Developer - Fatshark
Publisher - Fatshark
Platform - PC
Price - £22.99, or £33.99 Collector's Edition - No in game micro-transactions to date or planned.
Genre: Co-Op Action, Horde-Survival
A cynical man may look upon Vermintide with contempt, dryly remarking that it is merely a skin swap for Valve's Left 4 Dead franchise. Certainly, Vermintide has quite clearly taken inspiration from the Valve franchise, and although most levels are well designed, the objectives within them are not anything new. However, Fatshark have created a beautifully grim depiction of 'The End Times' of the Warhammer Universe, populated by challenging hordes of Skaven (rat-men) and a brilliant melee focused combat system featuring five different, equally useful, classes. In almost all areas, Valve's formula has been improved, and the weighty, visceral, and chaotic close quarter struggles makes Vermintide an immensely fun experience.
Little time is wasted in introducing users to the Skaven, who are undoubtedly the game's stars, intent upon vanquishing the surface world of humanity as seas of their kind lay siege to Ubersreik, an already overrun Human town. A couple of Skaven, while annoying, present little challenge, slain by a few slashes of any weapon, and advancing upon the heroes in predictable patterns with attacks which are easily telegraphed. Behaviorally, these rats are little different to running zombies, and like the latter become major threats once their numbers increase. Hordes of rats will nimbly clamber up or down any obstacle between them and the survivors with impressive animation quality and speed, hissing and snarling insults as they do, and often surrounding players and engendering a chaotic, desperate response from the besieged. Dark blood splatters all over the screen, as steel severs limbs and a chorus of clangs signifies blades clashing against steel. Although at times hordes can be funneled into narrow corridors, making their numbers manageable, in an open field the Skaven will surround players, breaking tight formations apart, and invariably dealing significant damage.
Audio-visual feedback is one of the game's strong points, specific clangs signify blocked attacks and a window of opportunity to counter, and for the most part the Skaven limbs are believably torn from their bodies based upon the placement of a weapon's strike, although gravity will forget the odd foe, causing them to rocket across the screen from time to time. Pounding music signifies an oncoming skirmish, driving home a panicked feeling, while a basey heart will pound to show low health, as friendly characters worriedly cry out to each other to signify their condition. Despite the chaos of a heated skirmish, these clever cues aid situational awareness without the need to look at the HUD.
There are 5 classes to choose from, with parties comprising of 4 heroes in total. Each hero provides a specific, and equally valuable function, able to select from a number of different weapons, but only able to bring two to any given mission. The Dwarf Ranger has access to a shield, which can be used to push back enemies, encouraging him to lead the charge, enabling allies better at dealing with single enemies, such as a Hammer wielding Empire soldier or the bow/dagger wielding elf to shine, while the flaming mage can provide powerful area of effect support as the gun-touting witch hunter rapidly blasts through Skaven. The diverse character choices are welcome, and giving each a welcome degree of mechanical individuality, as does a solid amount of weapon choices for each class. Some weapons are slow but powerful, others fast but capable of targeting only single enemies while others still are somewhere in between. Each also has a standard quick attack, and a charged secondary ability, which is often capable of armour penetration but typically only targets one foe.
The varied attacks are necessary, thanks in large part to Vermintide's roster of special enemies. This is one area where a little more differentiation from the Left 4 Dead formula would have been welcome, as many of them behave very similarly to special infected. Gutter Runners act almost identically to Hunters, able to pounce upon a human character, and forcing another to knock the gutter runner away to save the targeted ally, while the powerful Rat Ogre is equivalent to Left 4 Dead's hulk, and the Globedier similar to the Spitter, throwing AoE poison from afar. Fortunately the other special skaven are different enough, the packmaster hooks a hero upon its spear, dragging them away from the other players and through the skaven horde, should they succeed in targeting the unwary, and Gunners spew waves of bullets from afar, requiring a quick repose. More interesting still is the Stormvermin, heavily armoured rats whose only weakness is their exposed heads. They can only be dealt with via armor piercing attacks, and otherwise behave like standard skaven. That said, they will occasionally travel in groups of four, in a marching formation, singing as they go. This gives a skilled team the chance to hide from them, allowing for the avoidance of an otherwise troublesome encounter, while the delightfully twisted gnarls of the Stormvermin adds a further layer of audio charm. During horde events, special Skaven can occur at any time, temporarily incapacitating the unfortunate, and therefore forcing unity amongst the players in order to deal with the threat quickly, enabling all four players to struggle past the Horde once more. As is the norm for the genre, the spawn rates of hordes, special enemies, and loot are all randomly generated through set levels. As a result, encounters can happen at any given moment, and always remain impressively natural.
A feature which sets Vermintide apart from its peers is an RNG loot system. At the culmination of each level, 7 dice are rolled and based upon the number of successes, varyingly powerful weapons are awarded. This adds a degree of persistence to the game world, encouraging players to attain increasingly powerful weapons, with a view towards then taking on more harder difficulty modes. Upgraded weapons are required, since even normal mode is challenging to the uninitiated, and traits such as increased stamina (which enable more shovebacks), and chances to instantly kill foes, provide significant assistance. Upon level completion, greater difficulties provide greater rewards. So to does finding Loot Die, which seem to be randomly scattered throughout levels, and Grimoires, of which there is a set amount. Grimoire's replace a character's healing slot, but upon being carried to a level's resolution, will change the 2/6 success rate of the standard die with a 4/6 chance. As with any chance based leveling system, some will be, or at least will feel that they are being, hard done by. Fortunately, junk weapons can be fused together to create new ones, making the system fair and in keeping with the dice rolling tradition of tabletop Warhammer games.
In sum, 13 levels are on offer, and for the most part they are each nicely designed. Graphically, every level is dark, but features some wonderful lighting effects and shadows which add to the dark character of the setting. Although most levels are dark, muddy affairs, some levels are set in the countryside or forests, and one charming level in a wizard's tower, with a gravity defying library. The game is at its best as the roster of heroes struggle through a level towards a clearly defined end goal, such as sounding a battle horn, or destroying a Skaven stronghold. These levels entail offer the aforementioned organically random Skaven spawns, as well as a panic event along the way. On the otherhand, some levels simply require the party to defend certain structures, or collect 8 explosive barrels to replenish the gunpowder supplies of the resistance. These levels feel much more static, and significantly less engaging overall, and on the harder difficulties keeping structures alive seems punishingly difficult.
Unfortunately, Vermintide is not without a few technical flaws at the time of this review. While I have not encountered this issue personally in my 10 hours with the game thus far, some members of my party have randomly dropped dead. The severs are also not currently up to the volume of players (nearly 20,000 as of my last login), and have consistently had to be taken down for emergency maintenance and upgrades, causing players to lose their progress on a given run. Those are likely short-term issues though, and the developers have made clear their intentions to better their servers, and admitted that they simply weren't anticipating the sheer numbers of the current player-base. Perhaps a more worrying long term issue is how the game deals with latency. Of course there is only so much a game can do to compensate for a poor connection, but given how satisfying it is to connect with a Skaven, when that feeling is lost due to lag, the game becomes noticeably worse. Certainly my Internet connection isn't ideal, but I have had numerous other players report similar issues during matches they have joined me in.
Added to this is the traditional issue of playing with randoms online; this is a title that certainly works best with friends communicating over voice chat, avoiding the ever-present scummery of the internet. Most players seem to be reasonable, but without voice chat the only means of communicating is through a text box. This is problematic because it forces your character to stop moving while the enemies plow on, therefore getting separated while trying to fight off a horde puts the loner in an untenable position, unable to warn their peers. This could have been fixed by implementing the system Valve used in Left 4 Dead, where holding down a key and dragging the mouse in one of eight directions enabled pre-determined commands to be spouted by a given character. Should other players not fulfill the other character slots, bots will fill the void, but their AI is lacking making this a poor alternative to actual people.
Nevertheless, in the grand scheme of things the issues that Vermintide suffers from generally teething at worse. For a very reasonable price, Fatshark are offering a heart-poundingly good co-op action game, set within the criminally underused Fantasy Warhammer Universe. It's aesthetically on point, gloriously chaotic, and comes with enough persistent content to keep people coming back for more, on a quest towards beating a level on the brutal nightmare difficulty setting. There is still some work to be done, and hopefully even more classes and levels will be on offer in the future, but as things stand this is one of 2015's most entertaining games without a shadow of a doubt, and one that I'll be playing for quite some time to come.