Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC
Reviewed On: PC
Review code supplied free of charge by the publisher.
Let me preface this review by stating that I didn’t play the first Vermintide game. I had a few chums slicing and dicing the Skaven hordes, but I never found the time to pick up the Left 4 Dead style game set in the Warhammer universe for myself, so this review of the sequel is coming from the perspective of a new player wondering what all the fuss is about. Thankfully you don’t need to have played the first game to have an absolute blast with Vermintide 2; all you need is a desire to shatter some skulls.
So here’s the general idea; you pick from one of five characters and then team up with three other folks to scoot through levels that are positively overflowing with rat creatures known as the Skaven and humans who have been corrupted by the forces of Chaos. You work together, you kill a lot of stuff, you drink in the sights, kill some more stuff and then get the loot before repeating it all over again, all at a fairly low price.
Out of the (digital) box you get thirteen levels, but make no mistake this is not a story-driven game. Sure, there’s context for why you’re sprinting through the lovely looking environments, but to the game’s credit it doesn’t even attempt to pretend to have a strong narrative focus, instead concentrating solely on its first-person hack ‘n slash gameplay as well as strong level design to keep you invested.
No, the lack of a story isn’t something that I view as a serious issue, but what is disappointing are the characters. You’ve got the fiery mage Sienna who worships the flames, the slightly Scottish sounding Elf who bloody insists on calling everyone mayflies every five seconds, the nasally Victor who you can practically imagine having an upper lip so stiff it could be used as a quarterstaff, Bardin the Dwarf and Markus the Mercenary. It’s a ragtag bunch and the dialogue between them during missions aims for the kind of sharp, harsh verbal insults that mask a group who trust and love each other in their own ways. In practice, though, the dialogue is grueling to listen to and gets repeated over and over until it drives you insane.
So, no, story and character are not why you play. Like any true Warhammer title the appeal is bloodthirsty battle. Basically, it’s a giant massacre from point A to point B as enemies in the hundreds throw themselves at your group at the behest of an A.I. director who randomizes initial enemy placements as well as boss encounters. This A.I.’s most important job, though, is that when it thinks things just aren’t chaotic enough it tosses in a horde whereupon a mind-blowing amount of enemies will suddenly pour into the map, leaving you and your chums to curse whatever gods happen to be in the vicinity as you slash through foes by the dozen, watching limbs fly in every direction. Sometimes they’re even still attached to the corpses. Sometimes.
The strength of the combat is what carries the entire game which is massively impressive given how first-person fighting using melee weapons is often awkward. At first glance it seems like nothing more than mashing the left-click like a lunatic, reveling in the satisfyingly solid thud that weapons make as they interact with the equally satisfying physics of the hordes of enemies. Limbs are lopped off, heads are removed from bodies and blood is absolutely everywhere. If you love hacking and slashing your way through hundreds of enemies then Vermindtide 2 is very much for you.
But there is more than just hammering away on the left click, especially against some of the foes you come across such as the armored Chaos Warriors, the Black Rats and the giant boss beasts that want to tear your face off and feed it to you. By tapping the spacebar you can dodge out of the way of incoming attacks, but dodging repeatedly quickly reduces its effectiveness. Blocking, meanwhile, by holding the right mouse button, is capable of stopping incoming strikes from all directions but is limited by stamina as represented by shields on your HUD. These shields recharge, so like dodging blocking incoming attacks in quick succession will leave you struggling. Finally, while blocking you can spend some of your stamina to shove foes backward in order to clear some space.
While it’s not a complex system of mechanics that govern combat there’s still some depth and nuance to it all. Knowing when to dodge or block, the strike range of your weapons and what spots to aim for are all key, especially as you start playing the harder difficulties. Different weapons have their own strengths and weaknesses, too, some being better at controlling crowds, others being the smarter choice for lopping off heads.
This all assumes you’re slicing up the hordes using a melee weapon. Each of the five characters has a ranged weapon as well, like Sienna’s firey staff or Markus’ blunderbuss. Again, there are a few weapon types that switch up what you can; Sienna can wield a staff that unleashes an accurate stream of firey death, for example, while a different staff acts like a flamethrower which is superb for handling those irksome hordes. Interestingly on Champion difficulty and above friendly fire is turned on, but only for ranged weapons, so you need to be careful about where you’re aiming that bow.
To get your hands on new gear you need to successfully complete levels in order to get loot crates, each one granting you three new items, a system which is so far free of any microtransactions but does seem worryingly designed for them, so the cynical part of me can’t help but wonder if microtransactions will be added later on. Just finishing a level only grants you the most basic of chests, though, so in a clever system you need to do a few more things to level the chest up; playing quickplay is one way, a smart method to encourage people to meet new folk rather than just sticking with their friends all of the time. Collecting tomes is another, with each book taking up the slot normally reserved for healing potions, thus stopping you from carrying healing items with you. Grimoires are another collectible, and these decrease the entire team’s maximum health by a fair chunk. Grab both Grimoires and you’ll be left with very little health to work with, turning the rest of the level into a tense dash for the finish. I always enjoy discussing whether or not to grab the Grimoires as well as the tomes.
The loot itself is solid but not overly exciting compared to other games. Whenever you pop a box and get a new weapon type it’s a great, especially if you find an exotic, but most of the time what you get is the exact same piece of gear that has 97 power instead of 95. It doesn’t help that out of the five equipment types three of them are just rings, necklaces and a bauble that carry over from character to character. On the one hand, these help you quickly raise the power level of any new character you decide to try out and therefore cuts down the grind, but on the other hand getting new baubles in chests is about exciting as buying a pack of Skittles at your local supermarket. I mean, yeah, it’s nice, but not exactly the highlight of your day.
I mentioned the power level of gear, so let’s try to tackle that. Essentially all the loot that you have equipped increases your character’s total power level. Now, understanding the exact relationship between your total power and your weapon’s power level and your various other is rather awkward as the game keeps the details under wraps, but in essence, the two numbers determine damage output, the distance you can shove enemies back and more. The game seems determined to hide all of its stats, though, so you never know the exact critical chance your sword has, or your precise attack speed or anything. It’s a weirdly ambiguous system. I’ll be watching with interest for the inevitable breakdown of how it all works by the dedicated community.
Your power level also determines what difficulty you need to play at if you want to get new gear that bumps up your power level. Standard recruit difficulty will only include chests with a maximum power level of 100, while Veteran will grant gear up to a level of 200. It’s an intriguing way of handling things, though it does mean inviting your high-level friend to your low-level game means they probably aren’t going to get anything useful out of it.
Outside of your power level your character also ranks up as they earn experience, with a new talent point being granted every 5 levels until you hit the max of 30, letting you pick a total six perks out of the eighteen available. However, mixing this up is the fact that each character has three “careers” to choose from, each one providing a different set of skills while also altering abilities fairly dramatically. Again, you’ve got to grind a bit to get access to these new careers, but they do help breath extra life into the characters.
Going back to the gear for a minute all the stuff you get that you don’t want or need can be tossed into the forge where you can use the awkward interface to melt it down for scrap and other materials which you can then use to craft new weapons and gear or upgrade existing stuff. While you don’t amass a bunch of extra crap like you do in other games it’s nice to have a system where it can be used for something.
To call it a pretty game doesn’t feel right; the ruined cities, green glows of chaos and scuttling rats aren’t what you would call pretty in the traditional sense of the word, but it’s all rendered in wonderful levels of detail that drastically increase the immersion This is Warhammer brought to life in all of its grim, grimy and gritty glory. Despite the horror of the situations, including rooms full of bodies where the combined forces of the Skaven and Chaos have clearly spent time indulging in their vices, there are some stunning vistas and great displays of lighting. It’s one of those games where I found myself hitting the screen capture button a lot more than I might normally.
The audio is strong as well with some great background music that includes pounding tribal drums that amplifies up the on-screen action brilliantly. This is support by good positional sound design as well as an emphasis on being able to hear some of the more dangerous enemy types amid the battle, meaning you can pinpoint threats and their location purely through audio cues which I love. And we’ve already covered the glorious sound of a blunt object popping a Skaven head. It’s spine-tinglingly pleasing.
Performance is rock-solid with a variety of graphical options letting you tweak the experience. On my GTX 1080, 16GB of RAM and Ryzen 1600 CPU I was easily holding well above 60fps with everything set to max at 1440p. There are a few drops here and there during the big hordes, but nothing serious.
So far I’ve got a lot of praise written in this review, so let’s get down to the game’s biggest negative which won’t be a massive surprise to anyone; repetition. No matter how pretty the game is or how satisfying it is to decapitate a foe with a huge swing there is no getting around the fact that every single level is basically hacking your way through hundreds, if not possibly thousands, of enemies, and on top of that replaying the thirteen levels over and over is expected. Heroic Deeds which offer bonus rewards in return for increasing difficulty and adding modifiers helps spice things up, but even then you’re still just slaughtering a lot of bad guys like normal.
There’s also not a lot to do during the endgame. Once you’ve blasted through the levels and gotten a character or two up to level 30 it can be hard to keep the passion going. Yes, the combat is superb and playing with friends is a big draw, but I’m not sure if that is going to be enough to keep me going back again and again.
Another big problem is that since there is no dedicated server if the host quits mid-game or loses connection for any reason then the entire team is thrown back to the main menu with all quest progress lost, no experience and no loot. Since quests take 20-40 minutes each losing all of that time with no reward can be infuriating. Mid-level saving would be much appreciated.
But hey! I am happy with the inclusion of A.I. controlled bots that can replace lost teammates or even be used to play the game solo if you like, though an Internet connection is still needed to play.
After sinking about 30-hours into the game since launch I can see why the first game did so well for itself. This is an impressively rendered version of Warhammer that delivers some of the most satisfying, gory first-person melee combat to ever grace a download. Yes, I’m worried about the game’s staying power and repetitive nature, two things which I can only assume the developers are going to attempt to tackle in the form of DLC, but the time I spent in Vermintide crushing skulls, battling Rat Ogres with friends and sometimes failing miserably with strangers was a complete pleasure. I’ve had fun every minute of my 30-hours of playtime, and I call that a win.