Prepare for trouble and make it double, the End Times are still looming over the fantasy world of Warhammer, but this time it’s not just the Skaven you have to worry about, as Chaos have decided to make their presence felt as well. As their forces combine, a huge Skittergate is being opened to bring forth hordes of Norsca to flood into Helmgart and the rest of what remains of the Empire and Bretonnia.
As luck would have it, the five heroes from the first game have returned to fight back. Despite their valiant efforts in the first game, Ubersreik eventually fell to the Skaven threat and they were captured, but the Skittergate’s explosive initial failure frees them, letting them escape, reunite with their allies and fight to stop this combined threat. The five heroes are full of contrasting style and character, as they chatter mid-mission, mock and challenge each other, and call out enemies and items that you might need to know about.
Much like the original, it’s a four player co-op battler, which makes sense given that Left 4 Dead was one of the original’s main influences. All of this means that you can mix and match different groups of heroes while always having some mix of frontline tank-like brawlers and those that lean toward ranged support. The presence of class-based characters is a key difference from Left 4 Dead though, as is the way the game leans toward melee combat.
While all of the characters have ranged weapons of some description, and Sienna’s fire-based wizardry and Kerillian’s Elvish archery mean they’re better suited to the backlines, ammo can very easily and quickly run out. When the game decides to throw a horde of enemies at you whatever ammo your characters may have will be depleted sooner rather than later, and it’s at these points that they’ll be pulling out melee weapons and getting their hands dirty.
A mastery of melee is essential, in particular knowing how to block and parry incoming attacks to avoid taking damage, as well as being aware of where enemies are coming from while in the thick of the action. This is especially true when coming up against the tougher and larger enemies, where you might have to beat your way through shields, aim for the head, or flank them to avoid their attacks. There’s a great sense of weight to it all, despite the relative simplicity of having a standard attack, charged up heavy attack, and stamina-based blocking and push back.
The game’s individual missions are grouped together in three acts, four missions apiece that end in a gruelling boss battle with a named enemy character. Each mission can be quite happily played standalone and is lightly randomised by the AI Director (a boon for quick play and grinding loot), and you’re whisked back to your protected Keep by the Bridge of Shadows portal upon completion, but there’s a light narrative thread that runs through each act and you have to beat an act’s levels in order. It’s only once you’ve completed each act that the final mission to destroy the Skittergate opens up for you.
On the whole, the level design feels more refined and natural than I found the first game’s. Missions don’t drag on for too long, mix up environments nicely and with more wide open spaces where you can potentially avoid enemies – the opening of a farmstead level features a field of corn that hilariously makes it impossible for the Dwarf to see where he’s going. There’s also a nice balance between set piece encounters and randomised hordes to test your resolve, and the recurring special enemies that can come in to surprise and mix things up. One disappointment here is that the specials still lean heavily toward the Skaven side of things, with only a handful of Chaos additions like the Lifeleecher and Blightstormer with their magicks, and a couple of new larger Monsters to deal with such as the Chaos Spawn and Bile Troll.
New for the sequel are Careers, or sub-classes, which let you take a particular facet of each character and try to amplify it. Victor as a Witch Hunter Captain is geared toward team-based melee, with tagged enemies taking more damage and the triggered skill knocking back enemies and boosting allies for a few seconds, but switch to the Bounty Hunter and play with ranged weapons comes to the fore with guaranteed critical hits every 10 seconds, added ammunition and a career skill of a powerful piercing shot. The Zealot career then amplifies his damage the lower his health is and lets him charge straight into the fray.
The game’s progression is built for the long haul. By beating each of the main story’s missions at least once on Regular difficulty, you should just about be unlocking the third sub-class for one of the five characters. Getting to that point took a good 8 hours, including a handful of mission failures and repeated plays of earlier levels, and meant that I had exclusively played as the Witch Hunter. You won’t even be at the halfway point of the perk tree and will have only scratched the surface of the game’s loot system, which drops progressively stronger versions of a class’ weapons depending on the difficulty bracket you’re playing in. You’re only ever rewarded for your successes, with minimal XP gained and no loot if your party is wiped out. It’s a sting in the tail that can easily be a major turn off as you’re not making progress – another sting is if the host of a session leaves, which also sends you back to the start, despite allowing other players to drop-in and drop-out.
The difficulty that you bear is entirely up to you, and it shouldn’t take too many attempts before you start to make headway. You can pick a base difficulty level, but then amplify it further mid-mission by searching for special pick ups that take up inventory slots, reduce your maximum health, and so on. This boosts the strength and rarity of the randomised loot chest that you get at the end of the mission. It’s through this that you can keep your load out evolving and changing, as a more powerful two-handed sword replaces the flail you were using before and you switch to a crossbow from the brace of pistols, just from the core damage output. It will be a long time before you’re able to start min-maxing your characters or really feel the need to start putting your dismantled loot to use in the game’s crafting system.
One thing that should be improved before the game comes to console later this year is the user interface for character management. Playing with a gamepad on PC already works well and I actually prefer it for the melee combat to mouse and keyboard, but come the end of a mission and opening a chest, you have to click on the three items individually (a chore that should always have an “open all” option), while delving into the inventory and multi-layered crafting system is an obtuse series of pages even with a mouse.
Vermintide 2’s co-op battling is nice step forward over the original. It’s gruelling at times, and that can sap the fun out when you’re failing missions and not making progress, with the weighty combat, the additional sub-classes and a long and deep progression of difficulty and loot, there’s plenty here for those that want to be in for the long haul.