Talk about a busy name. I went into this review completely blind, knowing nothing of tides of vermin, Warhammer, and only having a biblical account of the end times. Having played a good bit of the game now, I can comfortably declare that if the actual end times have as much to do with rodents as the Warhammer version of the apocalypse does, rat-catchers and exterminators will become the heralded heroes of our not-too-distant future.
My introduction out of the way, let’s address something now: Warhammer: End Times Vermintide is a Left 4 Dead clone. I don’t know if “clone” is the most polite word to use here or not, but if it walks like L4D and quacks like L4D, I’m going to call it how I see it. In any event, I certainly don’t mean it as a slight. I love Left 4 Dead, and the fact that so few people have replicated its formula has genuinely (and pleasantly…) baffled me. The game is arranged in the same way, with four players/AI heroes playing cooperatively to survive a level filled to the brim with easily-killable symbols of this world’s Armageddon. Where Left 4 Dead had vampires – I mean zombies, sorry Francis – Vermintide has…well…rats.
Lots and lots and lots of rats.
Big rats, small rats, quick rats, slow rats. There are even special rats that fulfill the roles that the special infected had in Left 4 Dead. Instead of a hunter and its leap, you have an assassin rat who uses smoke. Instead of a smoker’s tongue-lynching, you have a polearm wielding rat who hooks your neck and tries to drag you away. Instead of a spitter, uh, spitting, you have a gas rat that lobs toxic gas at the party. Instead of a tank, you have…well…you have a tank with an itty bitty adorable rat head, so really it’s still just a tank.
There are a few special rats that aren’t really inspired by Left 4 Dead enemies, like the Ratling Gunner, who uses a Gatling Gun (get it?!) and the armored rats, who can only be damaged with heavy attacks.
Speaking of heavy attacks, one of the biggest differences between L4D and Vermintide is a pointed focus on melee combat, no pun intended. While L4D2 introduced proper melee weapons to its mix, Vermintide takes it a step further. Expect to use blocks, pushes, dodges, charge attacks, and to alternate between weapons with distinct styles, too. Each character has multiple close-quarters or ranged weapons to choose from, and you may find yourself favoring a sword and board for its defense over the offensive power of a great axe. It’s a fresh take on the gameplay from Left 4 Dead that makes each character feel unique, instead of just interchangeable avatars that play identically to one another save the shape and color of the hand holding the weapons on your HUD.
The game even introduces a loot/crafting system where each level has a chance to reward you with a new weapon, which can be used or deconstructed for materials to improve existing weapons or create a new one. Each character has multiple inventory slots to allow a degree of customization beyond just weapon selection.
Unfortunately, that’s where much of my praise ends. Vermintide adheres so closely to Left 4 Dead’s formula that it retains the good and the bad. In single player, the AI can’t carry bomb items, and worse, whereas in L4D the AI would use pills or adrenaline, in Vermintide the AI refuses to use either the strength or speed potions. Not that it matters, because the potions don’t last for half a minute, it seems. Trying to hold on to one for “when you really need it” is an exercise in futility. You can’t even use the AI as a mule, as it isn’t possible to throw items to them to hold until later.
The other major issue I had was that the AI was frustratingly, mind-bogglingly stupid. I favored the elven archer whenever possible, and rather enjoyed picking off rats from a distance both before and during horde attacks. God forbid that, though. Perhaps it was a social faux pas on my part, but apparently in the Warhammer mythos, a raised and notched arrow is a way of greeting fellow adventurers, and the AI was always courteous enough to stand directly in front of me to say hello whenever I was trying to aim. If I moved to the right, they would dutifully move right along with me and gleefully obstruct my view. If I moved to the left? Why, they wouldn’t dare let me get a look at those nasty rats. They’re far too considerate and insisted they shield my eyes from the spectacle rather than allow me to aim.
I appreciate that Vermintide wanted to introduce classes to the L4D formula, and in fact I think it’s a rather fantastic idea, but if they are, the AI needs to reflect that, and the melee focused soldier and ranger should be smart enough to go out and fight hordes to give ranged characters breathing room to snipe. Likewise, I shouldn’t have to pick up my wizard ally every five minutes because the AI is too incompetent to realize that the woman with fireball magic favors a ranged approach instead of running headlong into a fracas with nothing but her wits and a long blade.
With this AI piloting, she isn’t quite witty enough to survive such an onslaught, trust me.
Of course, you can remove such a problem by playing online, as the game is absolutely geared toward four player co-op, but then if you aren’t playing with friends, you will encounter a dingbat like I did who, rather than leave a potion for his teammate following behind us, was content to drink the potion and pick up his medical supplies and leave the teammate with nothing.
Because nothing says “co-operative” like “bleed out on the floor because you don’t have any supplies and I won’t heal you.”
The game has a good deal of content with about a dozen or so levels (some are short, with just a “Grab the Gasoline” style to them, again, a la Left 4 Dead), but unlike the checkpoint/safe house system used in the levels of L4D, each level in Vermintide is a straight shot, and if you die, that’s it. Start over from the beginning and like it, chump. This is less of a deal breaker in co-op, but it’s positively maddening if you’re playing alone and the main reason you failed was because your friend the soldier decided that standing stock still and getting shot was far more important than reviving you or another downed teammate.
In all fairness to my idiot soldier friend, had he moved behind a wall for cover, it wouldn’t have worked anyway, as the Ratling Gunner apparently fires magical ghost bullets of some variety that pass through all solid objects and hit you regardless of what you’re hiding behind and regardless of how many of those things are between him and you. The collision detection might need a wee bit of tweaking in that respect…and would it kill them to add a pause feature for games where you’re playing solo?
While it may seem that I’ve dumped on Vermintide quite a bit, I actually rather like the game, and had a great deal of fun playing it. With friends, it’s quite fantastic, but it feels unpolished and is sometimes downright frustrating to play alone. The loot system is nice, but in its current form, it’s an absolute grind, and I only managed to get good loot from a completed level twice. If the loot system and AI could be refined, you’d have a real gem here.
The bulk of this review has appropriately focused on gameplay, but that isn’t to take away any credit to the game’s sound design and graphics. The art style is appropriately grim, dark, and depressing – something I understand to be something of a staple for Warhammer – and the graphics themselves are quite lovely in that aesthetic sense as well. The game looks great if you can run it on its highest settings. The sound design is also solid, even if the game is somewhat lacking in actual music. The audio cues, voice acting, and effects are all nice, although I had a bit of an issue with the sound when I was just using my desktop speakers instead of my Kraken headset. With the headset the sound was divine, where there seemed to be many dead areas with the speakers. I’m perfectly willing to consider this more of a system and settings issue than a game issue, though, and I’m confident players with better technical knowledge and willingness to experiment will be able to remove the issues I experienced.
As a closing note, the game lacks any sort of competitive multiplayer or versus mode, which I found puzzling. It didn’t alter my personal opinion of the game, but I do feel it deserves mentioning for the players who were looking for something to entertain them for more than just the available cooperatively-focused levels.
In the end (times), I would call Vermintide a successful experiment, but one that needs to be taken back to the drawing board to iron out its flaws before it’s ready to take its place amongst the truly fantastic team-oriented experiences available in gaming, and especially available on Steam. Flaws notwithstanding, it’s a fun experience and one I’ll be happy to revisit with friends in the future.
Score – 7.0 / 10