Left 4 Dead with Skaven. That was surely the elevator pitch for Fatshark's Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide [official site] and the game, now released, hews fairly close to that mash-up. Four players, each taking on the role of a specific character, must fight their way through swarms of Skaven, including special variants, to achieve objectives that vary from one level to the next.
At first glance it's all very familiar. At second and third glance there's little to change that initial judgement. I've been glancing for days though and can report that Vermintide does have its own identity. Here's wot I think.
When I first started playing, I made some notes. The thrust of that initial critical appraisal was fairly damning; an investigation into all the ways that Vermintide reminded me of Left 4 Dead's finer qualities. Mainly, I missed the wonderful audio cues that allow me to orient myself and prepare for whatever horror is approaching when playing Turtle Rock's co-op masterpiece. For all the blood, gore and apparent chaos, Left 4 Dead's world is always legible.
Indeed, one of the smarter aspects of a very smart game is the way in which character- and world-building go hand in hand with environmental awareness. Characters communicate personality traits even as they're providing vital information about things that are happening around them.
Vermintide attempts something similar. Characters bicker, sing, boast, threaten and jest. They cry for help when pinned to the ground by a deadly foe and glory in their own victories when they rescue a teammate. When a character spots a health potions or other usable item, they make its presence known. There's an attempt to provide the same awareness of enemy approaches and item locations as is evident in Left 4 Dead, but everything in Vermintide feels muddier and messier.
That sense of murkiness has persisted but I've learned to pick out the details. Perhaps its the increased reliance on melee combat, which combines hacking with blocking and shoving to good effect, but I often fail to scan the rooftops and treelines. I'm more concerned with separating nearby ratkin limbs from their owners than picking off truly dangerous enemies before they can launch their poisonous assaults. I've become more accustomed to detecting the assassin-rats that stalk in the shadows and attack from above, but I'm still something of a liability on higher difficulty levels.
Indeed, my first few attempts at the opening level of the campaign left me cursing my own ineptitude. The random online folks I played with seemed to know every beat of the game, treating the stage as a thing to be conquered in record time and with maximum efficiency rather than an experience to share. That ties into the biggest difference between Vermintide and Left 4 Dead – in this world of Warhammer, there is a loot system, persistent unlocks attached to your characters for all time, and playing well is the best way to increase your chances of receiving a good loot drop.
The loot system, already divisive on message boards and in-game, encourages multiple playthroughs of each area, as well as a gradual ascent through difficulty levels. You receive your loot - which generally either provides buffs or entirely new attack types - at the end of the level and precisely what you end up with depends on several factors. Every possible reward falls into a colour-coded tier and dice are rolled to tally up your winnings - the higher the difficulty, the greater the possible reward, but your actions within a level also determine the odds of a grand prize. Tomes and grimoires hidden (sometimes in plain sight, sometimes on a detour) on certain levels can be collected and, if carried to the end, provide extra rolls and better dice.
If all of this sounds like the kind of design that's determined to press your nose to the grindstone, Vermintide's long-game might not be for you. I'm in two minds about it. On the one paw, there's enough variety in the levels that playing my favourites on a cycle doesn't feel too repetitive, and I'm enjoying the core of the game enough to be happy with a little repetition. But then I dislike the mindset that the loot system breeds. Forget the rats shagging in the sewers and scurrying up your plugholes, Vermintide's true horror is the ruthlessness of its playerbase. If you're not contributing toward a superior haul of loot, you might as well be ratfood.
In that sense, it's a very different experience to Left 4 Dead. For all the similarities – and several of the special skaven types are L4D's zombies in fursuits – Vermintide's addition of persistent character builds that grow across playthroughs really is a game-changer. Although occasionally frustrating, the loot system is an integral part of the game. I love the way it dishes out loot for characters other than the one I'm playing as, which has led me to switch from my favoured Witch Hunter, and even given me a grudging respect for the dwarf.
Of course, some people want to perfect their playstyle with a single character and consider the discovery of loot for anyone but their chosen to be a waste of time and effort. I can understand that, even if it's not how I feel. The idea that playing through a level can be a waste of time if the wrong loot drops at the end does speak to a larger problem though – surely everyone should be playing to have a good time rather than to shake a slot machine in the hope that the jackpot will trigger?
It's odd to play with people who treat the act of killing skaven, and the teamwork involved, as little more than a means to an end. I prefer to enjoy the near-misses and fuck-ups that naturally occur whenever four people play together, rather than striving for perfection at all times.
Thankfully, that's possible. There's enough variety across the thirteen levels to many a mini-story, from claustrophobic close quarters sewer-running to the organised scouring and cleansing of city blocks, and combat is meaty and weighty. From that initial sense of slightly disappointed deja vu, I've grown to admire Vermintide for its own qualities. Tactically, it's more open to clever tricks (and exploits) than L4D ever was, and more inventive in its objectives. I enjoy finding a piece of loot that changes my feelings about a character and now that I've decided to avoid the too-competitive cooperation of the wider online community, I'm finding it easier to find a pace that suits my laidback approach. It should also be said that, for all its intentional ugliness, this is the most attractive rendition of the Warhammer Fantasy world I've ever seen.
Sadly, there are bugs as well as rats. Actually, I'm not sure that referring to the issues I'm having as 'bugs' is entirely accurate, they may just be connectivity issues. The game has dropped more than once just as I've finished a level, however, cutting me off from any loot I might have gathered, which is particularly galling when it occurs at the end of a run where you've managed to lug a grimoire through ratty hell. There have been several extended maintenance periods since launch and hopefully that'll go some way toward fixing the problems. It's also frustrating that while bots are available to fill empty squad slots, there's no offline mode at all.
It's a shame that the skaven act so much like zombies rather than having their own distinct traits. But if Vermintide can act as the catalyst for a trend whereby at least one in every three zombie games is now a Skaven game instead, it will have served a wondrous purpose. The 'tide' suffix is excuse enough to have hordes of ratbeasts running mindlessly through the streets and it could happily be attached to 'Daemon', 'Corpse' or 'Green'. That said, 'Greentide' sounds like an off-brand toilet cleaner so perhaps that one would need a bit of a rethink.
Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide is out now.