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.