One of the best co-op games of recent years gets a sequel that mixes Left 4 Dead, Dark Souls, and… loot boxes.
Two years ago, when we reviewed the first Vermintide, we made the obvious comparison between it and the classic Left 4 Dead series. In the intervening time there has, unsurprisingly, been no talk of an official new sequel in Valve’s franchise. Gabe Newell did recently say that the company aims to start making games again, starting with card game Artifact, but considering Valve are probably the least reliable company ever, when it comes to talk of if and when they’ll release something, it’s hard to get excited about the prospect without any real proof.
Which is just one of the reasons why, despite a few missteps, Vermintide II is so welcome.
Although Vermintide and its sequel are set in the Warhammer fantasy universe you don’t need to know anything about Warhammer or the original to enjoy this. You don’t need to know anything, in fact, other than how to use a controller and how you feel about murdering hundreds of evil rat-men creatures. If you’re okay with the latter, and feel like it might actually be quite fun with a few friends, then Vermintide II is the game for you.
The original Vermintide was never much interested in storytelling, even though it had some surprisingly witty dialogue, and the sequel is only a little more ambitious in that sense. It’s still set during the ‘End Times’ of the Warhammer universe and this time the Skaven rat-people have teamed up with Chaos warriors, which not only expands the variety of enemies but the types of attacks they use.
If you’ve never played Left 4 Dead before – and it is almost a decade since the last one, so it wouldn’t be surprising if you hadn’t – it is not a complicated concept. The original two games were first person shooters where you had to fight off hordes of generic zombies, as well as other more uniquely skilled monsters. Both Left 4 Dead and Vermintide are four-player co-op games by design, and although there is an option to play on your own we wouldn’t recommend it for anything other than working out what the buttons do.
What made the Left 4 Dead games great was the excellent level design, which meant replaying the same maps again and again never seemed to get old; the foreboding atmosphere of doom and high tension; and a clever ‘AI director’ that not only made sure every match was different, by placing different enemies in different positions, but always seemed to know which one to spawn exactly where you didn’t want it.
Vermintide II manages to replicate almost all of these elements extremely well, and while the 13 maps are perhaps a little too linear, they still remain completely unpredictable no matter how well you memorise their layout. One time a darkened city street or mine tunnel can be empty, another time filled with hordes of Skaven, and other just a single epic (i.e. mini-boss) enemy. The excellent sound design means you often know when an enemy is nearby before you actually see them, and hearing the wail of a war horn, indicating an imminent enemy raid, is literally panic-inducing.
The game has around 50 weapons in total, many of which are ranged, but as you can imagine from the setting this is not purely a first person shooter. The range of bows and firearms work well but it’s the thudding physicality of the melee combat, as you crush enemies with giant hammers or bisect them with axes, that is by far the most satisfying. The combat is mechanically very simple, with just a single attack and block, but each weapon handles differently, with different timings to learn. It’s unexpectedly reminiscent of Dark Souls, in that the controls are simple but the action is not.
We don’t name drop From’s classic by accident either, as Vermintide II is extremely difficult, especially for newcomers. Most enemies can kill you in just one or two hits and because there’s no checkpointing having everyone in your party die just before the end can mean 30 minutes of wasted action. Although the same can happen if your host happens to leave mid-match, and with no way to boot out unruly team-mates the game’s online options are peculiarly underdeveloped for a PC-orientated game.
The user interface is awful too, especially when it comes to the game’s role-playing elements. This is something Left 4 Dead never had, and with multiple sub-classes for each character it should be one of Vermintide II’s trump cards. But it’s such a hassle to deal with it actually becomes a liability, especially when you take into account the Star Wars: Battlefront II style loot box system.
It’s not quite as restrictive as EA’s system, and there’s no microtransactions, but obtaining new and more powerful weapons is tied to random loot and a Destiny style power level. But it’s all extremely vague and means your reward for completing a match can be very underwhelming, and it’s only the flexible crafting system that stops it from completely ruining the game. We think it’s meant to be another influence from Dark Souls, but because of the loot boxes it just ends up feeling shady and confusing.
We imagine the technical issues with matchmaking will be sorted out pretty quickly, but it’s not clear what, if anything, is going to happen to the loot boxes. We hope developer Fatshark give it a rethink though because Vermintide II is just on the cusp of greatness. The game design and graphics are excellent, and if they can just sort out the role-playing side of things then it won’t matter whether there ever is a Left 4 Dead 3 or not.
Warhammer: Vermintide II
In Short: Even without microtransactions, loot boxes manage to spoil another potentially classic game, although the core combat and co-op atmosphere still shine through.
Pros: Great action, with some of the best melee combat around. Lots of highly replayable levels, excellent graphics, and fantastic co-op gameplay. AI director works very well.
Cons: The loot box system is almost as dumb as Star Wars: Battlefront II and the user interface is peculiarly opaque. Strangely primitive online options.
Formats: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, and PlayStation 4
Release Date: 8th March 2018 (consoles TBA)
Age Rating: N/A
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