Rats are not fun. Rat men less so. Fighting off brutal hordes of insane rat creatures with a team of quirky fantasy archetypes? Getting better.
Vermintide is developer Fatshark’s attempt to do justice to the Warhammer fantasy license using a Left 4 Dead blueprint. And I do not make that comparison lightly, as Vermintide is nearly identical to Valve’s four-player zombie shooter. You will fight off hordes at random intervals, have characters exchange witty remarks in place of a detailed story and replay the same few missions with scenarios that respond to player progression. Vermintide’s loot system and predominant use of melee combat helps set it apart somewhat, but, even so, it is an excellent imitation, even if it lacks the true qualities of it’s progenitor. This is due in no small part to the failure of it’s more ambitious elements.
Players can choose between five heroes of varying race and skill to embark on a total of thirteen missions, where you assist in a rag tag defence against a viscous Skaven incursion. The characters in Vermintide each fill vital roles and have some endearing personality traits that are developed through short interactions during missions. Any veterans of the tabletop Warhammer game will be familiar with the diverse choices: a traumatized empire soldier who handles crowd control and armour-piercing weapons; a cheerful dwarf ranger who acts as the heavy hitter against single targets and has access to exotic firearms; a wonderfully pious inquisitor who can fire off a flurry of shots from handguns; an elderly wizard pyromaniac that can explode if she overindulges in her powers and a wood-elf that nobody likes. Each comes with custom weapons, head gear and trinkets which can be unlocked with collectible dice.
I felt most at home with the soldier and the Inquisitor, both because I loved their abilities, but also because of an uncontrollable need for snazzy hat-wear. I found all of the choices to be excellently realised, with stellar voicing acting and a masterfully crafted set of character models that are some of the finest I’ve ever seen. Don’t believe me? Two words: moustache physics. There is one black sheep of the family however, the wood-elf. She spends most of her time insulting everyone humourlessly, stealing ammunition desperately needed by more useful players and enjoys ruining everyone’s fun. This is in fact accurate to the lore, but she often feels slightly wasted in the roster.
The Skaven are the real stars of the show, a brutal race of insane ratmen who have a concerning lust for bells. The Skaven are wonderful, disgusting, cowardly and huge fun to squish. But confidence is a warrior’s worst enemy. The Skaven’s special trait is their seemingly innate ability to create a variety of bizarre contraptions and monsters that are fuelled by warpstone. In your travels you will be reduced to mince thanks to the minigun wielding ratling gunner, choked to death by the foulest stink bomb in the universe, courtesy of the gas mask wearing globadier, shanked by the stealth gutter-runner and choked by the elusive pack master. And that’s if your lucky.
For the more unfortunate, the prize at the end of an exhausting fight is a visit from the rat ogre, a pile of muscle with one purpose, to demolish happiness and drink tears for sustenance. There is no room for a rebel in your group, as any weak link will cause nothing but misery. Players must keep close and communicate, choosing the best times to fight and the optimal time to run as fast as humanly possible. Patrols of heavily armoured rats are a real threat that cannot be underestimated, and so sometimes it is more important to avoid fights than to go looking for them.
Vermintide’s missions are a mixed bag to say the least. Around half of them are fun, frantic fights to the finish that give you glimpses into the rich history of the Warhammer world, and the other half are let down with some uninspired objectives. A fair amount of the latter ask you to collect a certain amount of gunpowder or food and then run the supplies back to a cart. They are short, uninteresting and feel too much like filler material. The best of the best missions take you through multistage objectives and environments, with intermittent dramatic set-pieces. A particularly thrilling example of this is a raid on a wizard’s home, where the environment becomes increasingly more psychedelic and changes based on your chosen character’s perspective. More like that please Fatshark, and less grain hauling.
After completing all missions available, it is very unlikely that you will have come even close to unlocking the best equipment. Vermintide is a loot-based game, in that there is a wide selection of weapons and upgrades to give your character, but most of it is randomly generated. Interestingly, this is not done during missions but is instead relegated to post-match dice rolls. Finding tomes or the dangerous grimoire which removes around 45% of a players health while held, will all provide extra dice that provide a higher chance of gaining more powerful loot rewards. At first, I enjoyed the system, but as matches became harder and required more effort on my part, I started to lose confidence. The biggest issue here is that getting something good is never guaranteed, and worse still, you can get a number of rare items for characters that you may never even use. It’s heartbreaking to finish a mission by the skin of your teeth, only to have a dice roll wasted.
As rewards are only granted after the end of a mission and by levelling up, it can feel as though you are grinding for items with no guarantee of success, which is neither fun nor compelling. Weapons can be upgraded and combined to create new items, but this too feels slightly wasted, as there isn’t a great deal of player choice involved. Considering how hostile public servers can be to newer players, this inability to confidently advance can ruin the fun drastically.
Mission events respond to player actions, the more skilled the team the harder your plight becomes and if your group is comprised of enochlophobic pacifists with a penchant for suicidal acts of cowardice, then the rat men will show some uncharacteristic mercy. This is further altered by adjusting the difficulty setting, which can change the game quite dramatically. Whereas on the easy and normal modes a single player could very likely handle a horde by themselves, while on the other end of the challenge spectrum, Vermintide becomes a frantic game of survival.
Vermintide is by no means a casual experience, as being a melee centric game means that leaving a mission with brain damage, blood loss and a few uncomfortable paper cuts is considered a success. Players must dodge, block and choose which weapons and attacks are best fitting for a particular situation. This become even more complicated when the issue of armoured enemies comes into play, as the Stormvermin, the Skaven’s elite troops cannot be damaged by non armour piecing attacks unless they are hit with a headshot. Gun powder, crossbows and heavy weapons can all lay down a nasty smack down upon enemies, but a team without these tools is going to end up a bloodied pile of regret.
The combat is the centrepiece of Vermintide’s experience and, thankfully, it’s a blood-soaked adrenaline ride straight into hell, with a wealth of complimentary theatrical giblets for your enjoyment. Weapons tear the Skaven to quivering chunks, limbs fly carelessly through the air and blood explodes viscerally when a solid hit lands. Watching a crowd of vermin gracefully pirouette in different directions after a mighty swing of a Warhammer is a joy to behold. But maintaining an efficiency of murder cannot be done with a simple flurry of wild swings, as the rat men have an annoying habit of trying to hit back.
Blocking is vital for keeping all that precious life goo inside of your frail mortal frame, but hiding behind a shield is by no means a solution to all of those stabbing-related problems. Blocking and pushing enemies away requires stamina; the amount of which you have at your disposal changes based on the weapon type that you have equipped. A sword and shield will be able to take some punishment, but a rapier will only afford you a few hits before your guard drops and your character becomes stunned. In my best sessions, I found that shield-wielding players would form a miniature wall, which would then protect vulnerable players against the brunt of a charge and kept the horde at bay with frequent shoves. When it all comes together, Vermintide’s frantic punchups are some of the best out there.
Technically, Vermintide is not a completely stable experience. Often the game would not only crash, but cause my entire computer to shut down. Serious system errors occurred once or twice, but the most common issue was the fact that the game seems to have a dysfunctional relationship with Steam. Every third or fourth match my connection to the service would be disconnected, even while offline with bots. It was a frustrating issue in which I lost considerable amount of progress and patience. Occasionally, after a particularly unwelcome shutdown, I had to pull myself away and have a minor tantrum in retaliation.
Vermintide is also a fairly significant hardware hog, and will eat frame rates for breakfast. On my fairly beefy machine I struggled to reach just over 45 frames per second on average with the settings at their fullest, but it should be noted that this is an improvement from my beta experience where sub-20 FPS was fairly common. It might be best to hold off on a purchase until the bugs are fixed, as these issues seem to be fairly common throughout the community.
Visually, Vermintide is a definite treat. It is without a doubt the best representation of the Warhammer fantasy world currently in the industry. German expressionist architecture, grim fantasy tale characters and meticulously crafted weapons are all collected together in a striking and unique pallet which stands out from the crowd. Never too realistic or overly cartoonish, it’s obvious that Fatshark spent a great deal of time studying the iconic Warhammer artwork. The animation quality is also superb and puts most triple-A titles to shame. The Skaven cower in fear, grab at missing limbs or scamper about mischievously; every character has a unique movement style and design that perfectly mimics the source material.
Vermintide is an experience for any multiplayer lover, and not just for avid Warhammer fans. The frantic co-op fun and wealth of customisation provides a much longer shelf life than most games in the same vein, and the joy of experiencing a fully released Warhammer world will only enhance the entertainment for established fans of the series. The technical issues and the less-than stellar loot system however are hard to look past, as both have negative impacts on the game as a whole. But both of these issues can be fixed, and if done so, Vermintide will be a must-have title for anyone looking to crack a few skulls with their best friends.
Survive as a team, die to bugs
Vermintide is successful in crafting rewarding co-op fun, but the weak loot system and technical errors sour the experience.