When it comes to releasing a video game, it’s rare that developers get to make a second impression. So when that chance comes, developers should do everything in their power to improve the initial product. Unfortunately, this is not what happened with Warhammer: End Times- Vermintide, which recently made its way onto PS4 and Xbox One after a year of PC exclusivity. Vermintide comes packed with all previous DLC, and still retains excellent co-op mechanics and satisfying combat, but also still has the same problems as when it launched, including abysmal AI and a lackluster loot system.
For the uninitiated, Vermintide is a four-player co-op FPS in the vein of Left 4 Dead, set in the Warhammer fantasy universe. In fact, nearly everything in the game borrows directly from the Left 4 Dead template, but with just enough innovation that fans should find plenty to love. The story setup gets straight to the point before letting players get to the action: an army of rat-like monstrosities called Skaven are taking over Ubersriek, and a band of misfits are the only hope for survival. Players choose from one of five classes, each with different weapons to choose from. The classes themselves are distinct and interesting, and eschew traditional class based gameplay, while still allowing players to find a niche that fits their playstyle. For instance, the lithe elven Waywatcher attacks quickly, and can fire arrows rapidly at her targets, but doesn’t do the same raw damage as the Imperial Soldier, equipped with a longsword and blunderbuss. Each character also comes with their own dialogue and interactions, and while they never live up to their Left 4 Dead inspirations, the over-the-top personalities presented go a long way toward giving the game a personality of it’s own.
The best aspect of Vermintide is undoubtedly its combat. Players alternate between melee weapons and firearms, each of which are specific to the chosen character, and all of which are fun to use. There is a satisfying feedback between shooting twin pistols, and seeing hordes of Skaven rat-men fall before you again and again. Blunt weapons, such as maces and dwarven hammers consistently deliver shockingly violent deaths to your enemies, and cleaving through rotting rat flesh with bladed weaponry is a thrill that never loses its luster. While encounters can be a bit mindless due to the overall structure of the game, combat in Vermintide is always a treat, and features some of the best first person melee I’ve seen since the likes of Condemned.
The combat itself goes a long way towards making Vermintide one of the most compelling co-op experiences I’ve played recently, as each character and class play differently enough to form an interesting dynamic, given you have three other people to play with. Much of the Left 4 Dead formula continues to be utilized here, including the need to work together to take down specialized enemies, and prioritize who needs the limited medical supplies the most. The enemies mostly crib from the basic Left 4 Dead stereotypes; there are stand-ins for the Boomer, Tank, Hunter, and Smoker. But Vermintide innovates with it’s own types, including the armored Stormvermin and the deadly Ratling Gunner, who focuses on one member of the team while the rest try to flank it’s deadly fire. There’s nothing shockingly original about Vermintide’s twist on the formula, but it remains fresh enough that after a while you might not even notice you’ve played this game before.
Unfortunately, playing with the friendly AI changes the game significantly, especially in single player. They can dispatch Skaven and follow the players serviceably, but once any team member requires any kind of reviving or aid they become hapless digital children that are suddenly unable to navigate their surroundings, let alone competently fight. More than once I reached the climax of a mission, only to be downed a few feet away from my artificial compatriots, my avatar screaming for help as they stood around doing nothing. After hearing this was a big problem with the initial release, I held out hope that after an additional year of development, something would have changed for the console release, but sadly nothing has. It’s a shame too, as someone who played a fair bit of Left 4 Dead offline and found plenty of enjoyment. The safest way to play through Vermintide offline is on the easiest difficulty, and even then victory is not assured.
Vermintide tries to mix up its level design every so often by throwing in a variety of objectives for players to complete, to mixed results. Having to deal specific amounts of damage to beams or supports requires a modicum of coordination, and is fun enough, but scavenging the environment for explosive barrels, and having to place them in a specific spot in order to destroy some such Skaven contraption is by far the most overused, and tedious objective in the game. Some levels even throw these in halfway or farther through, while others only consist of small areas with these objectives being the only thing to do. It’s a bizarre design choice, making some levels require twenty or more minutes to complete, while others can be done in under ten.
Also questionable is the game’s loot system, which rewards players with new weapons and headgear for each of the five classes. It’s an exciting prospect as an addition to a game built for deployability, but in practice most of the gear is too similar to be exciting until you reach higher levels, and even then it trickles out at such an annoyingly slow rate that you’ll be hard pressed to even care by the time you get there.
The aesthetic design of Vermintide, however, does not disappoint. As you make the journey across the base game’s 13 levels and 3 additional missions, you and your party will journey to the depths of Skaven-infested castles, across mist laden graveyards, and through crowded cobblestone streets as you sally forth through the Skaven onslaught. Each environment is absolutely filled with detail that serves to immerse players deeper in the Warhammer universe. The variety of environments is bolstered by a fantastic soundscape, giving plenty of atmosphere to each encounter. There is almost a swashbuckling grandeur to the game, as the varied character tropes jest to one another and make observations while still struggling to survive. It’s this kind of set dressing that elevates the trappings of Vermintide from a mere clone to a memorable experience in it’s own right.
At its peak, Vermintide is one of the best co-op action games you could hope to find on consoles. With tons of content and incentive for replay value, it is a nice value with all previous DLC packed in. Its blend of dark fantasy and well-worn shooter territory manages to come together in surprising ways, but issues from the original release still remain. The wretched AI, questionable loot system, and sometimes tedious objectives will be a turn off to some. But those who can get a few friends together for some Skaven-slaying action will be in for a visceral and satisfying experience.