For as long as I can remember, the Warhammer Fantasy universe seemed to be constantly overshadowed by its 40K sibling when it came to popularity, number of fans, and quality video games. Well, not anymore. After the unfortunate shutdown of THQ back in 2011, 40K fans like myself had to contend with shallow titles developed by little-known studios who managed to get their hands on the licenses necessary to spit out mediocre games and cash in on the popular brand. Now the Dawn of War series seems like a distant memory, but luckily the dawn of Warhammer Fantasy is closing in fast and it’s starting to look pretty good ideed. Thanks to Blood Bowl II and the upcoming Total War: Warhammer, there is hope yet again for the future of the series, however, that’s not all because now there’s another game that brings the universe to life in a brand new way and that game goes by the name of Warhammer End Times – Vermintide.
Set in the titular Warhammer Fantasy End Times, Vermintide is a first-person co-op title developed by an independent Swedish studio called Fatshark, the same team that brought us War of the Roses and Escape Dead Island. In regards to their latest effort, the folks over at Fatshark took a lot of inspiration from Left 4 Dead and put together something that’s similar in terms of gameplay, yet very different when it comes to the setting. In Warhammer End Times – Vermintide you have to work together with three other players and make your way through various scenarios in order to rid the world of the rat-like creatures known as Skaven. Just like in the real world, these particular rats also have plenty of friends, so you would do well to bring a few of your own because fighting alone is ill-advised.
The game does pair you with bots if you can’t find any people to play with, but you’ll find it pretty hard to actually complete any missions like that because the AI is weak is generally unreliable. Sure, the bots can fight, but they also get stuck a lot, abandon you in your hour of need or just walk past when you’re dead instead of reviving you, thus making them more of a nuisance than anything else. Long story short, try to have a full party of real people at all times. Fortunately, this is pretty easy because the matchmaking in Warhammer End Times – Vermintide works well and there are always a decent amount of lobbies that you can join should you be looking to play on a specific map or difficulty setting. Better stay on the lowest ones at first, though, as this can be a very difficult game that does a wonderful job at punishing every wrong move.
In Warhammer End Times – Vermintide the odds are always stacked against you, with opponents becoming stronger and more numerous as you progress through the various missions. In addition to the lowly vermin that attacks your party in waves, you’ll also have to deal with special enemies that sport some very interesting abilities. Specials like the Gutter Runner and Packmaster will try to exploit any weakness and incapacitate one of your party members when they’re most vulnerable. To make matters worst you can’t escape these foul creatures by yourself, so making sure someone is there to get you out of a tough spot is essential. Then, you’ll have to face even more vile creatures, such as the heavily-armored Stormvermin, minigun-wielding Rattling Gunner, and massive Rat Ogres, which tend to show up at the worst possible time. Combine that with the scarce supplies and randomized enemy spawns and you’ve really got something to look forward to here if you enjoy challenging horde mode games.
One of Vermintide’s most important strengths is the combat system that includes both ranged and, more importantly, melee. Ranged combat has already been done to death in first-person co-op, whereas good melee action is present in only a handful of titles. I did run into a couple of instances when hitting an enemy with sword or axe didn’t seem to have any effect, but for the most part I found the combat system to be pretty solid and incredibly fun. This is in no small part thanks to the great work that was put into the physics and animations. It doesn’t feel like you’re going through butter when you’re slicing up Skaven. In fact, you sometimes feel how your weapon gets stuck in them and there’s generally a nice feeling of impact that comes with every hit. To some extent, this applies to ranged weapons as well, where big guns have significant recoil and take some time to reload. The combat is also suitably visceral and offers a sick sense of joy whenever you decapitate or dismember a ratman. Or maybe that’s just me.
Moving on to the playable characters, there’s unfortunately not many to talk about, with just five heroes to choose from at this time. As you might expect, the heroes are all unique in their own way, however, Warhammer End Times – Vermintide doesn’t offer too much variation when it comes to play styles. Whether you’re swinging an axe or shooting fireballs makes little difference in the grand scheme of things because there are no traditional roles like tank, dps or support, so you can be equally effective with any character. Sure, the dwarf might be a little better at blocking and the elf seems to shoot a tad faster than the others, but at the end of the day, your personal skill, weapon loadout and teamwork will play a much bigger role than the negligible strengths and weaknesses of individual heroes.
Speaking of loot, there is quite a variety to find and each item has a traditional quality label attached to it, such as white for common or blue for rare. Unfortunately, there are no armor sets in the game just yet, which is truly a shame as Warhammer End Times – Vermintide would have benefited greatly from more character customization. Instead, everyone has slots for headgear, one melee and one ranged weapon, and three slots for trinkets, albeit you only start with one and get to unlock the others at higher levels. The rarity system is this game is pretty unusual when you take into consideration that a rare item is generally not much better than a common one when it comes to raw stats. In fact, a lot of the time a weapon that does a little more damage will be much slower or have less knockback potential. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to get higher quality look, though, because better items have more sockets that you can upgrade at the forge in order to add nice special abilities to your weapons.
Personally, I happen to like this whole system because items don’t overpower anyone and you won’t feel inadequate sporting white gear at low levels in a party where everyone else is wearing blue and orange. I also like the dice rolling minigame that you play after each successful mission for a chance to get better items. It’s not that I particularly enjoy rolling dice, but they are an important part of Warhammer board games and make a lot of sense in this context as well. Though you’ll mostly have to rely on pure luck when playing the minigame, there are a number of things you can do throughout the missions to increase your chances of scoring better loot. These include carrying tomes or grimoires until the end of the mission or simply cranking up the difficulty, however, keep in mind that doing so can make the game considerably harder. This should be pretty obvious when it comes to playing at higher difficulties, but it also applies to tomes and grimoires, as equipping them means that you won’t be able to equip any more medical supplies or potions and in addition to taking up one of your valuable equipment slots, grimoires also lower your health pool.
Despite all of this, Warhammer End Times – Vermintide still feels like a rewarding game where more often than not the biggest reward is simply being able to complete a mission, especially when playing on the higher difficulty settings. In a way, this title reminds us of the days of yore when games were actually difficult and dying a whole bunch of times before you were able to complete a level was just a normal part of the experience. Save for the Dark Souls series and a few other exceptions, video games are pretty easy nowadays, but maybe they don’t have to be. Warhammer End Times – Vermintide is a good example of a game that’s very easy to learn and not so easy to master. Plowing through easy and normal missions will be a breeze after you start learning the ropes, but try anything above hard and you’ll end up having a pretty bad time if you or you don’t know what you’re doing. The same can also be said about your team mates because the game takes very seriously the idea of “stand together or die alone.”
So if the game is that punishing, why even play it? Well, because it’s a lot of fun. Fighting as a team to surpass a difficult challenge is its own reward, but on top of that, the game is also not as gloomy as it may seem at first glance. The horrors left behind by the Skaven invasion are soon forgotten once the heroes start talking to each other, which actually happens a lot. The banter in Vermintide is really good and outright hilarious most of the time. It’s thanks to the solid voice acting and cheesy jokes that these characters are able to distinguish themselves and be more than your stereotypical jolly dwarf, stuck-up inquisitor, or eccentric wizard we’ve seen time and time again in so many other games. What’s even more interesting is that the story is told through these conversations that tend to shed some much-needed light on what’s happening and why you’re doing a specific scenario. Granted, the whole thing starts to get less interesting as you start grinding missions for loot, but it’s definitely very entertaining the first time around.
Yes, grinding will become your main goal after a while, but it’s surprising just how good the game is at remaining interesting even after I’ve played it for almost 40 hours. The secret here seems to be that getting to the best loot is pretty tough and requires that you learn various maps in order to memorize the locations of supplies or tomes. In addition, no two missions are exactly the same because enemy spawns seem to be randomized, which makes things quite unpredictable. Still, some more variety and additional endgame content would do wonders from Warhammer End Times – Vermintide, especially since there’s so much potential here. Fortunately, the developers plan to add more content down the line, so I expect the game to get even better when that happens.
It’s hard to not be biased when you’re a Warhammer fan, but I’ll have to try anyway. I do enjoy the game a lot, but I can also see its flaws. First off, it’s still pretty buggy – the AI often gets stuck and it’s not uncommon to see players also get stuck or fall through the map and every once in a while you might also see them die for no apparent reason. Another problem is the lack of variety. When it comes to the enemies I can let it slide because Vermintide is all about resisting a Skaven invasion, but there need to be more playable characters and item types. Some new locations wouldn’t hurt either because there’s not much else to see other than burning streets, dark forests, and of course, the mandatory sewers.
On the other hand, the sound effects and music are really good and do a perfect job at immersing you into the game. Composed by the legendary Jasper Kyd, the soundtrack of Warhammer End Times – Vermintide is truly a work of art that’s worth listening to even when you’re not playing the game. As mentioned, the voice acting is also spot on so it all blends together quite nicely. What stands out even more than the actual music and banter, however, is the high-pitched dialogue coming from the rats. Though you’ll mostly find yourself laughing at the Skaven’s silly one-liners, hearing the threatening silent whispers of a lurking Gutter Runner or the savage roar of an approaching Rat Ogre is enough to scare you back into the game and remind you that this is a true survival experience where everyone is out to get you.
As it stands, Warhammer End Times – Vermintide does have some flaws that can take away a bit from the experience, but you should be able to generally overlook them thanks to everything that it manages to get right, from combat to animations and everything in between. It’s also worth pointing out that developer Fatshark is asking no more than $30 ($40 for the Collector’s Edition) in an age where most new releases are $60 and then you’re persuaded into paying some more on microtransactions and DLC. Not so here. The price of 30 bucks or even lower in many places is more than fair for what this game has to offer, though I feel more could have been added to the Collector’s Edition. In any case, at this price it’s pretty easy to recommend the game and suggest that you keep an eye on it to see what additional content and improvements come further down the line. Just make sure to bring along some friends or make a few buddies in-game because you’ll need all the help you can get if you really plan on facing the Vermintide.