Ver mitide REVIEW
Gleefully gory combat in Warhammer: Vermintide II .
The rats are back, and they’ve brought friends. Steven Messner takes up arms in our lead review.
Vermintide II’s ‘AI director’ is sadistic. With a lumbering Chaos Warrior already attacking us, the AI summons an armored Stormvermin ambush from behind. They quickly knock out Bardin the dwarf, Kruber the mercenary and Sienna the fire mage, leaving only me, the nimble elf Kerillian, to save us. If I can just get to one of them, I can revive them and turn the tide back in our favour. Then, out of nowhere, the AI summons a Chaos Sorcerer. Usually these special enemies like to hang out at a distance and summon tornados that scatter us to the wind—an attack I can easily dodge— but this Chaos Sorcerer wants to make it personal. He teleports to me and begins sucking the soul out of my body, rendering me completely helpless. A party member could save me, but that’s pretty hard to do when they’re all already incapacitated. It’s a cruel end to our adventure, made even more sinister when, as I’m slowly being dragged to the sorcerer, a Chaos Warrior storms up and finishes me off with a coup de grâce, even though I was already as good as dead. I half expect the AI to start teabagging me.
Vermintide II can be maddeningly difficult. One or two of my teammates will be incapacitated, surrounded by vermin, and it’ll feel like it’s game over. Then my hammer smashes in the skull of the last Rotblood, and my tunnel vision widens. It’s over. We survived.
As good as Vermintide II is at creating epic scenes of tension (even if it sometimes goes too far), it’s diminished by a frustrating multiplayer setup that can steal away what valuable agency you have over that experience. Fatshark’s sequel to Vermintide is challenging and thrilling, but it can also be frustrating as hell when the multiplayer fails.
Not my kind of grind
Like the first game, Vermintide II is a Left 4 Dead- style, four-player co-op first-person action game in which your party wades through treacherous levels fighting off hordes of Skaven ratmen, who have now allied with the Rotbloods, a clan of vicious Chaos raiders. Set during Warhammer’s End Times, Vermintide II’s apocalyptic fantasy setting is disturbing and marvellous. Its 13 levels tour ruined cities and treacherous bogs that are each as gorgeous and moody as the last.
With each mission lasting about 30 minutes, you’ll end up repeating them. That might sound boring, but each level is expansive enough that revisiting them never feels repetitive thanks, in part, to the AI director mixing up spawns. It’s a system that mostly works, though some areas of each mission do bleed together because fighting a group of Skaven doesn’t feel all that different from fighting a group of Rotblood raiders.
This uncertainty of what enemies spawn, and where, has surprising benefits. In one sequence, my party escorted a minecart through a pitch-black stretch of an abandoned mine. The first time I played this mission we had a terrifying fight against a troll that came charging at us from the dark. Another time we were ambushed by a horde of naked Clanrats. During my third playthrough, nothing attacked us at all. The silence put me on edge for minutes, though.
Unlike Left 4 Dead, however, Vermintide II is wearing layers of RPG underwear. It’s a lot to take in at first, but I’ve come to love the nuances each character career (a kind of subclass) offers because each plays a subtle but crucial role in a party. The five characters have their own special ability, passive bonuses, unlockable skill trees, and weapons. Once you level a character up a bit, you’ll also unlock new careers that offer vastly different playstyles.
Bardin the dwarf’s Ironbreaker career is probably my favorite because it transforms him into the closest thing Vermintide has to a tank. When my special meter fills up, I can unleash an ear-splitting roar that draws the ire of every nearby enemy. Fortunately, this ability also grants me unlimited stamina for the next few seconds that I can use to block
I can unleash an ear-splitting roar that draws the ire of every nearby enemy
attacks. With all eyes (and swords) on me, my team can quickly carve through the baddies.
You’d think a loot system would be reason enough to keep playing, but it’s the thrill of severing Skaven limbs or surviving an all-out rush by the Rotblood horde that keeps me playing. Despite only using the left and right mouse buttons to attack and block, there’s a satisfying depth to combat. Each of the 50-ish weapons has their own timing, attack arcs and reach, and the fighting never feels clumsy or technical.
Bardin’s Drakegun is a flamethrower that can ignite dozens of enemies when fully charged, while Kerillian’s Asrai hunting bow is basically an assault rifle that shoots arrows. Each of the melee weapons is similarly varied, and just when I think I prefer large, slow weapons, like Kruber’s halberd and its ability to decapitate multiple enemies in a single swipe, I try out Kerillian’s dual daggers and fall in love with how rapidly she can dice wimpy ratmen.
Dodges, parries, and charged attacks are a lot more difficult to master, however. Vermintide II feels especially difficult in the first few hours. Despite an entertaining tutorial, it’s terrible at explaining how to use these different moves properly. Now that I’ve mastered the basics, though, I love how challenging Vermintide II can be at higher difficulties, where a single enemy attack can nearly kill me. That level of mortality turns even a small fight into a tense dance of slashing and dodging. And if I really want to amp the challenge up, each mission has hidden tomes and grimoires which take up valuable inventory slots and lower the party’s overall health in exchange for better loot. I do resent how mandatory they feel when the party is already struggling to survive, however.
A good team is just as necessary as good reflexes, and Vermintide II shines when you’re playing with a group of friends. Special monsters like the Skaven Packmaster will slip behind my party during a fight and will try and yank one of us away, requiring the group to move quickly and save our friend. That’s not nearly as bad as when a green circle appears at the party’s feet, heralding a deadly tornado from a Chaos Sorcerer. These moments are so common, but always surprising, that each session feels like a brutal gauntlet. There are times when the whole party dies and the sense of shared frustration is palpable, but those moments when we do survive are so satisfying.
Winn er loot all
While I like Vermintide II’s loot, I hate how I receive and manage it. The inventory screen is poorly organized and rarely displays information that is actually useful. Characters can also share and equip the same trinkets and charms, but there’s no ‘equip all’ button. I have to painstakingly switch characters to update their gear and free up their currently equipped items for salvaging. It’s a nightmare.
Astonishingly, Vermintide II lacks a menu that shows even the most basic stats like health or stamina. I’m all for RPG systems that deviate from the norm, but it’s frustrating how obtuse Vermintide II is with its underlying mathematics and stats because it makes meaningful experimentation virtually impossible. Why include weapons that up my chance of scoring a critical hit if I can’t determine what my base chance is? Even the meaning of Hero Power, the total measurement of my character’s prowess, is hidden behind an easily missed tooltip.
The moments when Rotblood raiders and Skaven have my party surrounded are thrilling, but if the party dies, I’m often feeling like my time is wasted. It’s not that losing in Vermintide II can’t be fun, but that there are so many variables that can create failure beyond my control. If the party leader (and host of the match) disconnects, all the progress I made in a mission is erased and I have to start over. There’s also no indicator of who is speaking via the in-game voice chat, making it hard to identify which of your companions is calling for help. Even latency is hidden. I can do everything right in a mission and still lose due to things I can’t control. Add in the fact that loot is only awarded when you beat a mission or gain a level and Vermintide II can feel stingy for all the wrong reasons. It’s not fun to be deprived of loot needed to tackle harder difficulties because the host quit.
It’s frustrating that a sequel would still struggle to nail such basics, and the RPG progression doesn’t entice me the way it does in similar games. But Vermintide II succeeds on the merits of its stellar combat and level design. After 40 hours, that Rotblood warhorn signalling a Zerg-like rush of raiders, or the sound of a Gutter Runner assassin chattering in the darkness, still turns my blood to ice.
There are so many variables that can create failure beyond my control