Vermintide: taking the torch of Left 4 Dead from its cold, undead hands

vermintideleft4dead1

I’d wager most folk around these parts devoured Left 4 Dead back in the day, just as I did. Valve’s “28 Days Later with your friends” infected my life for a good year, and a bigger, better sequel one year later only strengthened the disease. But as Valve haven’t really been in the business of making games for a good few years – hopefully, that’s about to change – and while it felt like Left 4 Dead was going to change the world back in (oh no) 2008, for a long time nothing filled the rotten hole where my heart used to be.

That is, until Fatshark’s rowdy rat-smash, Vermintide. The four vs the world setup and the UI were highly reminiscent of Left 4 Dead, and what are Gutter Runners and Pack Masters if not reskinned Hunters and Smokers? But there was much more to that game than swapping out zombies for skaven. With both series now/still on their second games, let’s look at how Vermintide ran with the legacy of Left 4 Dead, while managing to forge its own identity.

I can think of worse starting points for your new game than Left 4 Dead. With the AI director working overtime behind the scenes, the action was always pitched at just the right intensity, keeping survivor parties on their toes through lulls in the action, and then signalling onslaughts with audio cues. Specialist infected types worked hard to separate the party, and lay in wait to punish those straying from the flock. Campaigns ramped up in intensity, leading to all-or-nothing finales. It was tense, it was hectic, and it was bloody fantastic.

vermintideleft4dead3

But it wasn’t perfect, and Vermintide’s genius is in capitalising on Left 4 Dead’s weakest areas rather than building on strengths. There are just so many ways to bash rats and rotters in the Reikland. Axes and swords might have made it into Left 4 Dead 2, but Vermintide manages to give them character – blocking values, swing speed, sweeps and smashes, there’s enough to give you that “I get it!” moment when you figure out a weapon’s strengths. Add to that a full RPG-lite tree of classes, combos, and abilities, and getting a team in sync with each other becomes an absolute joy.

Granted, the additions make Vermintide a far noisier game than Left 4 Dead ever was. That Valve level of clarity is often sorely missed. Left 4 Dead’s maps rarely allowed you to get lost, and each monster had such distinct silhouettes and barks that players were never in doubt about what was coming to mess them up. Meanwhile, a good chunk of Vermintide’s special monsters fit the “Rat holding a big gun” niche – although Chaos Warriors and full-on Boss fights mix things up at times, I’m largely waiting for a character to call out what we’re dealing with.

vermintideleft4dead2

There’s an attachment to your character on a level that I never felt in Left 4 Dead. We all had our favourites among the survivors, and in time they became sufficiently “meme’d” (pills here, anyone?). Gear, talents, and all that good Destiny-esque stuff certainly helps on some level – but even as far as personalities go, I might prefer the Ubersreik Five to our old gang of survivors. Listen, Zoe, I love you and your pals; but I’ll never tire of Kerillian’s passive aggressive derision, or how Satlzpyre’s every line-delivery lands. (Related: I was absolutely not prepared to hear the phrase “glaikit mayflies” in a videogame.)

Left 4 Dead’s B-movie horror aesthetic was fantastical – and for all it’s plot exposition, Vermintide’s environments don’t evoke the sort of stories one pictures in the empty hospital corridors of No Mercy. Despite continuity between then, each campaign’s real strength is largely in telling a distinct story of what happened in this particular zombie-ridden corner of America. It’s peak “environmental storytelling”, showered in graffiti and diorama corpses, but it worked.

vermintideleft4dead4

Vermintide 2 opts for a three-act plot, complete with opening crawls, returning characters, and an overall campaign finale – but it often feels more disconnected than tight, 4-mission campaigns. An emphasis on progression and quick-play means lots of players will be experiencing missions in a scattershot fashion. That said, the build up to ever-harder bosses and a stunning grand-finale makes going through the hoops an incredible experience.

Outside of beating stock campaigns on ever-harder difficulty, running out of sheer stuff to do was a concern in Left 4 Dead. Those first few hours were an absolute blast, but coming back was a hard sell at first – harder, if your personal apocalypse lacked mates. New campaigns came slowly, and while mutations – week-long challenges that ranged from “only headshots count” to “carry a garden gnome through the campaign” – were great for mixing up replays, Left 4 Dead had an ace up its sleeve.

It was incredibly easy to mod. The benefits of a community already a decade deep into Hammer, Valve’s proprietary level design software, can’t be understated. Finding new campaigns to push through with your pals extended Left 4 Dead’s life-cycle for years – particularly if you weren’t fussy about visual polish. And, as is usually the case when modders get involved, things got wild – Left 4 Dead 2 was a game where you can be a crack team of velociraptors taking down Shrek.

vermintideleft4dead5

Vermintide doesn’t compete on that front, but the sequel in particular is very much a videogame of the late-2010s, complete with progression systems, loot, and the boxes that contain loot. Again, it’s all a bit Destiny. I can’t argue that it doesn’t work (I’m an MMO child, numbers going up is my weakness), but it’s obviously a tool to pull you back for more.

Rumours of Left 4 Dead 3 crop up once or twice a year, and have done for the best part of a decade. But for as long as Valve aren’t exploring this particular avenue of cooperative play anymore, it’s great to see Fatshark picking up the slack. Vermintide has grown a strong identity all of its own – one that honours its roots in Valve’s zombie survival epic without being entirely beholden to the past.

27 Comments

  1. mlcarter815 says:

    I thought Left 4 Dead and the sequel were great, but I didn’t know people put that many hours into them.

    • RobinOttens says:

      For years it was the lunch time tradition at the game company I interned at, to play left 4 dead for about an hour with half the team.

    • wownk says:

      dozens of thousands of hours. every day. still one of steams top 50 most concurrently played games.

  2. iARDAs says:

    Should I buy this or should I buy “shower with your dad?”

  3. bigblack says:

    I put 1,000 hours into each L4D.

    Settings and character are important, and not in the least interchangeable as posited here. I like sci-fi and horror films. Keep your fucking elves and dwarves out of my shit.

    (Goes back to praying for L4D3-VR)

    • Gyro says:

      Well, don’t you sound entitled.

      • bigblack says:

        Welcome to RPS, Gyro, home of the entitled, where we have the gall to both say and ask for what we want, instead of what we’re told to like.

        Setting and character aren’t interchangeable. Vermintide has 4 player co-op, and that doesn’t make it the new Left4Dead anymore than Dying Light was, which was not at all.

        • BilboTheBaeBagginss says:

          That’s not the point at all. It’s not a new L4D just because it has 4 player co-op. You have clearly not played the game as the similarities are abundant. Obviously this game is not L4D3, which is why the “settings and characters” are different. However it is the same style of game, with a lot of incredibly similar mechanics. There’s a lot added in, and some taken out. But don’t pretend that your whining is gall. Play the game if you want to offer an opinion on it, otherwise this is just angry screeching.

          • bigblack says:

            First, here’s the rest of the definition of ‘gall’ for you:

            2.
            the contents of the gallbladder; bile (proverbial for its bitterness).
            synonyms: bitterness, resentment, rancor, bile, spleen, malice, spite, spitefulness, malignity, venom, vitriol, poison
            “scholarly gall was poured on this work”

            “You have clearly not played the game as the similarities are abundant.”
            “whining”
            “angry screeching”

            I own the first Vermintide, and I played the second over the free weekend.
            “So?”

            I wasn’t kidding about spending 1,000 hours each in both Left 4 Dead and its sequel, so yeah, I actually do think I have the “scholarly gall” to rant on this very specific and particular topic of Vermintide vs. Left 4 Dead, FOR DAYS, thanks. You’ll never read it, and of course you could never care, so I won’t waste either of our time writing the diatribe out.

            Suffice to say, I consider the aesthetics and setting of each franchise to be so different in design and feel that it really pushes my buttons to hear one has ‘taken the torch’ from the others’ hands, when I consider Vermintide totally inferior in every goddamned way. There won’t be a successor to Left 4 Dead until there’s a 4 player zombie game like it that is every bit as good, and Vermintide isn’t even close to being that, regardless of ripping off smoker and hunters etc.

          • vahnn says:

            @bigblack:

            Hey, Lord of Game Definitions, I can see why you want to make such clear distinctions, but you’re wrong. Vermintide IS basically L4D. Name another game using the same core gameplay loop (progress through a map to the exit point while fighting hordes of enemies and special monsters whose placement and appearance varies from game to game, frequent objectives requiring you to hold out against large enemy forces) with nearly identical control schemes (quite obvious) and gameplay mechanics (ranged weapons, melee weapons that allow you to block and push, a dedicated healing item slot, bombs, reviving downed teammates to a temporary health state, finding stashes of ammo and healing supplies, marking special targets)… There are more similarities. Just because the games differ in a few ways doesn’t mean one is not DIRECTLY inspired by the other to the point of copying the base aspects of the game. Sure, find of games do this but are distinctly different, especially in the FPS category, but this is a very specific style of game of which there are few examples except those being discussed.

            If you put guns in the hands of the characters from Vermintide and focused on ranged combat instead of melee and made them sound like modern day Americans, you’d have basically the same game. To deny that is to be pedantic.

            There’s another game that feels heavily inspired by Left 4 Dead but managed to make a truly unique experience from it: Payday.

            I love L4D (I have a new 500 hours combined between the two) and Vermintide. I respect their differences. But there are really more similarities than differences.

    • SaintAn says:

      Go back to PC Gamer.

    • Hoot says:

      It’s not “your shit”, though. The overall “format” of L4D belongs to no one and I don’t think anyone is arguing, outside of a metaphorical sense, that Vermintide has succeeded L4D to the exclusion of a possible L4D sequel. They aren’t even made by the same people.

      Across all media there has been a kind of “zombie apocalypse” fatigue over the last couple years. That’s because everyone and his brother jumped on the bandwagon. It has been done to death, to the point of people just chucking zombie modes in their games as standard.

      That’s why there hasn’t been a new L4D. Zombie fatigue.

      The good news is that the success of Vermintide and it’s sequel show that there is still a vested interest in a 4 player co-op survival format game and because it is so reminiscent of L4D many people, myself included, have had their interest in L4D reignited.

  4. haldolium says:

    I disagree mostly.

    Vermintide is the only franchise ever that took the L4D formula to another game successfully (unlike f.e. the millions of horrible Dark Souls inspired games) and Fatshark didn’t have half the resources Valve had already at L4D1.

    Another major difference is also that the focus shift from pewpew with meelee to meelee with ranged is a major thing. The combat system of Vermintide is a lot more complex as of any L4D title and, assumingly, a lot more difficult to do in every aspect, starting from proper satisfactory camera clipping to network code and everything in between. L4D was A LOT simpler on that front (basically, as in CS, all you ever wanted was either the autoshotgun or M4. Nothing else really mattered)

    The adaption of how the story is told isn’t nearly as good as in L4D, although “environment storytelling” from L4D never cought me especially either, only the dialogues were a lot better directed and less forced.

    Another thing, that might be more personal, is that L4D2 never got me as L4D1 did. Way too much “noise” there and I personally didn’t care too much for the Versus, which was the major point of it.
    V2 level design is also top notch in terms of guidance (with very few exceptions) while always making it seem like a huge world. It’s much better as V1.

    Valve games and to an extend most Blizzard games tend to have polishing to perfection which always makes them stand out. Yet Fatshark grabbed one of these and made it into their own with success.
    Many issues are still present (and obviously some really stupid things like forgetting the “2 lines of code” for testing…) but I still see Vermintide as a successful evolution based upon a very successful game franchise, that became it’s own and should not suffer this much comparison to the very first L4D.

    (since counting playtime wasn’t implemented back then or due to account changes I sadly have no idea how much L4D I played, but if I guess it would be close to 300h possibly)

    • adammtlx says:

      I think what I’ve found most impressive about Vermintide 2 (didn’t play the first) is how much subtlety there is to the combat that you must tease out through your own efforts. At first it’s just utter chaos and swinging wildly and trying to not make a complete fool of yourself. But you play and you play, trying different weapons, not sure what you prefer, not even sure what the differences really are. Yeah, some swing slower and some swing faster. Surely faster is better?

      But then you stumble across a weapon that does something… different, and you start to understand. For me it was Victor’s rapier. Suddenly I got it. Okay, this is a weapon that lets me dart around with quick thrusts and swings, dodging out of the way and blocking only if necessary. This is a weapon that lets me sneak in devastating head-stabs against the tougher enemies. This is a completely different experience than that two-hander I was just hacking away at everything with.

      Then you can go back and you start to see, instead of just reading on the flavor text, what’s really going on, which weapons complement which playstyles, why certain characters were given certain weapons, and so on. Then you factor in talents and weapon stats and traits.. well. It took me roughly 20 hours to really start coming to grips with all this.

      There is quite a bit more going on in Vermintide 2 than it first lets on, is what I’m saying. It’s great.

    • treat says:

      As someone who played a ton of the L4D games with a large community, I consider V2 a completely different beast. Much like Soulslikes and Battle Royales, I consider this a subgenre I’ve hoped would catch on rather than simply be handed the “Doom clone” treatment. While the concepts of a genre style are there, it’s really nothing like Valve’s shoot zombs–for better and for worse.

      One thing I absolutely love is the tomes and grimoires, their hidden locations, the jumping puzzles required to get some of them (call me crazy but I love Kreedz Climbing), and the way they force you to sacrifice potions. While I despise progression systems, the combat has enough depth that it legitimately makes sense locking the difficulty modes behind progression level (although having to progress each character independently is a huge turn-off, especially since I haven’t decided who I like best yet).

      My gripes with the game (aside from progression and poor contrast between character/enemy silhouettes) largely stem from the Bitsquid/Stingray engine. While I’m glad to get a break from UE and Unity, it doesn’t do anything particularly better than either (in fact, it feels a lot like UE3). The gratuitous HDR and washed-out color pallet make the game look muddy and dull regardless of settings, while movement (particularly jumping) feels floaty and without inertia. Honestly, this is just my preference for the Quake/GoldSrc/Source engine shining through–but god damnit they really nailed movement and most overbearing post-processing effects didn’t exist back then! It doesn’t help that Stingray is dead, either. The custom content that supported the lifespan of the admittedly bare-bones L4D games isn’t going to play a role here, even if the progression system keeps people around longer.

      It took me a while to pull the trigger on V2 (bought it last week) after many of my friends had been playing it since launch. Playing the game with friends who spoil every book location is kind of a drag, especially with them speeding through levels, killing virtually everything single-handed while I’m just trying to soak in the sights and come to grips with the mechanics. I still have under 10 hours clocked so far but I’m excited to keep coming back, particularly after getting a taste of the higher difficulties.

      • adammtlx says:

        I enjoy the tomes and grimoires, mostly, but sometimes it is annoying when in a random group to make a callout that there’s a tome or a grimoire and everyone just ignores you and runs ahead, and you’re faced with the horrible choice of trying to get to the book before a hook rat or assassin finds you while you’re all alone, or skipping the book, knowing you just lost out on some experience and potentially a better chest at the end.

        Some of the grimoires take multiple minutes to get because people miss the jumps and that can be pretty aggravating as well.

      • Imadoctornotadoctor says:

        Treat: that point about Left 4 Dead being a subgenre is an interesting one, and it suddenly occurs that it’s a subgenre I am massively game for. You got any recommendations aside from L4D, Vermintide, Deathwing and Deep Rock Galactic (GIVE ME JAGGEDWAWRFOMUNDA FORTRESS, GW, BY THE WAY – or at least let the necro adaptation be good), especially anything that might be bare-playable on low-end computers? Would legit take some Deathwar 3030 or Escape Velocity-type 2D graphics if the game/theme hit the spot.

  5. Kefren says:

    I like to install L4D and L4D2 once a year. I play them single player, and if I die I have to use a new character; if they all die, I uninstall. I absolutely love it. I only player offline games though, so Vermintide 2 doesn’t interest me. It’s like Elite Dangerous, in that if there was a single-player offline version I’m sure I’d put a lot of hours into it, but since I have more games than I need, it takes a few ticklist items to make me spend money.

  6. castle says:

    I always thought the best part of L4D2 was the mods. Kept my group coming back as our co-op game of choice for years–the rock-solid gameplay combined with the ability to have a completely new experience each time. Some favorites:

    Back to School
    City 17
    Dead Series
    dead echo 2
    Death Sentence
    Drop Dead Gorges
    I Hate Mountains 2
    Haunted Forest
    Military Industrial Complex II
    One 4 Nine
    Precinct 84
    Suicide Blitz
    Tour of Terror
    Urban Flight
    Yama

  7. ilikain says:

    I won’t argue too much about the outline of the specials, i feel like they are unique enough, but the magic of Vermintide 2 is the sounds design. I can’t remember the L4Ds clearly enough these long years later, but if you are listening you can clearly hear the distinct “voices” of the specials in V2. You know what to look for before you see it and before the characters call it out.

    I agree with the Quickplay focus and wish there was a bonus of some sort for finishing the chapters/acts in succession for the first time.

    • gmx0 says:

      I disagree, I remember the special zombies in L4D2 with just their sounds coming. I haven’t played V2, but I have V1, and V1 was a confusing mess in regards to sound. Anyways, my point is, I do think special zombies in L4D2 were memorable enough.

  8. cpt_freakout says:

    I’m really glad that for V2 the devs thought outside the L4D box (which is a good box anyway, don’t get me wrong) and added stuff like Elite enemies and different equipment for mobs. The Specials are awesome, but getting a Plague Monk or a Berserker here and there scattered among the mobs, and having to face clanrats with shields every now and then adds subtle layers of tactics and a lot of diversity to the levels. I hope they keep going further in that direction with the new maps and expansions, considering they won’t be adding Versus.

  9. dorobo says:

    There is no versus mode. Playing a team of monsters against real people in versus was the best thing in L4d. When meta came into place maybe it wasn’t as great but still let’s say doing tricks with a hunter was spectacular. I think it’s this that kept it alive all this time.

    • Chewbacca says:

      Oh yes. Especially when you had 6 or even 8 friends together (and couldn’t really play anything else with so many people), L4D2’s versus mode was just a completely blast. And when you were the survivors it definitely tested friendships. ;)

  10. ZmajSnoshaj says:

    Sure it crashes and needs updating for older systems but it’s a great game otherwise.

    Core i5-2400 GTX650 (1Gb DDR5) 8Gb RAM 500Gb Harddrive

  11. wownk says:

    Vermintide 2 avg concurrent players per day for last 2 weeks – 4k
    lfd2 avg concurrent players per day for last 2 weeks – 8k

    source – http://steamcharts.com
    link to steamdb.info

    nothings taking anything away from anyones “cold undead hands” lol