Rats, rats, rats. Rarely has it before been so easy to sum up a game’s themes as it was with Warhammer: The End Times – Vermintide. At least the phrase ‘Rats, Rats, Rats’ does a better job than trying to extrapolate what the hell is going on by the title alone. While the concept of the game is very simple, the title feels like it’s trying to end several times and never quite manages to get around to it, leaving you out of breath whenever you’re trying to tell anyone about it. Consequently, whenever most fans of the first game talk about it, they end up trimming off the first two parts and just refer to it as ‘Vermintide’, which if anything is a much more apt description than the rest of the title was.
So back in 2015, Fat Shark Games managed to come out of nowhere with a sleeper hit in which the player took control of one of 5 different heroes to take on a seemingly endless horde of human-sized rat people. The game was exceedingly popular being ‘based’ on the highly liked ‘Left 4 Dead’ series, and minor issues of balancing and bugs aside, the game was a pretty big success for the studio. This meant that, according to the laws of the gaming industry, the game was going to get a sequel, and so here we are again, jumping waist deep into the mire of filth which happens to be the Warhammer Fantasy Universe.
The first major difference this time around is that instead of simply being a game about fighting hordes of rat-men, now it’s a game about fighting hordes of rat-men and their grubby human friends. While this doesn’t seem like a big change at first, it does at least help to differentiate things from the first outing a bit since we’re essentially following the same 5 yahoos around again, despite the apocalyptic sounding bit of the title. Even the five main characters didn’t survive without a bit of a change-up, however, now each of them has three different job paths to follow that provide them with different bonuses, weapons and playstyles. These different job paths do manage to spice up the gameplay quite a bit, meaning that each character has a definite purpose during a mission. The bulky Dwarf wrapped in more metal than is seemingly a good idea is very clearly a tank whose main purpose is to take damage and draw the aggression of the enemies while his friends rip them to pieces. Conversely, the sneaky Elf who can turn invisible but falls apart like she’s made of Rich Tea biscuits when hit is clearly intended for hit and run tactics to deal large amounts of damage to tough enemies. Each character has their place, and trying to play them in a way that doesn’t make sense is more than likely going to have you being laughed, or more likely shouted, out of any matches you do manage to play.
To go along with this new job system, there are also two new features. One is a set of abilities for each job, and the other is a set of talents for each job that definitely sound like two different things. Each job has two special abilities: The first is a passive ability, like generating ammo or not taking damage every 23 seconds, that happens without you having to really do anything (hence the term “passive”). The second ability is activated after having a purple bar on the GUI fill all the way and is usually something a bit more useful. Sometimes it’s turning invisible for a short moment, sometimes it’s a rush or charge that does big damage and occasionally it’s when your character can’t take the stress of it anymore and just decides to have a little shout at the enemies, which they don’t take very well. These abilities, both active and passive, and knowing how to use them can be the difference between coming out of a situation alive or having to retry the same mission for the 50th time because the Dwarf won’t stop throwing his smoke bomb when he’s supposed to be trying to save you from a giant warty troll.
The talents work in a very similar way to RPG levelling elements in other games. Once you hit every 5 levels up to level 30, you unlock a talent point which you can put into one of three different bonuses. These bonuses are usually tied into your job, i.e., the tanky Dwarf job can get more health or choose to have more stamina for blocking, etc. The bonuses come in a variety of different usefulness ratings, ranging from ‘flicking a pebble at a rat ogre’s butt’ to ‘using the divine hammer of god to kill a cockroach’, but they all have their place in making the character your own. One of the best elements about this feature is that you don’t get locked into spending these points and can switch each one for any of the other two upgrade choices anytime you’re between missions, meaning that if you pick one and don’t think it’s doing enough to make a difference, you can always go back and switch it out later.
Thankfully, the loot system from the previous game has been overhauled as well. Long gone is the system of trying to unlock as many dice as possible, only to discover that 9 out of 10 of them have rolled as empty and given you the same sword you’ve already earned 20 times before. Now you earn crates filled with loot at the end of each mission and after each time you level up, each one containing three different pieces of random loot. Before anyone panics, while this sounds like a loot crate system, it actually isn’t, at least not in any of the ways that matter. You cannot purchase chests filled with random loot, the only way you can get these chests is by completing missions and actually playing the game, which is a godsend in a game where having the right equipment can make your characters 1,000 times for effective. Just as in the last game, it is possible to create and alter your equipment by using the forge. Here the system is a little different. Instead of using different coloured dusts which are either earned from missions or taken by melting old weapons away, you now have to have the right templates and ingredients which are also earned from melting old weapons and items down. This might not sound like much of a change, but with the increase in the amount of loot you’re gaining from each mission, it makes more sense that there would be more stringent requirements for creating newer weapons. On top of that, it is entirely possible to unlock loot crates with one character and then simply open them with a different one, meaning that you can mess around with your favourite character until you’ve unlocked enough decent gear for your secondary one, so you don’t have to start from scratch like before. In that vein, there is also a prologue chapter which actually acts as a proper tutorial, unlike in the last game where they just drop you into a level and hope that the player manages to figure everything out on their own. This game also tells you what is happening in the story, at least better than the completely optional introductory cutscene that plays every time you start the game.
While a lot of the changes from the first game have been good, there have been a few more baffling ones. Throughout the course of the last game’s lifespan, the developers had a good reputation for listening to their players and making changes that the community generally found quite favourable. This included things like adding a lore page system, adding contracts to the missions and altering how the ‘AI Director’ would add monsters to the different levels. While the game did launch with some issues, they were all eventually resolved, and we ended up with a healthier game to enjoy. It would have been nice if any of these changes had been remembered for the release of this new game, but it seems like the devs may have developed short term memory loss. The lore page and contract systems are both missing from the game’s missions hub, but there are a couple of suspicious places which look like they might be able to accommodate these features at a later date, which does beg the question, ‘Why not implement them from the get-go?’. On top of that, all of the balancing fixes that the last game had appear to be missing in this one as well. Several times during the course of playing the game, we were ambushed by hordes while fighting boss monsters or were overrun by three of four ‘special’ mobs at a time. The worst offenders for these balancing issues are the Bile-Trolls and the Blightcasters.
The former of these is a giant, bile-spewing monster who can regenerate his health and is only slightly harder to take down than Pablo Escobar, part of his problem being that when he spits bile on you, not only do you lose the ability to move properly, but you also go blind and start taking constant damage. Any two of these effects would be lethal enough on their own, but all three together had a tendency to spell the end for the poor bugger who managed to attract the ire of the troll, because not only are you taking damage that you can’t escape from, your condition also gives the troll enough time to lumber his way over to you and bash you into a corner so you can’t escape from his fists. The second mob mentioned above, the Blightcaster, is a sorcerer who teleports around the battlefield whenever he’s hit and has a tendency to either cast a vortex of swirling green magic or latch on to one poor sucker and suck the life force out of him. The main issue with these monsters is the fact that the game has a hard time figuring out how many of them is too many, and on several occasions we’ve defeated two of the bastards, only to have another one teleport in behind us and start sucking our health out through our nostrils.
Luckily, the unbalanced nature of the game goes both ways. Some characters with certain equipment set ups and job roles are completely overpowered. In particular, the fire mage has a certain staff that will obliterate entire clans of foul, stinking rat people off of the face of the Earth in a single sweep. It might feel a little bad at first to be relying on a single character to help your party get through a level, but after you’ve been mucused to death for the 5th time during the same troll fight, you’ll start to feel less bad about how much damage your companion can put out.
Despite everything though, the game still manages to come away with a recommendation. After you’ve been playing it long enough, you settle into a comfortable niche with your chosen character and job, carving your way through hordes of disgusting enemies with your friends by your side. The loot system is much less grindy now thanks to the changes to weapon crafting, and it is just good old-fashioned fun to smash a rat’s brains out with a giant hammer, then use your special ability to run behind his big friend, stick a crossbow up his arse and pull the trigger. Besides, in a few weeks’ time, most of these things will probably be patched out if history manages to repeat itself.
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: 8th March 2018