To get it out of the way, yes Vermintide is a lot like Left 4 Dead. It’s a great point of reference in most areas. This is a four-player co-op FPS where you either have to get through a series of areas (like a town or some sewers) or complete some simply objectives in order to escape. The enemy comes in the form of a horde of Skaven (rat people) with special, powerful ones like ones who jump on you, ones who drag you away, ones who poison an area and ones who are huge and take the whole team to bring down. Teamwork is encouraged by making you basically useless a lot of the time when you are disabled by enemy, requiring someone else to come and help you. You also need to ration health supplies, bombs and powerups in order to progress. The game is structured around a set of levels (13) that can be played over and over again on progressively harder difficulties. While the comparisons are many, and initially a little overwhelming as it starts to feel like more of a total conversion mod than its own game, spend some time with it and the differences begin to emerge. Yes it borrows a lot of the best ideas from Left 4 Dead, but then it also innovates and really makes a name for itself.
Vermintide is set during the Warhammer ‘End Times’ history. There’s no space marines and Tyranids – that’s 40k, and it’s not really about the giant armies of regular Warhammer clashing, instead it’s about an apocalyptic world where the survivors seem to be desperately trying to hold off the inevitable. There’s a bit of a steampunk aesthetic going on mixed in with medieval style towns and a whole lot of melee weapons and savagery. You can choose from five classes at the start of the game and each has its own quirks. For example most characters use ammo for their secondary weapons, but the Bright Wizard simply needs to cool down frequently to stop her blood from exploding. The Dwarf is shorter than everyone else and genuinely seems to have trouble getting headshots with his axes.
At the end of each level you play a little game where you roll a set of dice and the outcome decides which piece of loot you can get from a selection of weapons, hats and trinkets. The more tomes you collect along the way (present in about half the missions), the better your odds are of getting something good. These weapons drop so infrequently (one per mission completed) that they often govern which character you play. We’ve had two blues drop for the Bright Wizard so that’s who we play with at the moment, perhaps if we get a good Swift Bow we’ll move over to the Elf.
In terms of gameplay it initially seems to be quite frantic. Skaven appear in their hundreds and you need to hack your way through them to achieve your goals. They’re not mindless zombies though, they do a clear tell when they’re about to attack and you have a chance to either attack quickly and try to kill them before their blow lands or you can block and parry their attack, leaving them open for retaliation and often creating some space around yourself. That sounds quite simple in theory, but in practice you have more than five surrounding you nearly all the time in the larger fights and spotting tells and deciding when to block quickly becomes an absolute nightmare. When you play with the best players you’ll see they wade into crowds and barely take any damage at all, where a new player will get ripped to shreds. There’s a huge amount of skill in this that was perhaps missing from Left 4 Dead’s co-op mode and it’s refreshing to see playing well rewarded so much.
The levels are a lot of fun but due to the nature of the loot system (one item per run) the public are already falling into patterns where only two missions really get played. One is much quicker than all the others and one gives you an easy route to get all the tomes and grimoires, thus allowing you to get a good item at the end almost guaranteed. Fatshark (the developers) already seem to be working on this and hopefully they can introduce some more loot drops that help people to play all of the content as there’s some great variety over the maps. Some are huge vertical mazes where you have to gather explosive barrels and can drop them down through the level to be picked up, one is spread across a sprawling farm landscape in the day, some are claustrophobic corridor crawls through stereotypical dungeons and creepy mansions.
Graphically it seems to be a fairly average looking game until the hordes appear an you realise just how much is going on at any one time. The crowds are genuinely impressive and limbs fly through the air and blood splatters all over the place without tanking our framerate (on an r9 290 at 1440p/144hz). The art style has it’s own decadent charm ,particularly with little skulls and arcane symbols scattered around the place in unusual places.
As with Left 4 Dead there’s a randomness to the game, with the bigger enemies always appearing at different spots and this lends a ton of replayability, as well as an incentive to give it ‘one more try’ as you get murdered but think perhaps next time you’ll get an easier ride. You probably won’t, the game is brutal, even on normal difficulties, and never makes life easy for you.
Overall, Vermintide is easy to recommend and can be bought for just £22.99 on Steam, which is an absolute steal. If you’ve got a group of 4 and you’re keen for some co-op hacking and slashing, you can’t go wrong.