Review | 11/10/2015 at 4:00 PM

Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide Co-Op Review

Somebody Call the Pied Piper

Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide can be boiled down pretty simply: it’s a Left 4 Dead-like game using the Warhammer license set in the End Times, which is both an in-universe event and the literal scuttling of the physical game in favor of a new edition. You’ll power your way through levels, hacking and slashing at massive hordes of ratmen and special Skaven, in order to complete various objectives. You’ve played a game like this before, but this is a refreshing take on it.

Vermintide is a particularly cathartic game for me. When I was a teenager, several of my friends and I were deep into Warhammer. Hundreds of dollars deep. But first, I need to tell you about one of my friends. Let’s call him… “Pete”. Pete is the kind of player who exists only to troll everyone else, so naturally, his chosen race was the Skaven (rat-like creatures that attack in swarms). I could write five thousand words about the number of times Pete did nothing of consequence in our large Warhammer battles other than exploiting the Skaven’s mechanics to annoy the rest of us, who were trying to play a serious strategic game, but alas, this is a video game review.

Let’s just say that when presented the opportunity to relentlessly slaughter hundreds, if not thousands, of ratmen in a videogame, I leapt at the opportunity.

Unlike Left 4 Dead, whose heroes’ abilities were identical, Vermintide has opted for a class-based approach. There are five classes: Witch Hunter, Waywatcher, Empire Soldier, Dwarf Ranger, and the Bright Wizard. The Soldier and Ranger are heavily melee-focused, and can carry shields to help protect the group. The Witch Hunter is more of a hybrid melee/ranged character, while the two ranged characters play very differently. The Waywatcher can fire arrows in quick succession and even pop off a homing shot if she takes the time to aim. The Bright Wizard, on the other hand, slings fireballs and can conjure a pool of flame from the ground, but needs to carefully manage a heat meter. If she overdoes it with the magic, she’ll ignite herself and start taking damage.

Most of the combat in Vermintide is melee-based and feels really, really good. Weapons vary from a light rapier to a two-handed hammer, and those variances are reflected in the damage they do. Quick cuts with a sword or axe make short work of your average ratling - dismembering them left and right - while heavier, two-handed weapons deal sweeping and crushing damage. There’s a definite weight that you feel with those heavy weapons and it makes me wince slightly when they pop the heads of even the strongest enemy. Each weapon can also be charged for a power attack, which can change the type of damage it deals (piercing instead of slashing, etc).

You can also block enemy attacks outright, which drains some of your stamina. This stat is dependent on what type of weapon you’re using, with heavier weapons typically having more stamina than lighter ones. Blocking an enemy attack can be followed up with pushing enemies away, though that further drains your stamina. Those characters that can carry a one-handed weapon and a shield can shield bash a crowd and knock them all to the ground. Finally, everyone also carries a ranged weapon that can be used to snipe enemies from afar, though their effective range is dependent upon which character you’re playing.

The levels themselves come in two forms: “Main” missions (identified with a gold border on the Inn’s map) and “Side” missions. Main missions usually entail your party traversing a large map, making a couple stops to complete events along the way, and culminating in a massive survival sequence and subsequent escape via wagon. Side missions are usually short, but are composed of a larger-scale version of the event types in the Main missions.

You’ll do your fair share of picking up X item and taking it to Y delivery area in these events, but the level design works to keep them compelling. My personal favorite level takes place in a Wizard’s tower. It contains everything you’d want: a bookshelf that reveals a hidden passageway, a room with Escher-esque geometry, and an encounter where you protect the Wizard’s disembodied voice while he completes a spell. All of the levels are dripping with atmosphere, large areas have several branching paths to take, and there’s a surprising amount of vertical movement to keep things fresh.

Interestingly, Vermintide contains a basic loot and crafting system that offer several play styles for each class. Many of the bonuses you receive from all of this gear will increase your damage or survivability. For example, I gravitated towards the Dwarf Ranger, since I enjoy playing as the tank in MMOs. While I spent most of the time using his axe and shield, I could go purely one-handed or equip a massive two-handed hammer, both of which drastically alter his playstyle. As with many other titles, items come color coded based on their rarity, and better gear has increased base stats and slots to add upgrades. You can also choose to dismantle gear for upgrade components, or combine five items of the same rarity to gain a random item of a higher rarity.

In order to get this loot, you have to complete a level first. Doing so brings you to a reward screen where you roll a set number of dice to determine which reward you’ll get. The more successful rolls you get on the dice, the better the reward. If you want to get better odds at great loot, Vermintide has options for you. In the “main” levels, there are two types of hidden items: Tomes and Grimoires. Tomes are easier to find, but take the place of your healing item in your inventory. There are a total of three Tomes to find so a different party member will have to carry each. If your party succeeds in carry them to the end of the level, you’ll get three bonus Tome Dice that have a 66% chance of rolling a success.

There are only two Grimoires to find, and picking one up fills up the potion slot in your inventory, but comes with a greater risk. Each Grimoire carried drops the entire party’s maximum health by 25%, so carrying both leaves each member of the party with only half the health they had when the mission began. Should you manage to carry a Grimoire to the end of a level, though, you’ll get a Grimoire Die that has a 100% success chance. It’s worth noting that unlike the Tome, which can be dropped to pick up and use a healing item before picking it up again, dropping a Grimoire causes it to disintegrate; meaning it’ll be permanently gone for that run. You can also randomly find Loot Dice in treasure chests or by killing Sack Rats in the level, which add more dice to your available pool at the end.

Vermintide, as you might expect from reading the above, supports four players in online co-op. When you’re prepping a premade party for action, you’ll all spawn in the Inn. Constructing a good group isn’t too difficult, though someone will probably want to make sure they equip the Soldier or the Ranger with a shield to help act as a wall between themselves and the squishier characters. The differences in the classes really shine in co-op play and leads to a lot of interesting strategies being devised on the fly. Having a tank and a dedicated spotter for the boss enemies seems to be a good base.

If you don’t start out with a full party, you can begin the game with bots taking up the extra slots. They’re good enough to play through Easy and Medium difficulties, but it’s best to roll with a full crew. Other players can drop in and out at will, and you’ll often get paired with players shortly after starting a match if you have bots along for the ride. I’ve had a few bad apples along the way, giving advice on how to try and exploit the level and refusing to play it as intended, but the system works fairly well. After a round, players can vote to return to the inn and manage their items, or which map they’d like to tackle next.

I’m pretty enamored with Vermintide at the moment. Since its release, it’s been in my regular rotation, and everyone I get to try it has been suitably impressed. It feels like this game is flying under a lot of people's’ radars, especially with all of this Fall’s heavy hitters dropping, but it definitely shouldn’t. If you want a really solid co-op game to drop in for a round here and there, Vermintide scratches that particular itch incredibly well.