I don’t tend to think about how many things I murder in a murder-related videogame. I just remove whatever obstacles are in the way and move on, in the time-honoured tradition of solving problems in action games. In co-op online stabber-shooter Warhammer: Vermintide 2, I’m unusually conscious of the body count. It is, if you’ll forgive a little early-90s melodrama, extreme. That’s just one reason why Vermintide 2 successfully escapes the shadow of ‘it’s just Left 4 Dead but with Games Workshop’ faint-praise damning that its predecessor stood within.
I have, for the record, zero remorse or guilt about how many dismembered ratman carcasses or lily-white, headless trunks of Chaos warriors I and my e’er-bragging comrades leave in our first-person, co-operative wake. It’s just that I really noticed how thick the streets ran with gore whenever we had survived another swarm of Skaven or onslaught of Northmen, which is really saying something given how expansive Vermintide’s maps can be.
‘Pretty’ probably isn’t the right terminology for a game whose aesthetic is large-scale slaughter as a war-torn fantasy world begins its final descent into Armageddon. ‘I hammered the screenshot key like there was no tomorrow’ isn’t as snappy, however.
It’s not like Vermintide 1 had suffered a particularly vicious beating from the ugly stick, but it could feel cramped and oppressively funneled. Vermintide 2 accomplishes the impressive trick of moving the walls (and ceilings) orders of magnitude further out while still being set up to coax its four players down a prescribed path. Yeah, there are not entirely infrequent moments where the assortments of elves, dwarfs, mages and Witch-hunters who make up its playable characters are futilely bunny-hopping or spinning on the spot in search of the one small wall or limb-strewn cul-de-sac that leads to the next part of the map. I will absolutely take that passingly-irritating trade-off for how gloriously dramatic the environments are though.
It really sells its particular apocalypse, which is to say the old Warhammer world (in Games Workshop’s own fiction, its dark-darker-darkest Tolkienscape has been recently destroyed and divisively replaced by something rather more cosmic) pitched as a rat’n’mutant-infested wasteland. I suspect, with some dour awareness of writing words that could end up on a bus stop somewhere, that this is the best-looking Warhammer game to date, what with its dead-world tour of shattered but still magnificent and towering High Elf ruins, sprawling cornfields and dark age cities on fire. These are, perhaps, all familiar sights from the fantasy pantheon, but V2 really bloody goes for it.
The dense forests have sunlight-flecked trees to make Dale Cooper swoon, the distant cityscapes remind me of Dishonored 2’s dramatic horizons (though there that comparison ends), and on several occasions I’ve been so smitten by the deadly-beautiful sight of rats swarming towards me across an impossibly wide swamp that I violate the cardinal rule of Left 4 Deadlikes – never split up the party. Or, at least, that’s my excuse for routinely being the most-murdered member of whatever party is unlucky enough to have me.
Glorious graphics or not, a sneering voice at the back of my head keeps trying to convince me that I shouldn’t enjoy Vermintide 2. Its debt to Left 4 Dead is so heavy, its success so much to do with the commercially unwise absence of a 2018-era sequel to Valve’s co-op zombie-basher, that part of me is constantly sniffing for cynicism even when it’s not there.
The levelling and crafting systems, meanwhile, are the cruftiest cruft since Crufts 2017 winner Miami the cocker spaniel gazed blankly at a sea of applauding faces and wondered when he’d get his next freeze-dried bull penis to gnaw upon. It does everything it can to tick loot box boxes while (thankfully) not actually having any microtransactions, turning its post-match buzz into a dull orgy of randomly-allocated minor gear boosts and using an overly-functional interface to turn unwanted items into building supplies for better ones.
On the one hand, it feels so needless – like a vote of no confidence against the ongoing entertainment of the core combat loops – but on the other it does function, even for me, as a spur to keep on playing even after I’ve seen every map and survived every boss and made my first, faltering steps into coping with the stunning but (potentially) satisfying cruelty of its harder difficulty settings. I dug Left 4 Dead and its sequel enormously, but it’s fair to say that, without ongoing novelty, I did drift away after a while, and, in the modern paradigm, unlocks are an effective antidote to that. If I get better stuff, I can survive tougher situations, my lizard-brain screeches at me, but auto-matchmaking and enemy scaling means that’s not really true.
Still, gear upgrades do go hand-in-hand with my own gradual improvement. It’s temptingly easy to scan V2 as a frenzied festival of spam, clobbering anything that moves with wild abandon and surviving more from attrition than skill, but its somewhat poorly-explained systems do blossom into something more tactical.
A vaguely Dark Soulsy block system is critical for instance, and requires actively refusing the temptation to just keep on twatting things with your blade, while effective communication with your team about the use of bombs, special abilities and healing can transform a messy wipe-out at the hands of a Rat Ogre or Bile Troll into bruised and battered just-about-survival. It’s definitely a game you improve at, in a more fundamental way than finding or making a sword that does +8% damage vs Chaos.
The aforementioned bosses, the hulking Rat Ogres, Bile Trolls, Stormfiends and more, I oddly found to be the least interesting part of the action. They work well in terms of flow, these titanic threats parachuted in to an already frenetic situation, but I thought their execution as massive hitpoint sponges with an excess of knockback attacks made fighting them twice as long as it needed to be, a slog often spent running grimly betwixt boss and whatever wall he’d hurled me into rather than seat-of-the-pants tension.
However, Matt told me he’d had a whale of a time watching his mates get sent flying by them, as people he knew well laboured and giggled and blamed and aligned, whereas billy no-mates here played predominantly with randoms. My unknown colleagues’ goal was the completion of the challenge, rather than having a laugh together, which made getting hurled thirty metres away for the ninetieth time a drag rather than a hoot. I guess cackling ‘oh you idiot’ at a stranger has a very different timbre than when said to a friend.
Me, I love the swarms. When a quiet street or tranquil glade suddenly seems to quake with the rumble of an oncoming storm, and then suddenly Skaven are everywhere, a sea of gruesomely balding fur, arterial-red eyes glinting and no quarter given no matter how high their rapidly-severed limbs are stacked. It’s a glorious nightmare, even if – forgive the pun – the chaos of it robs one of Warhammer’s most delightfully twisted races of any sense of being beyond ‘mad horde.’
The Left 4 Dead comparisons are absolute – like its predecessor, it borrows concepts like ‘the one that drags away a dawdling party member’ and ‘the one that sprays poison vomit everywhere’ and ‘the one that’s just, like, really really big’ wholesale from Valve’s game. But, to its credit, this feels how I would want a 2018 L4D to feel, in terms of scale and onslaught, rather than just going through the cloning motions with a Warhammer skin. It’s a heckuva sight, with disgustingly meaty slice’n’dice combat and sound design, and I feel the constant siren call to return to it in a way I did not with Vermintide the first.
The major dampener to that is the characters. Left 4 Dead rightfully spawned a thousand memes and Deviant Art pages, and V2 ties hard to plough a similar furrow of bickering opposites who love each other really. It does land a few blows, like the imperious Witch Hunter whose pinched nostrils and sky-high septum you can practically hear, and I’ll never object to the Twin Peaks reference in the mage’s ‘Flame, walk with me’ but most of it is depressingly banal.
There are characters whose endless pitter-patter of toothless put-downs I can’t even tell apart, while a potion-brewing NPC, back at the base where you worry about unlocks between missions, assaults you with a screenful of flabby lore every time you forget not to click on her. It’s not awful but it’s incidental at best, annoying at worst.
The characters are stuck in a bland Groundhog Day of mocking each other’s perceived lack of ability and admitting grudging respect, and it never really makes the crucial step of establishing a sense of – forgive me – fellowship between them. It’s a bit too much like competitive executives playing squash, but with exaggerated Northern English accents.
Importantly, it’s thin enough to be very easily ignored, which means I am free to, quite frankly, have a really good time inflicting an eye-watering degree of carnage. Vermintide 2 might be shameless about its inspiration, but, critically, it recreates it really, really well, at a spectacular scale. I can’t speak to whether I’ll still be showering the land with rat legs a few months from now, but I fully expect to happily spend the next few weeks, at least, knee-deep in the rodent dead.
Vermintide 2 is available now on Steam for £23/€28/$30.