Missing out on Left 4 Dead is perhaps one of my biggest regrets. When it launched almost seven years ago, all I had was a PlayStation 3 and a clapped out PC to serve my gaming needs. At the time Left 4 Dead was simply unobtainable and would continue to taunt me the more my friends raved on about it. Finally, many years later, along comes Vermintide – an effective albeit unconventional remedy to my past gaming woes.
Set in the iconic fantasy world of Warhammer, this latest release from Swedish developer Fatshark taps into one of Games Workshop’s most divisive story arcs ever conceived.
The End Times, as it name suggests, is a recent event that shook the very foundations of the Warhammer world, obliterating entire factions while killing off some of its most revered icons. As fans of the tabletop battle game will know, this all-out annihilation would pave the way for GW’s newest product line dubbed the “Age of Sigmar”.
Still, many cling to the Warhammer that once was – a passion facilitated through the medium of video games. As the old miniatures and sourcebooks continue to vanish from store shelves, it is here that fans now turn to enact their Warhammer fantasies, albeit within a virtual space.
Compared to most of the Games Workshop adaptations we’ve seen over the years, Vermintide marks a complete change in direction. Where most studios seek to faithfully replicate the company’s various board game classics, Vermintide simply uses the Warhammer license as a backdrop. A canvas on which to paint Fatshark’s latest multiplayer experiment.
It all takes place within Ubersreik, a once great stronghold overrun by a maniacal swarm of ratmen known as the Skaven. Corrupted by the dark forces of Chaos, they fall upon the Empire in numbers untold, rising from sewers and the surrounding forest land to kill all in their path. Amidst this so-called “Vermintide” exists a ragtag band of survivors looking to expel the Skaven from their city’s walls.
These playable heroes include a dwarf ranger, elf waywatcher, empire soldier, bright wizard, and a witch hunter, each with their own unique gameplay traits. Although equally capable in both ranged and melee combat, they are separated in terms of available weaponry. By selecting one of these characters, players will be matched with up to three other survivors before being dropped into one of Vermintide’s thirteen missions.
Each one follows a pre-set scenario and can take anywhere from five minutes to half an hour to complete. Though they vary in terms of layout and location, they tend to use similar traits throughout. As players move from one area to the next, they’ll likely need to transport items to an objective marker, survive a few incoming waves, or destroy a certain Skaven contraption. Upon completing the last of these duties, you and team will have to make a beeline for the escape caravan.
As touched on before, where Warhammer is used to inspire the many settings and characters of Vermintide, it borrows heavily from elsewhere for its gameplay. Those who are familiar with Turtle Rock’s Left 4 Dead series will be able to pick out the similarities right away. Although having a four player focus isn’t exactly a dead giveaway, there’s a pacing and general vibe to Vermintide that feel majorly inspired.
This is mainly due to how enemies behave during missions. Although many will idly patrol each environment in groups of three of four, there will be set piece moments where dozens of Skaven scurry from the gutter to swarm players, attempting to flank them on every side. Much like Left 4 Dead, Vermintide also employs a roster of particularly nasty ratmen that can force players to divert their attention. For example, Gunners can mow down heroes if they remain exposed for too long whereas Globadiers will pollute small areas using their poison grenades. Throw in the stealthy Gutter Runners, armoured Stormvermin, and giant Rat Ogres, and you’ll sometimes forget that you’re not actually playing Left 4 Dead mod.
The only major difference here is weapons. In lieu of shotguns, sub machine guns, and assault rifles, you’ll charge into battle swinging one of many melee weapons. Whether that happens to be a sword and shield or greataxe, they all come tagged with the same basic functions. Where pressing the action button will trigger a regular blow, holding it will initiate a charged attack. Each weapon can also be used to block and even push enemies back when things become a bit too frantic.
Although skirmishes can often boil down to frenzied bouts of button bashing, there’s a certain viscerality and weight to each swing that keeps the game feeling fresh. Then there’s the presence of ranged weapons, allowing players to pick off targets from afar, as well as grenades that can wipe out small clusters in one go. These help to deliver a welcome change in pace, complemented by unpredictable enemy patterns and challenging objectives.
Another thing that will keep players coming back for more is Vermintide’s loot system. At the end of each successful mission, you have a chance to unlock rare items and equipment for your heroes. Of course, what you get completely depends on luck though Vermintide takes a slightly different approach. By gathering collectibles in the field, players can earn special dice that are pooled together during the endgame scoreboard. For each die that lands on a particular face, you’re reward will level up.
Although unique and involving, there are certainly drawbacks to this system. Not only are collectibles hard to find, the fact that you only get one weapon for each victory is far too stingy. Thankfully, there are options to make use of spare and unwanted items yet this reforging process is resource intensive, demanding five non-rare weapons for each semi-rare one it creates.
Niggling flaws aside, Vermintide is easily one of the most surprising games to launch this year. Although there’s a clear lack of originality, Fatshark has done a brilliant job in throwing together a patchwork of borrowed designs with its own previous work on games like War of the Roses. It’s got the makings of a sleeper hit and hopefully, with a few more refinements, can grow into the next multiplayer must-have.