Left 4 Dead sired a generation of co-op copycats. Turtle Rock Studios, under the supervision of Valve, thrust four players into an undead orgy, and fans happily gave their consent. From four divergent difficulties to the AI director, few playthroughs ever came out the same. Developers leapt at the opportunity to replicate the magic, though the impersonators like Revelations 2012 and Alone in the Dark: Illumination fizzled fast. Even Payday 2 felt the backlash from recent business practices. Left 4 Dead lords over its co-op colleagues, but Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide presides as a close second.
Case in point: the loot system separating Vermintide from Left 4 Dead cuts both ways. As you overcome the game’s thirteen levels, Vermintide donates random weapons to your inventory. A pair of rare daggers fortified my rogue Waywatcher for the dangers ahead, though I could have been stuck with common swords or an exotic bow instead. Developer Fatshark divvies loot into the typical color categories (white, green, blue, etc.), and a higher-tier blade or firearm confers better stats in kind. An orange sword and dagger set targeted additional monsters with each attack, for instance, without sacrificing my speed or stamina.
On the downside, the Fatshark team passes weapon drops off as a minigame, where the total face-up dice that you roll decides the rarity of equipment earned. You could obtain a legendary zweihander or acquire a bland staff or crossbow. While players cannot influence the outcome directly, carrying tomes and grimoires to the end of a stage tosses dice with extra markings into the pot. Locating cursed dice hidden among chests grants the same effect, but unlocking gear remains a catch-22. The difficulty also affects the loot quality, yet you need more formidable equipment for tougher quests first.
Another kick in the teeth: picking up tomes replaces the medkit you lug around, while grimoires occupy your speed/strength potion slot and lower the party’s maximum health. Is handicapping your team worth the extra die? The community might say so, though levels eat up ten to thirty minutes of a player’s time, and Fatshark does not reward failure. When groups wipe in the final moments of the stage, Vermintide skips the betting phase; losers don’t get to gamble for shiny new axes or hats. The developers expect people to run a mission again on the off chance that their AI overseer acts less dickish.
Fatshark could alter its algorithm, like filtering the lowest class of loot from the prize pool when players collect every spellbook in a level. Few people want to waste their time and energy on raffles that promise nothing in return. I love unpredictable weapon drops, but not their miserly mechanics. The Vermintide team offer other means to bolster one’s inventory, however, that I adore much more. Win or lose, heroes accrue experience points for attempting a mission, and leveling up unlocks a weapon for a different character each time, so you have the resources to dabble in a champion besides your main.
Worthless knives and guns still clutter your inventory, and yet too much loot is never an issue. Fatshark allows hoarders to convert their rubbish into greater treasures. Between levels, when players return to the inn (i.e., where you select missions and equip weapons), you can visit the forge to create new gear. Smithing costs five weapons of identical rarity, but you gain ordnance from the next available tier. I prefer the smelting process over dice rolls, all told. Breaking down junk for less-bad junk is a personal choice. I also know what results to expect. Fusing several pistols produces another pistol, in other words.
Vermintide’s loot mechanics reeled me in, yet the setting and narrative hooked me, too. Games Workshop hit the reset button on the Warhammer Fantasy universe recently, wiping out nations with a world-spanning showdown. Vermintide is part of that climactic initiative (hence the “End Times” subtitle), centering on the Skaven (rat-men) menace sacking surface settlements. Those cities include the trade town of Ubersreik, and five warriors have sworn to separate the king rat from his head. Without the chief’s leadership, the four Skaven clans will descend into anarchy, if Ubersreik’s saviors don’t perish first.
Vermintide is lighter on lore than most Warhammer merchandise, making it the right amount of accessible to newcomers like myself. Who are the Witch Hunters? Why did one Empire Soldier rally to Ubersreik’s aid rather than a legion. A Wood Elf Waywatcher, Dwarf Ranger, and Bright Wizard also answer duty’s call, but you don’t need to know the heroes’ origins to recognize how much ass they kick. Neither do you need a novel explaining why the Skaven invasion must be culled. Vermintide’s gameplay matters more when partied up ‒ Fatshark understands that ‒ but without friends, you should reconsider a purchase.
Although I hate to make that declaration for all you lone wolves, Vermintide’s normal difficulty matches Left 4 Dead’s advanced mode in terms of challenge. Friendly bots revive players once they succumb to the Skaven’s overwhelming numbers, yet that is all the AI does well. The bots ignore secondary objectives. They can’t carry tomes and grimoires, and they sit tight while you ferry explosive barrels or destroy support columns to proceed. Skaven already swarm in packs that dwarf Left 4 Dead’s. Attempting the linear levels alone or with strangers is a reliable way to miss out on the dice rolls.
You can’t choose what computer-controlled heroes assist you, either. Alongside friends, I didn’t have that problem. We constructed a team for every situation. The Empire Soldier and Dwarf Ranger tanked most of the damage from rodent infantry, using the stamina granted to them by their swords and shields to block rodent assaults. At the same time, our Bright Wizard would conjure area-of-spells to incinerate rat-men by the dozens. I provided flanking support with my Waywatcher’s longbow, watching rooftops and alleys for the elite Skaven that target a group’s stragglers. When people adapt to their roles, you’ll hardly find a more close-knit co-op experience.
Everything just clicks in combat. Vermintide prioritizes melee over ranged warfare, though I felt appropriately savage decapitating Skaven heads via claymores and pinning them to walls with arrows. The thunks, whizzes, and squishes of swords and magic sundering bone heightens the brutality, just not the impact. I’m not alone in wanting the feedback of rumble support. A lack of controller vibration muddies Vermintide’s immersion. The Skaven look real enough to touch, to smell. Fans demand the sensation, that crunch, of burying rodent brains beneath a two-handed hammer’s might, too.
Whether or not the developers patch in controller rumble, $29.99 still affords access to a game bearing gorgeous graphical aesthetics. Warhammer’s medieval settings existed on paper and in imaginations for decades, but Vermintide fashions Ubersreik for all viewers to appreciate. The city’s imposing masonry kisses the clouds, foggy forests hide the horrors within, and a library of M.C. Escher inspiration confounds peasant minds. Each mission maintains a constant awe. A maze of branching, underground sewers will drive obsessive explorers mad, and lightning that strikes too close for comfort spices up a sprint along towering castle ramparts.
Only Skaven veterans threaten your quest’s success. They join the fight when you least expect them, shifting focus from the endless rank and file rats that run interference. Did Fatshark just reskin Left 4 Dead’s special infected? To an extent. Packmasters snare heroes on their hooked staves, dragging their victims away like Left 4 Dead’s Smoker. Poison Wind Globadiers operate from vantage points, throwing toxic vials that pollute your health and obscure your vision (a mix between Boomers and Spitters). The Rat Ogre’s function is the most obvious. As Vermintide’s Tank wannabe, his goal is to beat the shit out of you.
Some fans have complained of these parallels, a few of which seem unfair. Valve covered its undead bases when deciding how the special infected would impair survivors. Unless Fatshark resolved to make a rat that spontaneously spawns more, the team did well adapting the actual classes of Skaven into beasts to be feared. Gutters Runners ambush their prey the same way Hunters do: with their incapacitating pounce. And why not? The rodents of Clan Eshin breed unrivaled assassins and infiltrators. To skulk in and leap from the shadows, daggers in hand, is second nature to them. The developers simply adapted the available lore.
You don’t have to give a rat’s ass about the Warhammer canon, of course, which speaks to the Fatshark team’s talents to build an engrossing experience regardless of the universe it’s set in. I was going through the motions at first, clicking on fetid creatures until no more pests presented themselves. Then I stopped to admire the city’s antique stonework, the haunted woodlands, the vermin bearing down on me. I quit lamenting the less opportune dice rolls. I concentrated on my character’s abilities and those of my allies. Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide triumphs when people spin its rich fantasy yarn with friends. Left 4 who now?
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided.
Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide seems like an eerie, well-done Left 4 Dead mod on the surface. But players that soldier through disheartening dice rolls will find a replacement for their co-op and loot-driven needs, Warhammer fan or not.