I ran down the dark alleyways of Ubersreik, my dwarf’s heavy footsteps echoing out in stark contrast to the pitter-patter that now infested the cobblestone streets my adventurer called home. My allies, more versed in magic and archery than the sheer brute strength I exhibited, ran along on rooftops and the higher roads, loosing arrows and fireballs as the swarm of hungry rats fell upon our hunting party. Being the front end of the charge was exhilarating, and there was a great joy to be had slaughtering any rat-faced Skaven unfortunate enough to cross the path of my blade while the hunting party following suit picked off any survivors. We neared closer to our objective now, but every step we took the tide grew stronger. Rat-men of all shapes and sizes oozed out of every crevice, and the weight of my responsibilities grew too much to bear as the vermin tore away at my armor, prompting the Witch Hunter in my company to join the fray on the ground while the Bright Wizard created a flaming beacon of destruction to annihilate the congregation of slave rats that were rapidly approaching the center of the battle and their pack masters leading the charge. The situation seemed to be recovering rather nicely, and the beasts fell one by one by blade and bow alike, cries of celebration from the party as our victory grew nearer, the doors to the end of our journey almost close enough to touch. Then, there was a hitch in the plan. Our Waywatcher fell, and a earsplitting roar rang out across the city as the Rat Ogre appeared and claimed its first victim. The rest of us turned our attention towards the rooftops, towards the final obstacle our team had to overcome if we were to claim our rightful victory. I steeled myself for battle, and charged once more into the fray, my sights set on the massive abomination leaping down upon me and my axe thirsty for blood.
This narrative is how most sessions of Vermintide play out. A mix of teamwork, small victories, glimpses of despair, and copious bloodshed. Much like the games it takes inspiration from (namely Left 4 Dead and Payday, with a little bit of Borderlands thrown in for good measure), Fatshark’s first foray into the Warhammer universe relies more on these small emergent gameplay moments to create spectacular experiences, rather than worry about set pieces or a fantastic narrative. Vermintide is at its best not when the story is unfolding or when your loot is being sorted out, but when you’re right in the middle of the action, chopping off limbs and sniping the enemies in your path with a squad of buddies at your side. The objectives serve not as plot points to string the story along, but as markers to show where your little war party must venture towards next; the loot serves not as a driving motivator, but as a cherry on top of all the hacking, slashing, and burning going on around you. It’s a spectacular combination of some of the best pieces of four-player co-op games in recent memory, and although the formula has certainly been done before, Vermintide manages to do enough with what it has to turn out greater than the sum of its parts. While it may not be as deep as people would like, the moment-to-moment gameplay is absolutely phenomenal, and I can say without a doubt that this Warhammer-based adventure offers some of the best co-op experiences of this or any other year.
The gameplay revolves around four adventurers (chosen from five highly distinct class types, two melee-focused, two ranged, and one in-between) progressing from objective to objective within the city of Ubersreik and beyond during the largest Skaven invasion the world has ever known. You team up with your friends, charge though streets, sewers, and alleys filled with rats, and collect loot along the way. It’s a simple construction of game elements, but Vermintide offers up a bundle of variations on usual formulas to make things unique. For example, instead of simply relying on single objectives to progress through a stage, Vermintide mixes things up by presenting you a fairly large open space to adventure in, offering side objectives to provide defenses or supplies to the townspeople. To a well-coordinated group, you can easily spend over an hour on a single stage even on the lower difficulties trying to accomplish everything that the level has to offer. Not only do side objectives provide a greater sense of completion to the whole experience, but they also provide one of the key components to developing your characters: loot.
Taking components from Diablo and Borderlands, the loot system is a marked improvement over the comparatively light offerings Payday 2 and its kin have on offer. Throughout the stages you collect dice of varying rarities, with higher difficulties offering a higher chance for epic gear. You roll these gathered dice once you’ve made your way back to the Inn, with each one offering a random piece of loot correlating to the rarity of the dice. It functions incredibly well, as after a single level you’ll almost always find something shiny you’ll be able to use in the next game, and the way higher difficulties give you better weapons means that there’s always room for improvement. So little of it is truly luck-based, and I found myself really enjoying the way the system operates. Also of mention are the extra-rare rewards presented to high level players: hats. Purely cosmetic, the hats serve mainly to make your character look unique compared to their usual garb, and are only given as rewards for playing on the two highest difficulties the game has on offer, which is no easy task.
There is a story linking all of this together, and while I consider it superior to the likes of L4D, it still leaves a lot to be desired. The characters all have their own motivations for being in Ubersreik in the first place, and the overarching plot that carries you through the game’s levels links well into the Warhammer universe, but it simply offers too little of substance to really be worth paying attention to. Not that I’m complaining, four-player cooperative experiences have never really been focused on storytelling and Vermintide is no different. I have respect for it in that it does more than most games of the genre are willing to do, but the main focus is definitely the combat and the objective-based gameplay, both of which are accomplished to a stunning degree. Cutting down Skaven with your friends is far more satisfying for the kind of game Vermintide is, and the bare framework of what I’m supposed to be doing is more than enough to offer plenty of enjoyment regarding the theme the game is going for. It’s the same reason Left 4 Dead was so addictive, the story wasn’t exactly top notch, but it essentially said “zombies are here now, go kill them,” and gamers were placated. Transplant that idea but replace zombies with giant man-eating rat-men, and you’ve essentially got Vermintide.
The only major flaw I can see in the game is that it seems to be somewhat poorly optimized for both old and new PCs alike. My rig isn’t exactly up to snuff with most high-end ones, and my framerate suffered as a result, but several friends that I played with mentioned that it struggled to keep 60FPS throughout the game no matter what kind of setup their computer had. Disconnects were frequent, there were some instances of the game crashing for every one of us, and a quick peek at the Vermintide forums on Steam showed me that these problems were near-universal. These problems have no impact on the appearance of the actual game, which looks gorgeous no matter what you run it on, but it’s still a problem worth mentioning as it did impact my experience negatively, no matter how small of a problem it may be. For the most part I got along with 30FPS just fine, but once the more massive mobs started showing up things began to slow down quite considerably.
Still, don’t let mention of technical issues dissuade you from looking into Vermintide. It’s one of the best cooperative experiences I’ve had in 2015 easily, and is sure to be one of the games I play most often in the months and years to come when I’m itching for my four player mob-killing fix. An interesting enemy to fight, the peaks and troughs of moment-to-moment combat letting you celebrate victories and lament defeats, and the stellar loot system all contribute to an amazing experience. If you’ve ever been a fan of Left 4 Dead or games like it, Vermintide will definitely not disappoint.