When the new XCOM: Enemy Unknown was announced, I was really excited. Not just for the XCOM franchise itself, (although, y’know, that too), but for the games that would come out if XCOM:EU were successful. The tactical strategy genre had been shot in the face a few too many times in the past and no one was making those games any more. If the game sold well, we would get all kinds of copycats and the genre might be revived. Well, guess what? Enemy Unknown was really successful. And we got a lot of XCOM-style turn-based strategy games, not to mention some great mods like Long War and the upcoming XCOM 2 release. My plans are all coming together…
One of these new XCOM-likes is Mordheim: City of the Damned set in the popular Warhammer universe, an IP that’s getting a lot of work lately. Total War is working on a Warhammer edition, Warhammer End Times – Vermintide, a first-person-shoot/hack is out now on Steam, and Forbidden Stars, a board game set in the Warhammer 40K IP, may very well be the tabletop game of the year. There’s more where that came from, too. For those unfamiliar with Warhammer, it’s… Wait, seriously? I have to tell you what Warhammer is? Just… I dunno, Google it or something. Next you’ll be wanting me to describe Star Wars.
In any case, Mordheim is the tactical combat game you expect, set in the Warhammer universe you know. And it’s looking very, very good.
Prepare for battle
Mordheim was developed by first-timers Rogue Factor, based in Montreal. The game is based on a cult-classic offshoot (called Mordheim, duh) of the main miniature roll-and-measure Warhammer games, originally released waaaaay back in the mists of time known as the 1990s.
Basically, the setup is this. There’s a city called Mordheim located in the lands of Imperial Humans (the Holy Roman Empire of Warhammer) known as The Empire. It used to be super nice; low rent, nice education system, good public transportation, the whole thing. Then a big frickin’ evil space rock crashed right into the city and the whole place went to hell. Now the city is irradiated, mutated, and frankly quite dilapidated. It’s also littered with valuable space rock/Macguffins called Wyrdstone or Warpstone. Your band goes into the city to get itself these oh-so desirable stones, but there are dangers there, not the least of which is other warbands running the same get-rich-quick scheme. Also, Wyrdstones can give your characters all kinds of gnarly powers like extra action points or better attacks. Or they can mutate you into oblivion, make you sick, give you a debilitating injury or outright kill you. So, yeah… I mean, how can you not want them, right?
The game offers you a choice of four factions, ripped right out of Warhammer lore. You have human mercenaries who are the most balanced and (probably) familiar. There are also hammer wielding warrior women called the Sisters of Sigmar who are the tankiest of the bunch, but have some magic spells. Chaos mutants are, for the most part, the magic using faction. Finally, there are the Skaven, a race of hyped-up oversized rodents who bring speed and stealth. Each faction has its strengths and weaknesses, but we all know that the giant rats are where it’s at.
The customization options for your faction of choice are, frankly, well above expectations. You start with a party of five made up of an uber-powerful leader, a mostly powerful hero, and a bunch of rank and file stab sponges… er, young and eager warriors. You can build a team of sneaky backstabbers, frontline tanks, glass cannons, or a mixture of all three. Further, each character can be customized, both in how they look and how they fight. Your options for building a squad are limited by the faction you choose, so try to pick a group that fits your strategic preferences. If you like sneaking around, the Sisters of Sigmar will not be for you. If you like fighters that can absorb some serious damage, then maybe don’t go with Skaven. There’s also a good amount of RPG potential here – characters will gain levels, increase their stats and become more powerful over time. More of that in a mo.
I found I really grew attached to my war band – giving them cute little outfits and feeling a real sense of pride when they shot some jerk in the face. I wanted to see them grow and I was legitimately upset when they died. Which happened. A lot.
Post-battle there are plenty of options as well. The game has a bunch of persistent features that help the campaigns feel like one large mission rather than just a handful of disjointed events. Unlike XCOM:EU, however, there’s no forced narrative filled with red herrings and twists. I actually prefer this to XCOM:EU, in which I felt like a lot of the time the tale was just getting in the way of gameplay, rather than moving it along.
Your characters will get injuries and buffs that carry from battle to battle. Some injuries are pretty straightforward – characters can’t be used for a certain amount of time until they heal. Others have more permanent effects that last from campaign to campaign. These injuries are, like everything in Mordheim, subject to the RNG. But at least the penalties for them make sense. Lose a leg and your avatar will be short some movement points the next time out. Those things don’t grow back, y’know. Get clomped on the head and your character may come back stupid, unable to use their full complement of action points.
On the other hand, do well, and you can acquire new skills and spells – from the standard fireballs to stat boosts – to help you take on far more powerful foes. As in any RPG, your characters will gain experience from combat and improve over time. You’ll be awarded points post-mission to level up your army’s abilities – make them better fighters, give them better aim, or make them less likely to turn tail and run.
Even better, players can eventually add uber-powerful units, called Impressives, like ogres or chaos spawn to assist their warband in dominating the city of Mordheim. The AI currently struggles to use these giant units. Specifically, there are a lot of pathfinding issues, but I have faith that it will be fixed.
There are also larger overall benefits available that buff all your armies, not just the one warband. Depending on your reputation with certain groups, earned by giving them your extra Wyrdstone, you can earn discounts in the store, get a boost to your earnings from selling goods, or gain rare, stat-building items.
In return for all this running around and risking their lives, the characters will demand gold after each mission. If you don’t pay them, your people won’t fight. Beyond paying your troops, you also have to satisfy your sponsor: the unseen master who sent you to collect the Wyrdstone in the first place. They will send you demands for more stone and if you don’t collect enough, you will be punished with decreased resources and can, eventually, lose the game.
It really feels like you’re managing your warband, taking ownership of the individual characters and moving them towards larger goals rather than just completing random missions. But let’s be honest, if the tactical battles were terrible, none of this stuff would matter.
Combat really is the meat of the game. Players can choose either PvP or PvE missions across the city proper. PvP is the standard match-finding lobby you’re used to. It works fine enough. MP is very dependent on the existence of a dedicated community and, to some extent, that is really out of the developer’s control. No group of regular players? No good multiplayer. In my own experience, I was able to find a PvP game on a random Thursday morning – a really good sign.
Before picking a PvE scenario, the player is told how hard the encounter will be and how loot-heavy the map is. There are also “story” scenarios, purely optional, that take place in special maps and have more involved objectives. If you don’t like your options, you can pay scouts to look for more lucrative engagements. Depending on the scenario, your troops will be placed across the map and given a set of objectives – usually collecting Wyrdstone and killing your opponent to death.
Maps are also randomized. There are two ‘settings’ right now: the Noble Quarter and the Merchant Quarter. Within those settings are several base maps and each will have further randomized parts, such as the inside of buildings. This helps make a repetitive experience somewhat… yeah, no, it’s really repetitive. To the positive side, the maps are well designed and interesting with plenty of layers and chokepoints to make you think about how to deploy your warband.
Rogue Factor say they’re big fans of the original Mordheim and it shows. They probably also preferred the original X-Com rather than the n00b-friendly reboot. This game is deep. Like many squad-based battlers, each of your characters has a set of points to spend on their turn. Points are broken down into two types. Movement points control how far a character can move per turn (duh). Action points can be spent on attacks, but also other options such as stances or overwatch.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the number of strategic options available. Depending on the situation (where your character is standing, what weapon they hold, how many action points they have left) you have a bunch of different options. Sword wielders can be set to dodge or parry if engaged with an enemy. If not, they can be set to ambush mode (the melee version of overwatch) or try to use their perception to scout the world around them. Archers/gunmen can go into overwatch, waiting for some unsuspecting enemy to run into their line of sight. You may also, again depending on the character, be able to cast a spell, usually a stat buff for better damage or increased movement. It’s all very situational, and it can be challenging to understand the benefits of each option, let alone know which choice is strategically superior.
Regardless of what you decide, everything comes down to a die roll. Want to climb down that ladder? Roll a die. Shoot some mutant standing right in front of you? Roll a die. Pause the game to use the bathroom? Roll a… Well, OK, it’s not that bad unless the RNG makes you po’d. If it does, you’re not going to be happy here. Players are constantly at the mercy of the random number. Sometimes, you luck out and things go your way. Most times, it feels like you’re fighting the digital, unseen pseudo-dice more than any other opponent on the map.
Beyond the ubiquitous enemies, players will also have to take on the environment itself. Every map is loaded with traps to trip up anyone but the most careful of players. These will cause injuries or debuff your characters, weakening them before they even enter a fight. Yet another strategic option, perception, will have your warriors look for traps, but even this isn’t foolproof protection from the dangers of Mordheim’s maps. That perception power is also supposed to help you find loot, but the overhead map will give you the same info, so its utility is really limited to trap finding.
There is also a random chance on every map, so long as your squad is above level six, that a lesser-demon will show up and wreak havoc on both sides. I can tell you from personal experience, it’s literally sickening when all your perfect plans drop into the warp because of a surprise demonic visit.
Battles, themselves, are punishing. The AI plays pretty damn well and, obviously, actual experienced humans are even better. You will get ripped to shreds, often, and the game will punish you further for your mistakes with permanent debilitating injuries if not out-and-out deaths. Getting a warband through even a relatively easy encounter can be an absolute nightmare. I get nervous just watching the load screen.
Mordheim makes one curious misstep, in my opinion, and it’s here in the battle maps. Players control each of their characters from a third-person perspective (Some people prefer this view. But then, some people also like bologna), a la Grand Theft Auto or Mass Effect. Yes, really. You move with the WASD keys, click to attack, the whole thing. It is odd, to say the least. The graphics here are great, especially for something by a small team, and I can respect wanting to show them off. But it is really uncomfortable in a strategy game to only have a close-in look at the landscape. As I said above, Rogue Factor has done a great job on map design, really great, with all kinds of interesting levels and buildings and hide-y stab stab places. The forced camera view makes it all look nice, but functionally it’s a nightmare. Oh, that looks like a cool place to ambush someone from, too bad I’ll never figure out how to get there, or how to get away from there, or…
Yes, there’s an overhead map feature, but it’s very general and hard to really utilize effectively. I often found myself lost, unable to formulate a battle plan because of the limitations of my view. The overhead map will also show you the location of loot and Wyrdstone, but it’s often just as confusing as it is helpful. That loot looks like it’s inside the building across the street? Where? You’ll be wasting half the game trying to wander around and find it while your other characters scream impotently for reinforcements. Yes, I know that if I were actually a soldier this is what I’d see, but once you have five foot tall rats holding swords, claims of reality go right out the window.
Let me be clear, this is not a game-killer. It took me a while to figure it out, but I learned ways to get around the map and after a while, I was able to enjoy the game despite the design choice. But it’s not ideal and this is not how a “feature” should work – as a hindrance to be overcome. Especially not one that’s so integral to the game experience like the camera. It’s like going horseriding without a saddle. Oh, sure, it’s the “natural” way and I “feel” more of the ride, but holy hell do I hurt after and really, for no good reason.
The battle is joined
Let me give you an example of a recent battle. I’m playing as the Sisters of Sigmar, a human faction. I begin the encounter with three of my members around our battle wagon, base thingy and two other fighters scattered to the far corners of the city. A large cache of Wyrdstone sits in the middle of the map. I start by inching my main group of three towards the center. Meanwhile, the other two are on their own and just waiting to be ambushed. Using the overhead map and the helpful location markers, I plan a roundabout route for both of the stragglers to try to meet up with the main group and, mostly, just stay out of trouble.
That works for one of my mace-wielders, but the other trips over the main force of enemies. Yikes! She takes a shot to the chest from a rifleman in overwatch, but then manages to pull back. The other troops keep moving toward the Wyrdstone, leaving one lone gunman to follow my retreat.
Meanwhile, my main group enters the Wyrdstone cache, surrounded by buildings almost like an arena. The enemy, those lousy human mercenaries, starts slipping in as I gather the radioactive green goodies. I send one of my low level troops after one of their ranged rifle dudes and quickly cut him down. Then the enemy hero appears and I send my own after him for some hero-on-hero action. But wait, right in the middle of our fight, a giant demon appears! Oh crap!
My other hammer-wielder is on her own, hiding in an alleyway. Her attacker runs in and triggers my mighty warrior’s ambush. Jump! Slash! Down goes the enemy! Huzzah! My character is badly injured in the fight, but she managed to turn the tables. It looks like she has a clear path now to go and help the others.
Back in the Wyrdstone arena, the purple/pink multi-armed nightmare-fuel demon thing just ripped the enemy hero to pieces. Now it’s turned to my main matron. She gets a few good hits on the thing but it’s just not going down. I send another sister to help, but she fails her fear check and just stands there, praying to Sigmar.
The next round, the demon-thing dematerializes – back to the warp with ye! I turn around, take out another filthy mercenary, and the rest of my assailants fail their courage check. They rout and I win!
Back at the home base, I have character points to assign to my troops and some extra cash to spend on armor. My main sponsors are demanding 100 pounds of Wyrdstone and I’ve only got about 75 stashed. I still have nine more days to get it though, so I should be alright when the time comes. Time to fire up another mission!
Mordheim has just been released on Steam for $39.99. For a new release, the game is in fairly good shape. In all my play time, I have yet to encounter a game-breaking bug. Further, the dev team has clearly worked hard to polish the game. Just in the time I spent playing in Early Access and writing this review, Mordheim has already been patched six times. That’s awesome. I have no doubt the developers will continue to support this game.
New players will also find a surprisingly in-depth tutorial option. It’s not perfect – I was still floundering for a good number of matches – but for a non-AAA title it’s pretty robust. This is a pleasant surprise. There are games much further up on the polish ladder (from larger studios with greater resources) with far less on offer to help teach the game. Good on you, Rogue Factor! It’s this attention to little details that really reinforces my faith in the game.
My concerns at this point are not at all overwhelming. I’d like to see more scenarios, there’s really only two or three variations right now. The load times are epic. I really wish there was an option for an overhead view. That said, I do have some reservations. The game, as it stands at release, has a lot of camera issues. I’ve spent a lot of time staring at blank walls while my poor army takes it on the chin. The game is also still missing features (The AI controlled Impressives I mentioned above, for example) and in general just feels… uneven. Unbalanced. As a beta, as an Early Access, I think the game is in a great place with work to be done and a promising future. But as a full release… well, I’m much less inclined to forgive the misfires.
Most concerning, to me anyway, is the price. I don’t usually weigh cost too much. What’s cheap to me might be hella expensive to someone else. In this case, though, $40 seems like a lot for what is, in the end, basically one scenario. This goes beyond the complaints with XCOM:EU having the same gas station on every map. No matter what you choose to do, it’s still your dudes vs. someone else’s in the same city. That’s it. To some extent, that’s the issue with the license: Mordheim takes place in one location and complaining that there aren’t other options is sort of like wondering why Monopoly doesn’t offer different layouts. But it doesn’t change my feeling that the cost is well above what players would expect to get for that outlay. It’s unfortunate. This is a well-made game that deserves to be played – I hate saying it, but you’re probably going to want to wait till this one goes on sale.
You might like this game if:
- You like squad-based strategic gameplay
- You hate how they dumbed down XCOM:EU and want a deeper strategic experience
- The Warhammer setting makes you feel all funny inside, like when you climbed the rope in gym class
- You enjoy a game that beats the ever-living crap out of you for daring to take it on
- You like meticulous gameplay that rewards min-maxing and grinding
You might NOT like this game if:
- Third-person, over the shoulder controls make you twitchy
- You can’t stand violence, blood, or horrific mutations
- You need a game to have a story
- $40 sounds like a lot of money for what is, essentially, a one-trick pony
Joshua has played for 35+ hours on a custom-built Maingear X-Cube with an AMD Phenom II X4 processor, 8 GB DDR3 RAM and a Radeon HD 5800.