During this busy release season, one Xbox One game that shouldn't be overlooked is Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide, from Swedish developer Fatshark. Vermintide plays just like Left 4 Dead but better, with great co-op and a loot system. And it's set during the intriguing end days of the Warhammer fantasy universe.
The End Times
The End Times are a prophesied apocalypse that will result in the destruction of the Warhammer fantasy world, as depicted in a series of novels and role-playing books. Dark portents are everywhere, with massive armies of monsters marching against the civilized Warhammer peoples. Whether the citizenry likes it or not, all they can do is fight to forestall the inevitable.
As a result of the ongoing cataclysm, the vile Skaven (who also appeared in fellow Warhammer game Blood Bowl II) have begun to march on the city of Ubersreik. The Skaven are a race of subterranean rat-like creatures that detest surface dwellers. It falls upon a small band of heroes to stop the hordes of rat-men from consuming the city.
Heroes and Villains
Vermintide is a four-player online co-op game with five playable characters. Despite the fantasy setting, there is no healer class because the game aims for a strict Left 4 Dead-like level of challenge. Only one person can play as each hero, so if your character of choice is taken, you'll have to choose someone else.
- Witch Hunter: A zealous man who fights with a rapier and pistol, though he can wield hammers and crossbows as well. He treats the Waywatcher rather harshly in dialog, but remains my class of choice.
- Bright Wizard: She carries a staff that shoots fire and thus does not require ammunition for ranged attacks. However, she will be consumed by flames and die if she uses it too much without cooling off.
- Dwarf Ranger: Always chipper, this stout fellow fights fiercely with axe, hammer, crossbow, and shield.
- Waywatcher: A female Wood Elf who excels with daggers, swords, and bows. Her hunched frame can easily be mistaken for that of a Skaven, resulting in player confusion.
- Empire Soldier: A disgraced soldier with impressive facial hair, he uses pistols for ranged attacks and swords, hammers and maces up close.
The enemies in Vermintide are all Skaven rat men. Typically, swarms of Clanrats and Skavenslaves horde our heroes and appear from all manner of places. Special enemies can spawn too though, providing a much greater challenge. Several special Skaven correspond to Special Infected from Left 4 Dead, though not all:
- Gutter Runner: Pounces and stabs with glowing knives (Hunter)
- Packmaster: Grabs Heroes and pulls them away with a polearm (Smoker)
- Poison Wind Globadier: Fires gas bombs that damage Heroes and Skaven alike (Spitter)
- Rat Ogre: A huge brute who can withstand tremendous damage (Tank)
- Ratling Gunner: Targets a single player with his devastating Gatling gun
- Sack Rat: Golden Axe-like thieves who present no danger and carry valuable items
- Stormvermin: Armored rats who wield Halberds and can only be damaged by armor piercing attacks
Vermintide is patterned after Left 4 Dead, but makes significant structural improvements. The game begins with a good single-player tutorial level involving the Woof Elf and Dwarf protagonists, teaching the basic mechanics while laying a bit of narrative groundwork. Next a very high quality cinematic introduction establishes the dark world of The End Times. After that, you'll select a character and arrive in the Red Moon Inn, the hub and lobby area.
From the inn, you can invite other players, manage inventory, use the Forge and Shrine, and of course, join a random mission, or choose your own. Upon selecting a mission, the game will automatically match any other players. If you start without a full team, new players can still join through matchmaking, something we can't say for Gears of War 4's otherwise excellent Horde Mode.
One improvement Vermintide makes over Left 4 Dead is that the 16 available missions are presented in a specific order, broken up into a Prologue, three Acts, and three bonus missions. Each mission gets progressively harder in relatively smooth fashion, plus you can tell where you are in the overall story. Every mission initially offers three difficulty levels, with two more difficulties unlockable as well. There's also an endless Last Stand mode with two maps.
Beyond completing every mission, progression involves leveling up and acquiring better loot. Characters don't level individually; you have one overall player level that unlocks new weapons and features. Beat a mission to get an XP reward and a couple of items. Failing a mission awards only a tiny sliver of XP and occasional crafting materials, annoyingly. You really have to win the mission (which typically takes 30-60 minutes) to make actual progress.
Loot consists of melee and ranged weapons for each of the five Heroes, plus Trinkets that anybody can wear. It comes in several rarity levels too, with the better stuff providing health regeneration, speed bonuses, and more. The Forge and Shrine found at the Inn let you salvage gear for scraps, combine it to make better gear, and more. Those loot management mechanics seem unintuitive at first, but they still add plenty of depth and replay value to the Left 4 Dead formula.
Online design and server issues
Although Vermintide is designed as a four-player online co-op game, bots will be substituted for any missing players. You can even play solo with a team of three bots. There are some disadvantages, though. The bots fight well enough, but they sometimes fail to follow, get stuck on objects, and basically let you down. I've won solo missions, but I also lost one because the bots wouldn't stay close and revive me when I got downed.
The other big downside to solo play is you have to be online and connected to the game's servers just to play. Should the servers (which have been unreliable at times) fail, you won't be able to play at all, even by yourself. There's no reason a non-F2P game like Vermintide should require an online connection for single-player. The game's store page make makes no mention of the online requirement either.
The other big issue is the lack of host migration. If the host quits during a match, everyone gets booted to the title screen. They don't even get sent to their own Inns, which would be less inconvenient. Host migration is not a new concept, and it's disappointing that an online-centric game like Vermintide would lack such an essential feature.
Finally, the lack of in-game communication tools can be a drag. Communication is so vital in cooperative games like this, so you'll want to wear a microphone to fully enjoy the co-op experience. Players without microphones can highlight items or enemies for the team, but that's it. Vermintide would greatly benefit from text chat or at least a few voiceless communication options such as "Come here."
Vermintide has 45 Achievements worth a total of 1,000 Gamerscore. The most time consuming and challenging ones will be completing each mission on the highest difficulty, finding all Tomes (collectibles) in six levels, reaching player level 100, and earning a whopping 200 Endurance Badges in Last Stand mode. Completing the Achievement list will take a lot of time and effort, but that ensures that people will stick around for multiplayer for the foreseeable future.
Warhammer: Vermintide is an amazing cooperative game. It takes the base formula created by Left 4 Dead and improves upon it with a better mission structure and loot system. Tastes will vary, but I find the Warhammer: End Times dark fantasy setting and Skaven enemies far more appealing than a typical zombie outbreak scenario. The Xbox One version looks and runs great, so much that it could almost pass for a $60 game (this one costs $40).
Time will tell whether Vermintide receives the support it deserves on consoles or ends up another Payday 2. The PC version recently received a Quests & Contracts system that adds even more long-term replayability. If Fatshark brings those mechanics to Xbox One and adds host migration and voiceless communication features, Vermintide will easily withstand the test of time. But even as-is, Left 4 Dead and co-op fans will love Warhammer: The End Times – Vermintide.
- Dark and beautiful fantasy world
- Varied and interesting missions and environments
- Tough gameplay that encourages cooperation and communication
- Leveling and loot systems improve on Left 4 Dead
- Requires internet connection even for single-player
- Poor AI makes single-player overly difficult
- Lack of communication options when not using voice chat
- No host migration
Xbox One version review copy supplied by the publisher.