Four Heroes. Around a thousand enemies. One of the most satisfying co-operative experiences of the year. Vermintide 2 is a blast of a game.
Fatshark Games did an excellent job with the first Vermintide. Modelled on Valve’s Left 4 Dead series, it saw the action transplanted to Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy universe. Rather than a horde of Zombies, the game featured the swarm of Skaven. These Human sized Ratmen provided a welcome change to the then ubiquitous undead menace of games, while the setting provided a gothic and fantastical environment to venture through. Focussing heavily on Melee combat and gathering loot, the game saw players choose from one of five distinct Characters and form a team of four to fight through enemy filled levels.
Vermintide 2 is more of the same and yet so much better.
The game opens with a guided tutorial on the base mechanics, introducing each of the five Characters, the villains and the story for the game. Probably a lot more story than was required for this hack and slash experience actually. This effort extends out to the rest of the game, with all of the characters having surprisingly charming dialogue for almost all interactions. These five characters are friends in that very dry British comedy style, where they mock and banter as the action continues. In the best stylings of that tradition though, the heart and soul of this friendship appears when Characters are near death/rescued from unconsciousness as they change tone to a much more sympathetic range.
It’s a depth of writing that extends to the design for the world as well. Obviously, it is heavily drawn from the Old World Warhammer setting, but the realisation is superb. Cities and settlements are gothic warrens of stone and wood. Forests are ancient and mysterious, with elven ruins and bandit camps. There’s a great deal of stock put in vertical travel, with one very memorable sequence requiring the players to navigate a winding series of platforms down a cavern, while dealing with enemies trying to throw them off. Credit must go to the lighting team, as there are some captivating god rays and fog effects in almost all the above ground levels, or bursts of light from torches piercing the gloom of the underground.
In terms of gameplay, the first title was an embodiment of the phrase “Euro-jank”. Focussed heavily on first person melee combat, the gameplay of blocks, swings and dodges were slightly let down by the clumsiness and lack of depth in the controls.
In the sequel, everything has been tightened up. Thanks to a wide variety of weapons (50+), that same core gameplay feels like it has a significant deal more variety. Now, learning how each weapon swings is part of the dance. Knowing when is safe to block and when it’s required to dodge. For instance, I spent the vast amount of my time playing the elf, Kerillian. She starts with a shortsword and bow. The sword had a short range, with the moves being made up of a few short feeling horizontal or vertical swings.
Early on I had to focus heavily on dispatching enemies at range, with my shortsword really only being truly useful to support allies in close quarters.
Kerillian wasn’t weak, but she wasn’t strictly suited to horde fighting or group combat in the same style as the greatsword wielding human soldier Kruber or the axe wielding dwarf Bardin.
After a couple of levels, I unlocked a Spear. That’s when things changed dramatically.
Instead of hanging back, this spear allowed me to lunge and jab at the horde, or swing it in great sweeps across several enemies. Now, my Kerillian became an aggro drawing front line fighter. By dodging around the horde and keeping them literally at arm’s length, my allies could bring their damage to bear without having to worry about covering me as I fired arrows.
Each of the Characters can get several different styles of weapons, with even the difference between a hammer and an axe shaping a differing approach to the combat. This is important as different weapons have differing effects on the fight. Some weapons have the ability to cleave through multiple enemies, some pierce shields and armour, some can put poison or stun effects onto bigger opponents.
That variety of enemies is also key to why Vermintide 2 feels so enjoyable to play. Again, it borrows from Left 4 Dead, but there’s some welcome evolution going on. There’s two factions of enemies. The familiar Ratmen of the Skaven and the new Chaos Marauders. Both races have a shared group of basic enemy styles. You’ve got unarmoured/armoured/shielded fighters and berserkers in both flavours. The variety within the horde helps to keep the combat flowing, as most weapons will bounce off shields and armour. It has the effect of forming a hard centre within a squishy horde of a shell for the player to deal with.
There’s several special enemies as well to keep players on their toes. Skaven packmasters drag a player away from their friends with nasty hooks. Gutter Runners pounce from above and deal massive damage as they pin an opponent. Gun Rats and Poison Globadiers carry portable flamethrowers and miniguns or throw clouds of noxious gas that make portions of the map impassable until the offending rat is dead.
Left 4 Dead’s Tank is completely redesigned and now comes in Chaos Troll/Rat Ogre/Chaos Spawn and Stormfiend flavours.
Of those, the Troll regenerates health, the Spawn will literally pick up and gnaw at characters and the Stormfiend is a behemoth of armour and magic weapons. It lays down streams of green flame on the ground, with it’s unarmoured back being the only true way to hurt it.
If all of the above sound chaotic and wild, that’s because they are. The horde comes with so much variety that minute to minute combat can vary wildly.
Beyond that the chaos faction gives rise to a Sorceror and Chaos Warriors. The former is a bilious magic user that generates a tornado of warp energy. This gathers every enemy and player it touches before throwing them across the map, leaving them stunned. It’s disorienting and wonderfully designed.
The absolute best thing about Vermintide 2 is the Chaos Warrior though. A literal walking tank, encased in thick armour. The Warrior can only be injured with charged attacks or headshots, while they send characters flying with huge swings. Every time one appears, the tension is palpable. Trying to manage the horde while keeping an eye on the everpresent threat of the Warrior as it strides through the battlefield is a compelling experience.
But aside from the fun level design and deeply enjoyable combat, there’s a loot based point to all this Skaven Slaying.
Completing levels generates loot in the form of gear for characters. The first Vermintide also had some serious problems in terms of explaining how loot worked for the characters. Here, everything seems much more straightforward. Every time the player completes a mission, they’ll get a lootbox.
This lootbox will contain improved gear for whichever character is used to open it. The benefits to this is that it’s easy to stockpile gear to quickly benefit other less used characters.
The gear within the lootbox can be improved even further by completing several additional challenges within the mission. Playing on a higher difficulty will give better gear Sometimes Skaven lootrats will carry a collectible loot die, which will improve the final result. Each level also features three “tomes”. These will replace a characters health collectible, but provide a risk/reward trade-off. Expanding further on this, each level has two “grimoires”. These not only fill the power up potion slot, but each one will remove a third of the whole teams health.
Even on the easiest difficulty, this can be a tall challenge as players have to weigh the balance of their greed, versus potentially never completing the level. It makes replayability and learning the levels into a key element of the game, while the AI director and variety of enemies ensure there’s some variety to the combat.
With thirteen levels, each taking around half an hour on even the easiest difficulty, there’s a significant amount of game to get through here. The variety of opponents and surprising difficulty leaves Vermintide almost always right on the cusp of being overwhelming. Every fight feels tough, yet not unbeatable. This leaves each temporary victory in Vermintide with a real sense of being earned, even if there’s always more horde to fight.