By: Brian Gunn
Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide is a game that has something to prove. The Warhammer license has been used a bit questionably of late, with a mediocre game hitting mobile platforms or Steam seemingly every other month. Meanwhile, developer Fatshark has struggled with being a studio of good ideas but poor execution. The title, clearly inspired by the Left 4 Dead series, needs to assuage doubts that it’s just a clone. Somehow, against all odds, it largely pulls it off.
A cooperative experience that relies heavily on teamwork needs to feel responsive under intense action, and Vermintide succeeds. Controls are kept relatively simple and easy to pick up, with melee and block being bound to the more familiar aim and shoot of most games. There are ranged weapons as well; though often hordes are large enough than even characters focused on ranged combat will have to wade in.
Swapping between weapon types is quick and snappy. In addition to the standard first-person controls there a few advanced mechanics, like a dodge dash for jumping to the side or backwards, and a push to keep enemies away. Bashing in rat heads is satisfying for the heavier characters, but those with light weapons lack the satisfying feedback and can feel a bit like you’re just waving your blades around willy nilly.
A tale set in the Warhammer universe is going to be fairly grim, and Vermintide is no exception. Expect levels full of gray, blue and brown. That’s not entirely a complaint, though, as it fits the mood well. Somehow Fatshark has pulled off making enemies comprised of giant rats feel like competent threats, and the elite enemy designs in particular stand out.
Chaos reigns supreme, and that can mean a few hiccups here and there. The stark colors of the world often make picking your teammates out of the crowd of vermin somewhat difficult, and the packs of enemies can slow the framerate to a crawl even on high-end gaming rigs.
The sound design is competent, but little more can be said. Music is mostly relegated to very specific moments and doesn’t particularly stand out. There’s fairly high quality voice work, and far more than I expected, with characters responding to a huge variety of actions. Positional audio works well, especially when needing to spot assassin-styled rats that attempt to ambush your party.
Given the popularity of Left 4 Dead, it’s surprising how few attempts there have been to really mimic the game’s style. And while Vermintide stands on its own, it does copy some elements wholesale. The rat hordes are analogous with the zombies, as are most of the elite enemy spawns.
For instance, the Rat-Ogre is basically a Tank, a giant brute that will fling you around. Of course, there are a few that feel less like copies, such as the Ratling Gunner, a rat with a minigun that will focus fire on a member of the team and needs to be taken out by the others.
Easily the biggest difference between the two series is that Vermintide focuses far more on melee combat. You’ll be bashing and slashing and there’s also a variety of other twists to make melee feel like the focus of the game.
You can block attacks and even shove enemies away when you’re overwhelmed, and characters that carry a shield can provide a defensive wall for allies and control large swathes of the horde. Ranged weapons are present, but you’ll need to plan things out carefully, as without knowledge of a level’s layout you may find yourself wishing for ammo restocks fairly early on.
Another tweak to the formula comes in the form of classes. Armored characters will be your front line, often wielding shields or heavy weaponry, while the rest play best in the mid or far range. One ranged class in particular I liked was the Bright Wizard, a caster that doesn’t have to deal with worrying about ammo, but instead must manage an Overheat gauge that, if maxed out, leads to devastating consequences. One small downside to the class system is that you’re only allowed one of each character on a map, so you might face frustrations playing the class you want.
While most classes tend to fit into one role at the start of the game, there’s a loot system that will allow you a bit more freedom. The tanks will never be casting spells, but you can switch out your sword and board for a giant two-handed axe if you want to play more offensively. You earn loot two ways. First, simply leveling your account up will get you either new features or new gear every level.
The second, however, leads to the biggest issue with the game. You earn loot after every mission, and you get dice to roll to determine which loot you get. Unfortunately, between five characters and two equipment slots each, it means you can easily spend a half hour of game time to get a single item that might not even be for a character you like.
It’s possible to increase the quality of loot by picking up optional items and playing harder difficulties, but even then it’s possible to spend a lot of time trying to get something you’ll like.
Don’t let concerns that you’re buying a Left 4 Dead clone dissuade you from purchasing Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide. It has new twists on the formula, from class-based combat to a loot system, and while it still needs some polish — particularly in the performance area and a revised loot system — it remains a strong package and one of the best Warhammer video games to date.