwarf, and mostly in one of the three levels on offer in the head-start. All of that, and I still can’t wait to dive back in and continue perfecting my tanking skills to better progress into higher difficulties in search of new shinies and the ever-elusive hats. There’s something about the heavy reliance on melee combat that makes gameplay both incredibly visceral and highly rewarding. Not even the occasional server glitch (head-start was technically beta), or randomly getting dragged through walls, or ham-smashed by a Rat Ogre after already going down could spoil the fun.
In fact, the times when the game seemed to throw things at us that weren’t intended (read:unfair), or overwhelm us with non-stop RNG rolls for elites until we collapsed under the pressure are some of my favourite memories with Vermintide. Truth be told, none of the groups I played in were saddened or frustrated by our losses, but instead humoured by the ridiculousness of them.
Vermintide is the best kind of game, then; the kind where whimsy dictates the events, but personal skill influences the outcome. Looking at the overwhelming number of my Steam friends that are currently playing, I can see already that Vermintide will quickly become the next title that everyone’s friends will be playing. Having spent a week with it, and having seen the dedication of the team over at Fatshark, I can absolutely understand why; Vermintide is the first real must-have title in this year’s fall lineup.