We're whiffing the exhaust fumes of the dedicated co-op subset; Valve's seminal shared shambler splatterer Left4Dead, Overkill Software's riotous -- though recently contentious -- crim-sim, the marvelously malignant Nazi Zombie Army trilogy, underrated God Mode and so the list goes on. Who would of divined a Grimdark riff on would be a 2015 frontrunner for best in show?
Fatshark, in their first venture as self-publishers, sought out a deal with Games Workshop to take Warhammer Fantasy and sew a five character-strong first-person melee adventure into its dark heart.
The results are very favourable.
Favourable, but not entirely unexpected. Fatshark have toiled away at two very fine third-person melee games in recent years, War of the Roses and War of the Vikings. Both were highly competent and showcased a developer who largely *got* the simulacra of melee combat; War of the Roses and Vikings weren't bogged down with convoluted and unwieldy controls, and while neither sought to match the hugely successful Chivalry: Medieval Warfare in terms of fidelity, fighting felt good and solid and straightforward without ever diluting a sense of controlled purpose to each swing.
Were Vermintide beholden to a finicky combat regimen, it would be a different story. Instead, Fatshark's newest creation is aiming to be a sharp, tactical weapons-based brawler of sorts. Trading complexity for fluidity, they have largely succeeded, with a few caveats.
In the looming dread of a dying realm stands Ubersreik, a once proud imperial fortress city and now home to an infestation of formely-subterranean Skaven. Dark and desperate times call for daring measures, with a soldier, dwarf, bright wizard, wood elf and Witch hunter answering a desecrated city's cry for help. The five-strong cast are terrifically varied in look and feel, each strongly written and purveying a wry, valiant bombast. You might not think a game such as this would warrant the attention of strong characterisation, given its focus on co-operative multiplayer, but each of its protagonists feels fleshed out and robust, sporting an exuberant script and exceptional voice-acting.
Each character features their own class-specific weapon line, which includes both a primary and secondary weapon cache to fill out. The soldier, a world-weary military man, is a front-liner; wielding anything from a great hammer to a broadsword and shield. The wood elf -- a surprising favourite for me -- feels like some sort of Boadicean ninja, offering dervish-speed daggers and impressive archery skills. The witch hunter is a delight, thinning opponents with a rotation of saber and flintlock. There's little overlap beyond the basic requirement of surviving and striking.
Striking is, as expected, the core conceit in Vermintide. Speaking to that aforementioned fluidity, Vermintide's strength remains its ease of engagement. Primary weapons offer two attacks; lighter, faster attacks and heavier wind-ups modulated by length of a mouse click or held trigger. Blocking can be used not just for defense, but for crowd control in belting back mobs in dynamic shield-bashes. Of course, actual shields are the most devastating in slamming nearby attackers, but two-handed or double blades do an admirable job nevertheless.
Each character has a secondary projectile weapon, of which are just much fun to use as their bigger bladed counterparts. It offers a good dynamic, and I shan't suppress or douse the thrill of hacking through a front-line of tempestuous vermin, only to effortlessly draw a blunderbuss or crossbow and loose shot or bolt into inbound reinforcements.
That's where Vermintide triumphs. The relentless Grimdark ballet of carving, thinning and discharging. Utilising short-range dodging, air-quotes bad-arsing is the kind of feedback required, and wonderfully delivered. First-person melee is the hardest of things to achieve, and if there's one puzzling thing about giants such as Skyrim, it's that such popularity cannot be bred upon the back of its thin, paltry swordplay. Third-person perspectives will always have the benefit of greater animation visibility. Here? There's just enough heft and inertia to every swing and swipe to evoke weight and purpose. Vermintide isn't quite at the level of Chivalry, it very much stands as Zeno Clash's baroque fantasy-horror cousin. A vicious, intimate affair.
And what would all this loosing of arrow and letting of blood be without justification? Missions are selected in the Red Inn, a tavern-cum-hub for inventory, upgrading and choosing where and what to do next. Runs appear on a large map, multiplying after besting an initial clutch of adventures. What makes these missions so compelling is not so much the mission design -- most a riff on marauding to retrieve, to hold, to rescue -- but the levels themselves.
The Gothic architecture of Ubersreik and its perpetual envelopment by an unnatural nocturne is something special. Levels are complex but easy to navigate, often splintering into alleyways and culverts, passages and lanes. If it's not Vermintide's oppressive darkness, it's the depiction of a city three days shy of ruinous, Skaven-induced inferno. Teutonic vistas burn throughout, moated by putrid fog. I'm not a huge fantasy fan by any stretch, but the dedication to Games Workshop's vision is seductive. There's no random or procedural generation for levels themselves, but in keeping with the trend set by Left4Dead's AI director, enemy position, type and frequency of ambush is completely unique every time you play. You might encounter a few pack rats in the opening stage of a particular mission, but replay it and there might be a Stormvermin patrol or a gargantuan Rat Ogre attack within minutes of setting off through the darkened streets.
What sets Vermintide apart from a lot of other co-op games, beyond the obvious melee-focus, is an enemy that's highly mobile. The sense of hairy anticipation when a distant Skaven rallying horn blares is palpable, particularly as a fresh horde can come from anywhere and from any elevation. There's something special about banding close together and scanning the surroundings for the entry point of a mob. Enemy rats pour en masse into view and encroach at speed, often through sewer grates or crags with true verminous penchant. On anything other than easy, these moments can make or break a run, as unwary or untested players can get swamped and overrun in seconds. Further upsets at the hands of assassin rats, packmasters who drag characters into the shadows, ratling gunners and heavy melee fighters like the armoured Stormvermin and the Rat Ogre.
It's a good mix, and despite the conservative number of enemies types faced, the ennui was stayed by the sheer dance and carnage of each encounter. The randomised enemy placement and power kept returning to each locale somewhat invigorated. Maybe it's just feeling true to that oppressive loop of blood-letting that Games Workshop fans have been thriving on for years. The ever-present gruesome Grimdarkness, as was the case in Relic's sleeper masterpiece Warhammer 40K: Space Marine, helps keep the blade sharp and the will to use it keen. What else is there but to bathe in the blood of thine enemy?!
Vermintide lets a player bash anvils in addition to rat craniums, touting a forge and crafting element atop a conservative loot system. The loot system will seem particularly anaemic to players of ARPGs, but perhaps the more ascetic of Destiny folk might find its single randomised weapon reward after each mission less concerning. Duplicate arms can be forged together to create higher-tier weaponry, or smelted to harvest ingots of various qualities. These can be then fed into upgrading particular arms.
It's not a hugely complicated system, but therein lies the problem that many might have with the game. The randomised loot element means that you may receive a weapon that is specific to another class. Your soldier might receive a Dwarven crossbow. Your elf may very well receive a hammer. It's fine for completionists, but there's something to be said for receiving an item immediately equippable and upgradeable specific to the character you're currently playing. It might work in a game where the loot is much more readily available, but in Vermintide, the stingy weapon roll-out is a killer if the combat doesn't ameliorate the glacial arms distribution.
This is the big sticking point. Given that weapons and items aren't tied to specific missions, farming the first mission holds greater appeal than running up against the variables of later, harder stages. If you're not in it for the fun and atmosphere, and are looking to power up and kit out, then I'd hope never to play with you. But in all seriousness, this is an issue Fatshark needs to address. Either boost the XP farming to soften the blow after failing a mission, or add more to the loot table. I don't think it'd benefit from Diablo or Borderlands-level trinketry, but something beyond the three-volume tome collection within each level. As it stands, I don't mind the Thatcherite austerity in getting new weapons -- after all, I'm an unapologetic Lost Planet 2 fan and have received my fair share of emotes in its maligned fruit-machine unlock system -- but expanding or retooling the impetus to play different levels is sorely needed.
But loot grievances aside, I'm entirely taken by Fatshark's twisted, flea-bitten, gas-ridden romp. It's a harrowing catharsis, and like my 2015 frontrunner Helldivers, the failures are as thrilling as the victories. The bots can only take you so far, but as long as you've friends along or skin thicker than a Rat Ogre to deal with the witheringly toxic public match-ups, Ubersreik is a fine place to stand one's ground against the End Times.
Or die trying.
Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide is now available on PC and coming to consoles Q1, 2016.
Addendum: Most screenshots taken during pre-order beta, though for those playing along at home, it's pretty much the same graphical package in the full release.