Why it feels great to hit things in Vermintide 2

This is The Mechanic, where Alex Wiltshire invites developers to discuss the difficult journeys they’ve taken to make their games. This time, Warhammer: Vermintide 2 [official site].

In designing Vermintide II’s melee combat, Mats Andersson ran through the same preset level 50 times a day for two years. This hodgepodge of the game’s most distinctive areas, enemies and swarms makes no sense and it looks terrible, but playing it about 100,000 times was what it took to ensure face-to-face brawling would be rich in heft and detail.

Andersson knew how fast he could clear that level, how much damage he should take, how many kills he should be getting; yardsticks by which he could measure each run, and it’s how clicking to swing your hammer feels like it’s caving a skull in, and why your sword feels like it can split a rat’s stringy carcass in two. “It’s very much home to me,” he says.

Developer Fatshark was no stranger to melee combat when it began to make Warhammer End Times: Vermintide, which it released in 2015. It had made 2012’s War of the Roses and 2014 followup War of the Vikings, which are both all about melee combat. But while those two games are thirdperson, Vermintide would be firstperson. “And at the same time it had to have this visceral Warhammer feeling, the meatiness of the combat,” says Andersson. “They wanted to take the War of the Roses stuff and make it more in your face and feel less mechanical.” Joining Fatshark as Vermintide hit its first alpha, making this happen was the first big challenge he faced.

His second big challenge was that, like the War Of games, Vermintide would be multiplayer, with four players cooperating against a vast swarm of enemies, sometimes 50 or 60 at a time. Traditional techniques of delivering a sense of impact, such as slowdowns and frame control of animations, were impossible because they’d cause the four players to go out of sync with each other.

Solving these challenges was a matter of piecing the combat together as the team figured out what did and didn’t work. And one of the principal concepts that emerged was the idea that when you make a strike, the game changes your movement speed. So as you swing your weapon up, your movement speed slows, then you speed up slightly as you swing down, slow again on impact, and then speed up again as you follow through.

“If you’re standing still it won’t happen, but depending on which way you move and which swing you’re in, you’ll get a different sense of tempo or cadence for each attack,” Andersson says, explaining that the little curves of speed are timed precisely to the frame to translate the distinct physical embodiment that he and his team wanted.

Vermintide’s melee combat model is very much stripped down from the one in War of the Roses, offering just a standard hit, a charged heavy hit, a block and a shove. Breaking it down in this way was a response to Vermintide’s nature as a cooperative game about managing swarms of enemies, as opposed to War of the Roses’ skill-based game about individuals facing each other in mortal duels.

”We wanted to make sure the combat puts a limit on the strain it puts on the human brain when it comes to challenges,” says Andersson. “Since we want to put a lot of challenge in cooperation, we cannot put as much into actually playing the game.” He wants players to be thinking not about a dainty feint to the left and a parry, but hitting five rats with a sweep of their sword, and then shoving another two back into the crazed path of their Slayer buddy.

To formulate these interplays, Andersson went academic. He developed a list of ‘gestalts’ or player profiles, each imagining a specific motivation of a different kind of player, from those who get a kick out of holding the line to the ‘smiters’, and tying them directly to game mechanics.

Smiters are the players who like to wield the most damaging weapons and feel like the hero. “When they click on something, it’s going to fucking die and they feel awesome.” They need heavy weapons, and they need enemies deserving of them: single targets which can take a lot of damage. Then these ideas needed to be built into the cooperative setting.

One expression of this is the Stormvermin, armoured Skaven which can take a lot more damage than the usual Clanrats. “Stormvermin are going to fuck it up for everyone else because they break the chain of control over the mass of 50 rats that the team has. So the smiter comes in. They’ve not been doing a lot because until now they’ve only been killing one rat at a time, but they get to kill this Stormvermin who’s a huge problem for the rest of the team. And that’s even though all they did was to go up and click.”

Vermintide’s sound design plays a big role, too. As well as the splatters and crunches of moment-to-moment melee, Andersson stresses the importance of background sounds and music, which help to build up the anticipation of a swarm hitting the party. For the close-up detail, though, the combat team includes a sound designer who will work on a new weapon from its earliest conception, defining the patterns of swooshes and impact sounds that mark a spiked mace as different from a mace, and supporting the gestalt it’s designed to satisfy.

On top of this, the game also remixes the sound, changing the pitch of each element, according to such factors as the intensity of combat, how much damage the player has taken, whether the enemy is targeting you or a friend, if they’re in the middle of an attack, and whether you’re behind them.

Gestalts informed the entire game, from the weapons to the level topology: smiters will get into big trouble if they find themselves facing a horde in an open space, and for Andersson that’s great: it means they’ll need the rest of the team to survive. He’s really proud that these complex interplays naturally bubble up through mechanics, not through the game tutorialising them.

The big challenge that Vermintide II imposed on Andersson and his team was adding a whole new faction in the form of Chaos. The game was originally designed around the Skaven, which naturally provide a innumerable, squishy, swarming foe. But Chaos are the opposite because you shouldn’t be able to mow them down, 20 at a time. “We wanted the combat to feel the same but different at the same time, and better,” says Andersson. “How the fuck are we going to do that?”

Solving Chaos got right to the heart of Vermintide’s delicate combat systems. Chaos Warriors and infantry are full-sized human figures, so they take up more space than Skaven and they’re taller. Player weapons now had to work for hitting both little rats and burly men who fill more of the screen, all while remaining readable in the throng so players can continue to play the fundamental game of grouping enemies together and controlling them.

One of the answers was in crafting appropriate hit reactions. Many weapons affect multiple enemies, which all react differently. Skaven were hand-key animated so they’d appear skittery and animal-like, and the Chaos faction are fully motion-captured because they’re humanoid, and both factions have large libraries of staggers and flinches for the game to choose from.

“We have quite tricky algorithms behind everything, these huge lists,” says Andersson. “If you hit with this type of weapon at this angle on this enemy then it should react like this.” These lists comprise numbers upon numbers of vectors and angles, but since he’s been working with them for four years now, he’s developed an intuitive grasp of the effect of turning a 120 into an 75. “We know the thresholds by heart by playing the same game over and over, and grind it to a fine point.”

It helps, too, that the Vermintide games go heavy on simulation, tracking the full sweep of their weapons. While other games might simply instantiate a wide hitbox for the duration of an attack, Vermintide follows the blade itself as it swings. “If we do it this way, as the weapon is hitting the head or the neck of the guy, we get the timing right.” The timing, that is, to lop a head off. And because you’ll be looking directly at the neck as the weapon passes, the decapitation is beautifully framed for you. “And that’s the key thing,” says Andersson. “What you want to do is to create a game where the core mechanics and the challenge reward you for playing in a way that looks good.

“The point is, if you create a solid simulation with rules the player can actually learn, and they’re predictable and can be mastered, and they cater towards making the game look nice, you have a sorted game. It just takes a lot of effort and 57 runs through the combat level every day for two years.” And do you know what? He claims he still does it for fun.

20 Comments

  1. amcathlan says:

    It’s so surreal to read this when I remember clearly being so disappointed in Vermintide 2 (amongst others) for being yet another FPS with melee combat, in which melee combat is feathery, unsatisfying and basically the same as L4D 1, just prettier.

    I hereby contend that it does not “Feel great to hit things” in Vermintide 2.

    What’s extra weird in reading this, is seeing all the work that they’ve obviously put into it, which I can find confirmation of is in fact working in my experiences of it, and it having 0 effect on my sense of melee-satisfaction.
    Boring, weightless and repetitively un-involved, just like all the other games like it.

    I’m not trying to be down on the game, I wanted to like it, but what good does it do me that they accurately track my sword through the air, if that sword still feels and acts like any melee/1 meter range gun from the last 15 years of FPS and the enemies are more like Serious Sam hordes than fellow combatants?
    Yes, I’m oversimplifying, but that’s what it feels like, to me.
    All graphics, no heft, you know? More like mowing grass than fighting, with only challenge being stat-based.

    *sigh*. I hope Mordhau comes out soon. I’m probably just hard to please.

    • nimbulan says:

      If you think the combat in Vermintide is weightless, I don’t know how a game could possibly meet your standards.

      • Faxanadu says:

        *cough* …Dark Souls?

        No really though. After the massive, weighty, impacty melee world of Dark Souls, every single other medieval brawler feels just simply, utterly DUMB. It competely spoiled me.

    • Viral Frog says:

      … are we in parallel universes? Vermintide 2 is basically the gold standard for first person melee combat and you think it feels weightless? I have never played another game with melee combat that felt so heavy and satisfying.

      • amcathlan says:

        Exactly. Surreal. I can tell from the language of the article that I’m experiencing something very different from the author/dev, and from you as well.
        I wish I had your perspective so I could have my melee fix.
        From my point of view, I have trouble pulling my eyebrows down from the top of my skull when I read someone describe VT2-melee as heavy and satisfying.
        If I had to put an (additional) finger on it, it would probably be a sense of lacking a connection between my character’s movements and attacks, which combined with the style of enemy AI gives me an experience of carrying a disembodied “graphical sword overlay” as opposed to a physical object with properties.
        Idunno. I never wanted to knock Vermintide, but it was my first gut feeling on playing it, and feels as obvious and undeniable as gravity.

    • MrEvilGuy says:

      I love Vermintide 2 but I kind of agree that melee could be better.

      Zeno Clash has weighty melee, but I played that 10 years ago so maybe my memory is off.

    • eljueta says:

      Vermintide 2 combat feels so good I was inclined to write a piece on how it felt so good. So I don’t know what you mean.

    • theigor says:

      This was my experience playing the first vermintide, floating around hitting pillows with pillows.

    • Kirudub says:

      Honest question: what game using melee as a focus (with similar speedy and mob-based gameplay) do you find to be satisfying?

      I ask since I’m also puzzled by your description of VT2.

    • vahnn says:

      The Souls games are great at getting the feeling of swinging big, heavy weapons, but the way enemies react, and the sense of impact when the weapons hit, no game does better than V2. I can’t imagine why you feel the combat is so lackluster.

    • Samizdata says:

      I will agree to disagree. After 35 hours of quick play, I just got to finish the story campaign. I have ZERO complaints about how rewarding I found the combat. I played a Battle Wizard for the vast majority of that time with an Ember Mace, so the impact was a thing.

    • Keinar says:

      I feel ya, man. It doesn’t really feel as if the characters are putting much effort behind their swings (Except a few select charged attacks), as they are more just. Cutting through butter with hot knives (except for armoured enemies). I don’t notice it as much, though, thankfully, since I generally get a spike or two of lag when I’m in combat against the masses.

    • Nantes says:

      Have you played with a two-handed hammer? I can only understand your impressions if you only played with bladed weapons.

      Also, please play Killing Floor 2 and tell us how the gunplay feels. If you find THAT bland, the problem is with you, not with games.

    • Nantes says:

      By the way, Killing Floor 2 is on free weekend right now.

  2. nimbulan says:

    Well I’m certainly glad they hired him because frankly, the combat in War of the Roses sucked. Chivalry beat the pants off it.

  3. Saladtim says:

    Traditional techniques of delivering a sense of impact, such as slowdowns and frame control of animations, were impossible because they’d cause the four players to go out of sync with each other.

    Killing Floor has already shown us this isn’t true, they just slow everyone down on headshot kills periodically. It’s not even irritating when someone else slows you, you just have another second to aim.

  4. SonofaShepherd says:

    Too bad it is still a half finished, buggy, unbalanced dumpster fire.

  5. BaronKreight says:

    Thats not good enough to make a good game. Developers need to be good as well. These guys are not.

  6. Chem says:

    One of my favorite things to do in V2 is learn the hits to kill enemies and purposely cut off certain limbs. Hit high- hit high- take the right leg.

    It’s even easier being a Dorf main around all those leggy chaos boys. Cousin Okri would be proud.

  7. ilikain says:

    I really enjoyed this article. I have been really enjoying the feel of Vermintide’s combat and to hear how much work they have put into it, the satisfying feel makes sense.

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