A charnel bell tolls in the distance. It signals the death of a world and the coming of the vermintide. Four heroes face the endless hordes of ratmen. Just another day as the world rips itself apart around you. A sequel to 2015’s surprise hit Warhammer: End Times—Vermintide, Vermintide 2 is set in Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy universe, a franchise originally launched in 1983 with the Warhammer Fantasy Battle tabletop wargame.
Vermintide 2 takes many of its cues from Left 4 Dead: four players going through a level, fighting through hordes of enemies and completing objectives along the way, culminating in tackling a gauntlet at its finish, pressing you to the limits as you escape. Like the first Vermintide, you battle the Skaven, a subterranean race of ratmen, now allied with the Norscans, the Chaos-worshiping marauders from the frozen wastes of the north. While the addition of Norscans provides some much-needed visual variety, there’s not much difference in how you combat the rank-and-file enemies.
Returning from the original game are the cast of five heroes, such as the zealous witch hunter Victor Saltzpyre and the battle wizard Sienna Fuegonasus. New is the career system, in which each character has three classes, each with a unique look, active and passive ability, and talent tree. It’s a fun addition, but some careers are objectively better than others—I’d like to see them all be viable at high-level play. Maybe it’s just me, but I like to pick my classes based on visuals. Like the endgame of many video games, it all comes down to fashion—the Witch Hunter Captain looks especially stylish, but the Bounty Hunter career gives lots of buffs to ranged damage—much more useful than the Captain’s increased damage to specialist and elite enemies.
To enjoy Vermintide, you don’t necessarily need to be familiar with the background lore of Warhammer Fantasy—in fact, in 2014, due to sluggish sales, Games Workshop began the End Times campaign (during which the Vermintide games are set) for the tabletop game, an apocalyptic global war that culminated in the literal destruction of the Warhammer Fantasy world and the end of the franchise, and launched a new successor tabletop game, Age of Sigmar. This move riled many fans, though that’s a topic for a different article. While Warhammer Fantasy may no longer be supported on the tabletop, it lives on through video games such as Vermintide and Warhammer: Total War.
Vermintide can be quite difficult, especially on higher difficulties. It’s a game that relies entirely on teamwork; split up, and you’re dead. Enemies are punishing, and are supplemented by a variety of specialists—Skaven packmasters slink in the shadows, looking to snag an unaware player with a noose and drag them off, while a Chaos sorcerer summons tornadoes that suck up players and fling them randomly in an effort to separate the group. Others just want to make life difficult, like a Warpfire Thrower that hefts around a giant flamethrower, or a hulking Chaos warrior that can easily ruin your day.
There are 13 levels to play through, with each taking about 30 minutes. It might sound dull to play them repeatedly, but the AI director goes a good job of mixing up horde spawns, specialist enemy numbers and types, and mini-boss locations to make them feel fresh each time. The levels themselves are varied and gorgeous, from towns ravaged by raids, to pitch-black mines corrupted by Chaos, to lush forests filled with Elven ruins. Each location has its own identity and drips with atmosphere. There’s a loose story interconnecting all the levels, but with the emphasis on replayability, it’s not bogged down by heavy story elements. If the first Vermintide is anything to go off of, we can expect both free and paid DLC to add new levels in the future.
Sound design is up to par, for the most part. Vermintide 2 is a melee-focused game, and the impact sounds, from the heavy blow of a hammer to the quick strikes of a rapier, have real weight behind them. A few characters have access to black powder weaponry—though, when fired, they lack some of the bravado one might expect. The music is well done, painting a mood of unease in the periods of quiet, and providing a real urgency when a horde is incoming or when your group is racing to escape a level.
The player characters talk and discuss with one another, reacting to enemies and the world around them, though they’re a bit too chatty at times. Some of their lines key you in to the dire state the rest of the world is in during the End Times, but about the fifth time Markus asks how Bretonnia is faring, it gets a bit old. Kerillian, the Wayfarer, plays the typically haughty elf, with apparently a majority of her lines being insults at the other characters’ lack of finesse in combat, which really begin to grind as she throws around elven slurs like “mayflies” and “lumberfoots.” Characters could definitely use a greater variety of voice lines or a simple tone down in the frequency of some lines.
A major point of contention in the original Vermintide was how it handled loot—it was difficult to get a piece of equipment for the specific character you wanted, leaving you at the mercy of the random number generator. Vermintide 2 has remedied this by awarding loot boxes at the end of each successful match and every time you level up a character. Don’t worry, no microtransactions here. Each box awards three pieces of equipment, and whichever character you open the box with, you’re guaranteed at least one piece of equipment specific to that character. It’s a much better, though not perfect, system that encourages you attempt levels at higher difficulties for better chances at exotic loot. There are cosmetic items to unlock, but they seem to be extremely rare—it seems you have better odds of winning the Powerball than unlocking a new helmet.
One thing that irks me about the equipment is the lack of numbers. Each piece of equipment on your character boosts their Hero Power. Hero Power affects things like how much damage you do, but nothing is quantified. How much of an increase in damage do I get? What was my base damage to begin with? It’s a similar issue in character talents that are unlocked. I choose a career talent that says “gain health on boss death.” Okay, how much health, and should I assume my base health is 100?
Vermintide does an excellent job of making you feel like a hero, and may very well take the mantle from Left 4 Dead 2 as the prime co-op FPS (well, first person melee) game. Each bellow of a Norscan warhorn or the toll of the Skaven bell, with friends or with strangers at your side, makes you an integral part of the team. Tabletop game be damned—jump into the Warhammer Fantasy universe, you won’t be disappointed.
Warhammer: Vermintide 2 is available on PC, with plans to launch on Xbox One and PS4 later in 2018.