Warhammer: Vermintide 2 PC Review

Video games are a form of entertainment where ideas are constantly copied, either directly or used as a baseline to improve on what was already created by another. We had many tweaks on the original DOTA gameplay formula with titles like League of Legends, DOTA 2, Smite and Heroes of the Storm at the forefront of the concept, while plenty others haven’t seen the success one would like when joining the packed MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) group of games. The current genre that seems to be causing the same situation in 2018 is Battle Royale, with PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds going head to head with Fortnite Battle Royale, while other developers play catch up and bring some of their own takes on the genre.

This brings us to Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide, a title by developers Fatshark that took the concept from Valve’s Left 4 Dead (wonder whatever happened to the rumoured third entry…) and gave it a theme based in the Warhammer universe. The template was so close to Valve’s classic that even the enemy classes were the same. They did add some of their own personality that helped it become a great bit of cooperative fun, but now the sequel is here that takes everything about its predecessors and makes it better, while beating to its own more distinct drum than Left 4 Dead, to the point where I feel this will be the cooperative game to own on PC for 2018.

Warhammer: Vermintide 2 is set in the End Times story of the Warhammer universe and continues on where the first game finishes with the five Heroes of Ubersreik captured at the hands (or is that claws?) of the rat leader Grey Seer Rasknitt. The Skaven have made a deal with Chaos to bring troubles to the game’s new location, Helmgart, so it’s up to the heroes – once they escape from the lair in the game’s prologue opening that also doubles up as a tutorial – to put a stop once again to the evildoers that want to wipe out the city. Like the original Vermintide, the story here only serves to give reasons to go and kick Skaven and Chaos ass in various locations in and around the city.

The structure will be familiar for anyone who played Vermintide – you take one of five characters, along with either other players or computer AI for up to a max of four-player cooperative action, and try make it through to the end of one of the 13 levels without yielding to death. Fatshark has not messed with the core formula that much, leaving intact the satisfying gameplay that made the first game such a blast, but there is some disappointment that I should probably get out of the way first, and that is to do with the characters. Sadly, the developers felt that the original five heroes from Vermintide didn’t need any extra companions, so the Witch Hunter, Dwarf, Waywatcher, Empire Soldier and Bright Wizard return in all their wonderful glory and distinct accents that made their personality shine in their previous rat killing adventure without any new buddies.

What Vermintide 2 changes up is the experience system, no longer having a general account level, experience now goes to the character that is currently being played. This also makes it part of the building blocks for the new Career feature that enables the five heroes to be built in different ways, acting as a replacement for new characters that could have been added to the game. This pushes more of the RPG element into its gameplay that the first title was tickling with, but this game still doesn’t go deep enough into that realm to deliver statistics for damage, crit percentage or defence. Rather, the improvements are more to do with the fact that there is now character development, as each of the five characters has three career paths – the default, one at level 7 and another at level 12 – and each of those has their own passive ability, active ability and skill trees to pick between three perks for each level that is a multiple of five until level 25 (max level is 30).

In theory, this means Vermintide 2 has 15 different characters, with each of the careers altering how each character is played. Some of the careers can have similar focus across some of the characters, such as the Markus the Empire Soldier, who at level 7 unlocks Huntsman, tailoring him more for range weapon, which is the same area as Ranger Veteran, the default Dwarf career, but some are vastly different that switching careers is worth experimenting with. Each career does have different abilities across characters to put a spin on their similar gameplay focus, but the biggest change is in relation to the weapons that each of the characters can use, because each one has their own set of weapons, adding variety to the heavily focused melee combat of Vermintide 2, which once again is so satisfying to perform.

There is a bit of magic with the combat when witnessing the Witch Hunter’s huge sword come raining down straight through a rat’s arm or seeing Markus smash some skulls in with his hammer. Combat is performed in the same vein as the first game, with each character being able to use the ability to block or parry damage in exchange for exhausting some stamina, or one can charge a strike for a heavy hit. Whatever action is performed, there is a bit more weight to it this time around, each hit feeling there is a power behind it. Even when going for speedy weaponry, such as the Waywatcher’s daggers, still inflicts damage and showers of blood as the rats are diced into pieces to the point that the aftermath would make for a nice mixture in dog food. While the game is focused on melee combat, the ranged gameplay feels adequate to support the various crossbows, bows, guns and the Bright Wizard’s short and long range fire staff abilities, but I still can’t help but want to get in close and personal, thanks to how satisfactory the combat is, despite being on the simple side when breaking down its complexity.

Mastering the combat is so important as players progress up through the four difficulty tiers. Levels are designed to keep players engaged in combat with the use of an AI director that will keep sending out a mixture of rat swarms and legions of chaos fighters to overwhelming the team. More special enemies have been added for the sequel, with the boss elements getting the most exciting twists. The original game only had the Rat Ogre that would spawn every level, which returns in the sequel, but now boss enemies are randomly selected. Joining the party is the Stormfiend (a Rat Ogre with double flamethrowers), Spawn of Chaos (a demon pink mess that uses its tentacles to thrash around and also to grab people to munch on to regain health) and the Bile Troll (a tall troll with an Axe that likes to violently puke). New specials – Warpfire Thrower (rat with a flamethrower that pushes players back), Lifeleecher (sucks life out of trapped characters) and Blightstormer (casts magical whirlwinds) – join all the existing ones, while new normal enemy types come in packed with armour, using the reworked shield mechanics that means players have to hit specific parts of the body to deal damage, as armour or shield will absorb normal impacts. All these new enemy types feel right at home with the original rat enemies and they spice up the gameplay by offering the AI director more variety in what they can spawn into the level.

The AI director is not shamed of being a right bastard at making life hell for players. There have been times where it decided to throw a boss monster into the fight at the most awkward moment during the most open of spaces, with a simple throw from a Spawn of Chaos sending a hero flying off the edge. Each of the levels appear and feel more coherent this time around, bridging together in a way that makes sense. There is also more colour and variety in the environments. There are still those destroyed castles and towns, but now you get to go deep into some mines, explore a beautiful forest and tackle a huge farm all while having no feeling of guilt killing so many ratmen. This is all happening while looking fantastic, as the artists have stepped up their game for the sequel – the visuals in Vermintide 2 are quality, coming across sharp and detailed with a fantastic use of lightning to bring its sense of chaotic atmosphere to life.

One thing I love more than anything else is the improved loot system. The dice rolling in Vermintide was too painful, often giving me useless gear or gear for characters I hardly used, and you only could get one at the time, with the best coming if you managed to get all the dice to land on a count. This time around loot is rewarded through chests for either finishing a level or gaining a level with a character. Each chest contains three pieces of equipment for the character currently played. Items have a rarity and power rating (think Destiny). It gave the feeling that my character was progressing upwards, building towards taking on the harder difficulties (which lock themselves behind power level requirements). It also helped to experiment with different types of weapons to find ones I was comfortable with using. For all those old weapons that are no longer useful, these can be broken down into materials and forged with a blueprint to randomly generate a new weapon, trinket, necklace or range weapon that will come with its own set of stats.

This is the gameplay loop of Vermintide 2; making players stick for the long run to level up various characters and aim for finding the best gear to tackle the hardest difficulty, which simply will destroy teams who haven’t learnt how all the systems work. Support should be good for the future as well, as the developers have already announced two levels coming in the next month or so, and if the first game is anything to go by, expect to see gameplay enhancements, new features and more levels as the game matures.

As much praise as I have for Vermintide 2, there are some hiccups in its joyous gory fuelled gameplay. Across my 35+ hours with the game I ran into a complete crash that kicked me back to desktop. I have also had teammates get stuck behind invisible walls a couple of times when hook rats grab them and pull them into out of bounds geography, which translates to having to restart the level again, as the game does not spawn players close to the party if they are left too far behind. While not happening to me personally, I have seen a few other people having issues with crashes more often than I did, so there seems to a slight issue during the release period. The developers have been heavily active with patches, with four already published during the period of the game’s release and this review hitting, but there is still a bit of work to do, as the lack of dedicated servers seems to be an issue among players. Lag spikes and disconnections from Steam services happen occasionally, which  causes people to loose loot rewards if it happens at the end of a mission.

Warhammer: Vermintide 2 knows what made its predecessor an enjoyable time and brings along a sequel with a focus on improving what came before it. It doesn’t go crazy to try reinvent itself or the genre, but smartly delivers a better game with tweaks to the formula that alter areas that were previously weak – improved loot systems, more varied levels and fleshed out character development. Vermintide 2 is also a looker, but it is the gameplay hook that kept me coming back for more. This game is addictive, all thanks to the challenge it offers and the extremely satisfying combat that blends hack-and-slash elements with a weighty feel, so no matter if I was with friends or random people online, I was ecstatic by the overwhelming moments it kept sending my way. In the end, I can feel comfortable saying that, even with some launch hiccups, Warhammer: Vermintide 2 is currently THE cooperative game to play in 2018, and it’s going to take some beating to steal the crown away from such a well-crafted cooperative experience.

8 out of 10