Impressions: Mordheim Early Access

Mordheim: City of the Damned has been on my radar since I first saw it at Gamescom earlier this year. An adaptation of one of Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy spin-offs, it’s a tactical game of skirmishing warbands in a chaos-stricken city. I’ve been poking around the city since Early Access began a few days ago and while the foundations are impressive, it’s not quite ready for an influx of new inhabitants.

Playing Mordheim: City of the Damned in its current state takes me back to my teen years. I wanted to play Warhammer Fantasy with a bunch of people who’d taken a shine to it, attracted to strategic formations and rat-folk even then, but I couldn’t afford an army of my own. I had the fourth edition with its starter set of plastic miniatures and that was my lot.

No army building, no choices, no chance. Left to skirmish with myself – as teenagers are wont to do – I quickly realised that I was missing out on just about everything that made Warhammer fun. The joy of wargaming, whether at squad or theatre level, is in the approach as well as the meeting. Planning is more important than pummelling and, particularly in a world of exceptional oddities like Warhammer, imprinting a personality on your forces is essential.

It’s why people care about the paintjob as well as the stats, and it’s why individual Space Marine Chapters, Chaos entities and Skaven clans matter. At the moment, Mordheim is all meeting and no management. There are extensive and useful tutorials, skirmishes against AI and unstable multiplayer battles. Customisable warbands and campaigns aren’t in place yet, which means you’ll mostly be stuck with consequence-free combat against underpowered AI forces.

To clarify, the AI itself isn’t underpowered – it seems capable enough already – but most of the opponents I’ve faced have fewer or less powerful units than I find in my preset selections of human and Skaven. At present, the skirmishes feel like a tutorial AFTER the tutorials, a place to put all that learning into practice.

All of this makes my early impressions of Mordheim much less enthusiastic than they might have been if I’d waited until a few updates were ready. Not because the game is broken – those apparently soon-to-be-fixed connection issues aside – but because the parts of the game I’m most interested in aren’t there yet. Such is Early Access.

The good news is that the current build plays like a beta rather than a shell. I won’t be revisiting particularly often until I can lead my own warband through a campaign but the meat of the combat and the maps is already nourishing. It’s missing the strategic side of man- and rat-management, but as a tactical skirmish game there’s a great deal to admire.

Lacking a connection to your creatures diminishes the pleasure of victory and the horror of failure, but there’s enough content to gain an appreciation of the inventive approach to turn-based movement and use of abilities. When moving into position, units run around the map as if they’re in an action game, able to explore within the limits that their movement points permit, but passing ‘borders’ causes those points to tick down. Using abilities takes points from a different reserve, whether the action is a basic melee attack, a reload or spellcasting, and jumping and climbing take a point from the movement pool immediately.

It’s a simple and well-designed system but I have a couple of quibbles. One relates to the interface, which has an inventory-like pop-up containing a character’s abilities. It’s a little daunting, not because of its layout, but because it isn’t immediately clear how one type of strike varies from another, or what the exact implications of a spell might be. All the information is available but I find myself scrabbling around for it.

Partly, that’s not an interface issue, it’s something that relates back to the skirmishes and pre-built warbands. I don’t have any connection to my troops, I haven’t witnessed or guided their progression, and I’m not entirely sure how powerful they are. Sure, it makes sense that the ogre is the best option for a frontal assault and that I should probably keep my archer out of harm’s way, but who should be soaking up damage and who should be dealing it? Which abilities are best used to soften up an enemy and which ones are best used to support an ally? The information is there but it’s in numbers and lists rather than being explicit in the world and characters.

That all adds to my second quibble, which is a feeling of detachment. Because these aren’t my units, I’m essentially borrowing them from a friend. I’ll go home to my plastic miniatures but while I’m in Mordheim’s world, in this early version, someone else is lending me a warband to use. Because it’s not mine, I don’t feel compelled to put in the work necessary to understand its finer qualities, or to develop any form of attachment. I think that’s what Mordheim needs, and should get in time, a sense of characters that develop and complement one another. There’s every reason to believe that as customisation is introduced, attachment will follow, and that the addition of campaigns will provide me with a reason to stick around and get to know everyone.

The foundations are in place. Maps are handsome, in a gloomy tentacles-sprouting-from-chimneys sort of way, and there are none of the camera catastrophes that can blight a game of this type. I chuckle every single time one of my Skaven fails to clamber down from a ledge and lands on its tail with a bump – every percentage chance is displayed as actions are taken so you can rage at the cruelty of the dice gods when they turn against you. There are crossed fingers and whispered prayers as well as planning, but units are fairly robust and won’t be taken out of action by a couple of incidents of misfortune.

Mordheim has all the ingredients to make a delicious feast but the current Early Access build is the tray of nibbles before even the starter is fully prepared. And as well as an overwrought food metaphor, it’s also a lot like my out-of-the-box Warhammer starter army all those years ago – doesn’t play well with others and requires some investment before it’ll be ready for battle.

34 Comments

  1. Penguin_Factory says:

    This sounds like something I might be interested in once it leaves early access.

  2. Loyal_Viggo says:

    Thanks, I appreciate your thoughts on this. My main concern is the ‘death-by-a-thousand-DLC-cuts’ that I’m expecting in the form of races, weapons etc that should be in the main release.

    Following from that, I may as well wait 1 year until the next steam sale means I can get the all inclusive bells and whistles edition for next to nothing.

    For now though, even though I love GW stuff I’m not purchasing.

    • Caelyn Ellis says:

      Yeah, considering that they don’t even have all the warbands from the base game, I’m a little concerned. I seriously don’t understand them launching without Witch Hunters.

    • bill says:

      imho on how they implement the DLC. As long as you can play against other factions that you don’t own, and they don’t nickel and dime you one weapons etc, it seems to make sense to charge for different factions. Most people won’t need to buy them all, only the one or two that they want to use.

      That said, I don’t know how much you can mix up different factions in one team, so I don’t know if it’ll make as much sense as something like Blood Bowl where you’re buying specific teams.

  3. unitled says:

    I can’t help but feel a little… disappointed this doesn’t follow the tabletop rules in the way Blood Bowl does. Up until they announced the Early Access I had assumed that’s what they were doing, so felt a little deflated they weren’t. I understand some concessions to how the game would play would have to be made, but knowing and loving the Mordheim system (I have the original rulebook on my shelf, I bought the game on the day of release) I don’t know why they couldn’t have cleaved a little more closely. Maybe it just doesn’t work as a computer game?

    Incidentally, one of my dream (PnP) RPG campaigns is to run WFRP in Mordheim. You recruit other treasure hunters, visit shady mob bosses to sell warpstone, try not to lose your mind and soul in the warped ruins… Maybe like Heart of Darkness for nerds.

    • GHudston says:

      What have they changed? I haven’t had a chance to play the early access yet (I’m waiting for it to be fleshed out a bit more) but I thought it was going to be a pretty close approximation of the tabletop game with it being turn based and full of die rolls and such…

      Hopefully it’s not too different, I can’t quite fathom why companies keep wildly altering video game adaptations of table top games like this when it’s abundantly clear that their entire fan base just want an exact copy with shiny graphics, animated units and online multiplayer.

      • Morph says:

        It’s nothing like the real rules. It’s sort of X-Com action points and has an initiative system rather than turn based. Even the warbands seemed a bit different from the tabletop game (at least they were in a video I saw)

      • aphazard1 says:

        See the first version of Full Control’s “Space Hulk” for why they change things. The first version was a pretty direct implementation of the table top game — and people bitched and whined about how “lifeless” it was and how it didn’t have X, Y, or Z thing that they had expected, etc. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I had read the devs’ discussion of their intentions and knew what to expect. I got what I expected and had a lot of fun, but that was not the general reaction. So now they have created a second version (with “Ascension” added to the title) that is much more of a “computer game inspired by the table top game” with many changes to mechanics, RPG elements, etc.

        Many people say they want a direct translation, just with nice graphics and maybe the computer doing some of the bookkeeping behind the scenes. But that is not what they really want, and they will complain loudly if they get it.

        • Volcanu says:

          Very true.

          I had the exact same thought re. the complaints about Space Hulk when I read the comment about people just wanting a virtual recreation of the tabletop game. It does feel like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for developers.

        • GHudston says:

          I do think that it’s more than possible to put together a 99% faithful version of a table top game without it being too lifeless. You’d have to remove some fiddly bits, sure, but it can be a bit of a “give them a foot and they’ll take a mile” situation where the devs get a bit overzealous, losing the spirit of the game in the process.

        • bill says:

          Maybe, but also Full Control didn’t really do much to overcome the “lifeless boardgame” issue. They could have done a lot more with things like first person cameras, animations, etc..

          I see what you mean, but at a counter-example, the real-time mode in Blood Bowl appealed to no-one and they’re dropping it for the sequel.

          Personally, I don’t really get it when people keep releasing versions of popular strategy games that have different rules from the popular strategy games. We must have had a dozen different PC versions of Warhammer and 40k and each of them had their own rules that didn’t really capture the feel of playing the original.
          If you like and play the original game, then you want to play THAT game on PC, not a different game with the same skin.

    • thekelvingreen says:

      Me too. I scrabbled together some notes on WFRP-in-Mordheim a while ago but I didn’t do anything with them.

    • Chiron says:

      I feel that the game is the stronger for not slavishly following the rules of Mordheim, its a lot more complicated than Blood Bowl for one thing.

      Agreed with the initial impressions though, an entree rather than a main course at the moment but I like what I see so far, I am very impressed by the city.

  4. Dingbatwhirr says:

    This is looking very promising, I must (tentatively) admit. Hopefully all of the problems here are just due to it being Early Access. They certainly sound like they might well be.

    If this turns out well, what I would really love is a Necromunda game. Loved the idea of it as a kid (though I never owned any of the miniatures) and still like the setting. Maybe as an X-Com style turn based thingy? Too much to ask for? Probably…

    • unitled says:

      Necromunda was certainly the game I played most as a kid. Having a very small band meant you got really attached to every single one, and it did have a certain magic that Mordheim failed to recreate. The rules were certainly ‘quirky’ though, we house ruled a few of the exceptionally odd ones (like when a heavy rolled a melee advance, urgh) and the game morphed into a crafted, shared experience between my friends and me.

      • Alamech says:

        “Necromunda (…) did have a certain magic that Mordheim failed to recreate.”
        I feel the same, Mordheim always seemed less coherent, less believable to me. In Necromunda you played a group of people who were enclosed in their enviroment, with no chance to live in any other way; to me that also gave them a wider range in imaginated personality. In Mordheim, your group necessarily consisted of ‘adventurers’, choosing to dive into a city of chaos for ‘phat loot’.
        And it looked like a half-arsed money grab to me, but maybe that’s not fair, maybe I mostly disliked the square bases of the models (how unfitting for a squad based game!) and I was growing tired of GW and its pricing policy.
        Well, I hope the game will be good (and maybe not a dlc hell? … improbable) and I hope Necromunda will become a videogame too, once they ironed out the kinks in Mordheim.

  5. AshRolls says:

    This seems like an ideal game for some kind of Shadows of Mordors style ‘Nemesis’ system.

    • Rizlar says:

      With the chance of limb loss on critical injury I’m imagining Ahab crossed with The Black Knight.

  6. mattevansc3 says:

    I’m going to wait until they announce which races they they are launching with before putting any money down. Dwarfs were my favourite when I played though if they have a Bretonnnian warband I’d be well chuffed.

    • GHudston says:

      They already have: Human Mercenaries, Skaven Clan Eshin, Sisters of Sigmar and Cult of the Possessed. They haven’t made any promises about other races but I’d be shocked if they don’t add them as DLC down the road.

      • mattevansc3 says:

        There’s what they announced at the game’s reveal and then there’ll be what’s announced when the game goes gold. Those two won’t always be the same and the later will not always be the same or more than the prior ;-)

  7. Lobotomist says:

    I got it in early access because I really want to support this first and only simulation of actual warhammer miniature game. And didnt regret it.

  8. Josh W says:

    That movement system reminds me of another game, but I can’t remember for the life of me which one it is..

    • Chiron says:

      I’ve heard it likened to Valkyria Chronicles, but can’t confirm, not played it myself

  9. heyhellowhatsnew says:

    I think that’s why it’s called Early Access, so they can work on all of your complaints. How can you give an impression of this game when it came out like last week in Early Access. Christ. man alive. You’re writing this like it’s a review.

    • slerbal says:

      Because they are charging for it…

    • mattevansc3 says:

      Can you pay for the game and play it now? Yes. Therefore it warrants some form of review.

      Early access, like Kickstarter, is ripe for abuse and we’ve already seen it be abused with money taken for games that never get updated and then being pulled from Steam. There is no guarantee that these issues will be fixed, matchmaking may be appalling upon release, there may be issues relating to the persistent nature of your warband. It may only allow for global leaderboards and no option for you to create your own little campaign with a select group of friends. There may be no campaign mode or a narrative applied to the online game which is a fundamental part of the wargaming appeal, that you aren’t just playing a set of unconnected skirmishes, that as your wargroup grows so does their story, that rivalries and alliances can be reflected in your campaign, that actions can have larger repercussions.

      As it says on the store page;
      “This Early Access game is not complete and may or may not change further. If you are not excited to play this game in its current state, then you should wait to see if the game progresses further in development.”

      A person is paying for the game as is, they are being explicitly told NOT to buy the game for what it could be. An article like this is to tell you what the game is like this second so that you can make that choice as to whether the game is ready enough for you to play. I and many others do not want to pay for the privilege of being an alpha tester.

      • Premium User Badge

        Wisq says:

        Right, 100% this.

        There’s two things you need to remember about Early Access:

        Firstly, they’re charging for a product. You should only be buying that project under one of two conditions: Either [1] you (believe you’ll) like the game enough in its current state that it’s worth the money right here and now, or [2] you want to support them and help get the final game out, and you’d be okay with just taking that money outside and literally burning it and potentially getting nothing (worthwhile) in return. (That latter one is also the rule of thumb for “should I Kickstart this?”, BTW.)

        How will you know if [1] is true? Well, someone has to review it.

        Secondly, there are some developers who use Early Access as a “review shield” while having essentially released their game. That is, they’re charging full price, they’re touting their ostensibly complete feature list, and they’re releasing updates slowly enough that they may as well just be post-release patches for a finished game. Yet if someone gives them a negative review, they can play the Early Access card and say, “It’s not finished yet! You can’t judge us!”

        And so, someone needs to keep them honest. And that’s why we need reviews of Early Access games, so long as those reviews are clearly labelled as such and there’s a promise of a final review if/when the game goes final.

        (This is particularly relevant for Metacritic, since being in EA basically keeps you off there and makes it harder to spot a flop at a glance. Ideally, Metacritic would allow for pre-release reviews and then wipe the slate clean for the final reviews, the same way that e.g. the Apple iTunes store has separate reviews for each version of an app.)

  10. Caiman says:

    Early Access BASIC game impressions wizard!

    10 PRINT “Hello, welcome to the Early Access Game Impressions Wizard!”
    20 INPUT “What is the reviewer’s name?”; n$
    30 INPUT “And what Early Access game are you writing impressions for?”; g$
    40 PRINT “REVIEW! “; g$;” looks promising, but there’s too much missing right now, and we’ll have to wait until the full release to find out if it will be any good.”
    50 PRINT “Signed, “; n$
    60 INPUT “Review another Early Access game? Y/N”; a$
    70 IF a$=”Y” THEN GOTO 10
    80 IF a$=”N” THEN PRINT “Probably a wise choice!”

    • frymaster says:

      meh, there’s a difference between “critical features are not yet implemented but I can see the shape, jigsaw-like, which they should hopefully occupy” and “I don’t see how they’re going to make this work without a lot of redesign”

      • Premium User Badge

        Wisq says:

        In terms of raw design aspects, sure, like “does this combat system even work?”

        But on the technical side, we never get to see the code. It’s really easy for a game to fall into a trap whereby they’ve added n features, but adding feature n+1 — something they’ve been promising, something that really seems like it’d work as a game mechanic, something that’s really critical for final release — turns out to be a massive undertaking that they just can’t afford any more.

        Sometimes it’s because their architecture doesn’t support that feature (either because they misplanned, or because they hit some insurmountable hurdle with the way they intended to implement it), sometimes it’s just because they’ve reached the limit of what they can implement under the current engine.

        As such, no matter how promising a game may look right now, it’s still a huge gamble to buy it if you’re buying it based on expectations. If there’s some feature that the game won’t be complete and enjoyable without, better to hold out until they’ve got it figured out.

  11. MrFlakeOne says:

    I played Mordheim a lot and I really loved this game, modified models myself etc. so I think they should add customisation option.

  12. mattevansc3 says:

    Actually posted this in their community section because as a RPS regular and as a consumer they’ve done something that greatly annoys me. They’ve lied on their review section.

    Specifically they’ve put a quote from RPS under their “Review” section which is;
    “If I had a copy, this is the game I’d be playing right now”
    Rock, Paper, Shotgun

    Now technically Adam did say this…in his article about him seeing (not playing) the game at Gamescon. Unless there’s something in the Supporters section I’m unaware of (I’ll be joining once Christmas has been paid for) the closest RPS has done to a review is this article. This Impressions article is also a lot more downbeat than that Gamescon article and is saying its not ready yet and people should be wary about jumping on at this point in time.

    I know its a minor issue in the grand scheme of things but Early Access is about building trust in your audience. That trust just gets eroded away when a company misrepresents a quote from a reputable source, a source I enjoy reading, to mislead its target audience. Its the type of thing I expect from the likes of Activision or EA and I have no trust in them at all.

    Not just that it reflects on RPS. Adam is giving us his honest opinion that he doesn’t feel the game is ready. The devs on the other hand are making it appear that RPS is telling people to go out and buy this game now.

    • Rise / Run says:

      Hopefully people so swayed would also go and read the actual review to clarify. One liners are always lose something in the context. That said, I agree it’s pretty lame behavior.