Unless you are striving to avoid all things geek, then surely you’ve heard of Warhammer. You know, that Warhammer. The glorious spawn of Games Workshops, whose name is synonymous with fantasy awesomeness, strategy and tactics games, and unfortunately questionable business practices. But it’s a hell of franchise any way you slice it.
For decades, the original Warhammer Fantasy Battle game was shackled to the mortal, analog realm of tabletop miniature gaming. Slowly but surely, Warhammer strategy games begin to permeate across the digital divide, with the more recent entries like Total War: Warhammer and its sequel making waves and bringing the kharnage of battle (see what I did there?) to life.
What might be a tad less well-known is that Games Workshop decided to kill off the Old World through the “End Times” events, effectively rebooting their whole fantasy universe under the Age of Sigmar (AoS) banner. I have no comment on AoS. But I can tell you that the events leading up to it, the eponymous End Times, are an awesome thing in their own right.
So it’s with great pleasure that, today, we are discussing one of the more recent ventures into the hellscape of the End Times with a wonderful strategy and tactics game: Warhammer: Vermintide 2 (VT2).
In a nutshell, VT2 is a scenario-based game set in the End Times, where you direct a band of heroes across various missions in the ruined city of Helmgart and other nearby locales. The region is under siege by a bloody tide of ratman (that’s the Skaven, aka vermin-like little buggers) and Chaos legions aligned with Nurgle (the Chaos god of decay). Scenarios range from capturing and securing resources for human survivors, to sabotaging Skaven war machines, recovering lost magical artifacts, and much more. There is a terrific variety of scenarios that take place across different landscapes, from the wilderness to ruined cities. The types of scenery and attention to detail is just awesome.
But what is most shocking and fresh about VT2, however, is the approach that developer Fatshark Studios has taken to the overall gameplay. Simply put, compared to most strategy games, the level of immersion in VT2 is something to behold. As we all know, most strategy games are played from the perspective of an ethereal overseer, as if the player were floating like a drone, weather balloon, zeppelin, or satellite over the field of battle. VT2 goes in a different direction.
Remember Battlezone? The RTS game where you could play the majority of the game from the first-person perspective of your command tank/walker/thing, queuing up your base building operations and issuing orders from the cockpit? VT2 is a bit like this, as your perspective is entirely locked to the hero you’ve chosen to play for the current scenario. This is really immersive. No more detached god-emperor point of view from which you marshal your forces. No, you are the god emperor, out on the field of battle controlling their every movement.
What is even more distinctive however, is that unlike most strategy games, you only ever control a single hero unit at a time. Each scenario you play through will include three other heroes accompanying you through the mission. These other heroes are controlled by robot AIs when played in single-player mode, or can be played by other humans in the cooperative multiplayer mode. Pretty clever for this type of game. When playing with the bots there are some limited command options to direct them to perform certain tasks, like carrying potions and lore books, which gives you a bit more tactical control.
We often talk about wanting strategy games with interesting asymmetries, where each faction has unique and different capabilities. At the most extreme end are games like AI War, where the opposition you are fighting is completely different from what you manage in your own faction. VT2 is well-aligned with this, as the factions (aka Heroes) you play are not only quite distinct from each other, but the overall opposition in the game you fight against (the aforementioned hordes of Skaven and Chaos) play by a totally different set of rules. It’s not uncommon to finish a scenario having dispatched over 2,000 foes between yourself and three companions. Heck, monsters, armored stormvermin, chaos patrols, and everything else often materializes, seemingly out of thin air and right behind you, to thwart your plans. How’s that for asymmetrical powers?!
Speaking of the heroes, a brief introduction to each is in order. First up is Sir Markus “I’m a bloody battering ram” Kruber, playing the role of the beefy hero with an awesome mustache and sporting fantastically feathered hats. Second is Victor “The Ravaged Body” Saltzpyre, a one-eyed Witch Hunter and glorious agent of Sigmar. Third in line is a man of shorter stature, Dwarf Master Bardin “These Stairs Go Up” Goreksson, a ranger who likes long walks in the tall grass, hammers, and his Cousin Okri. Fourth (my favorite) is Sienna “Fire Consuming Me!” Fuegonasus, a bright wizard (aka fire mage) that digs body candles, fireballs, and metal chains. She’s hot, hot, HOT! The fifth hero is an elf.
VT2’s strategic-layer is connected to a research/technology tree of sorts, with a unique one for each Hero. It reminds me a bit of Rogue-like games that have a permanent progression system, where each time you play through a scenario (aka “do a run”), you’ll earn experience that can be put towards persistent benefits. In VT2, earning experience from completing scenarios unlocks new tools for victory (see Troy’s proposition for the core mechanism of 4X games) in the form of talents, which are special passive or active abilities your hero can utilize during play. Each of the five heroes has three separate “careers” that you can swap between, each with their own set of skill advancements. Generally, each hero has a career that’s more damage focused, one focused on tanking and crowd control, and one focused on utility and support abilities.
The other component of the strategic layer is equipment choices for your hero. As with other strategy games featuring heroes, like Age of Wonders 3, you can find magical items to equip and expand that hero’s capabilities. In VT2, completing missions will present you with a treasure chest containing three different items (weapons, trinkets, charms, etc.) for the taking. Another suite of mechanics, which has become ever more ubiquitous in strategy games these days, pertains to crafting. Treasures can be broken down into various components and used to build, upgrade, or otherwise change the stats of gear, allowing you to finetune your heroes’ capabilities. The crafting system can be clunky at times, but it’s nevertheless a core part of the gameplay.
In summation, the strategies you employ in a scenario are a function of your decisions regarding hero advancement and equipment selection. This, in turn, translates directly into the tactical choices and gameplay style you’ll need to employ during a scenario. Tank-y Markus Kruber, playing his Foot Knight career, can charge into battle and lay waste to foes on the front line, all the while utilizing skills to reduce the damage he takes. Sienna, as the Battle Wizard, can wield various flavors of fire staves to rain down fireballs from a distance and then trigger her firewalk ability to scorch a path through enemies to get quickly to a troubled teammate. What is quite surprising is that all of the fifteen hero careers in the game are reasonably well-balanced and offer benefits to the overall team.
When it comes to weapons, each one has its own pattern of light, heavy, and push attacks that leads to a different style and pace of fighting – as you must intermingle strike sequences with blocking and dodging. Small, light, and fast weapons generally give your hero good mobility and flexibility to avoid damage, but will usually require many more strikes to take down tough armored opponents compared to a heavy two-handed executioner’s sword that can cleave a stormvermin skull like a melon.
Each hero has access to about a dozen different melee and ranged weapons, so there is a healthy of diversity in both individual playstyle and how the whole group of heroes balance their equipment loadouts to deal with the full range of situations that will crop up during a scenario. This is much like other squad management games (i.e. XCOM 2), where outfitting your units with a well balanced loadout is important.
Speaking of these situations, in no particular order your hero will have to deal with: armored Stormvermin patrols, horde events and ambushes, packrats and gutter runners that will disable your hero unless saved by a comrade, blightstormer chaos sorcerers that create tornadoes of plague wind sucking up friend and foe alike, and finally big monster encounters. The monster fights are tactical mini-boss engagements, pitting heroes against rat ogres, chaos spawn, and more, which will challenge your ability to stay coordinated as a team.
Unlike a lot of strategy games that let you take direct control of a unit, the controls and “feeling” in VT2 is exceptionally well done. It does not feel like a tacked-on feature at all, and it’s clear the developers cared about making the first-person control system work really well. Actions are crisp with plenty of visceral feedback as strikes clatter against a bulwark of armor or cleave through a tangle of rat-limbs and heads in a vicious, holy blow.
This attention to detail is critical, because as you go up in difficulty level (from Recruit to Veteran, Champion and finally Legend) enemies are more numerous, tougher, and harder-hitting. Like other high-skill ceiling RTS games, there is definitely a strong “actions per minute” (APM) component to playing VT2. Those that aren’t prepared for intense, real-time gameplay should proceed with caution. For the rest, buckle up!
At the immersive level, VT2 does a fantastic job with world-building, lore, and (surprisingly) dialogue. Each scenario takes place in a completely different feeling environment, from plague infested swamps to burning cities, mines, elven forests, and crumbling cities. Needless to say, the visuals are pretty awesome. But the best of all is hearing the continuous banter and cajoling that pops up between the heroes. It breathes an air of authenticity to the characters, which you rarely get from strategy games, such as the elf (in typical fashion) calling everyone else “lumberfoots” and short-lived “mayflies.” The voice acting itself is downright brilliant, with scores of memorable one liners and pithy retorts punctuating the general clamor of battle. It’s lovely.
VT2 just had its first-year anniversary. Since release the game has continued to be supported by Fatshark through six major patches and two DLCs, the latter of which added new scenarios (six in total), cosmetics, and weapon options. Plans have been laid for a major expansion due to land this summer, which will add the Beastmen enemy faction to fight against, additional new weapons and scenarios, and a suite of higher difficulty options for the pain gluttons among us (I’m a member of that crowd). VT2 outsold the first game’s entire lifetime sales during its initial launch period, and with an expansion in the works the prospects looks good for the game’s future.
There is a lot more I could talk about here: the deed system, the integrated Twitch mode (that lets Twitch viewers vote on real-time in-game events!), the relative tradeoffs and nuances of the Barkskin vs. Natural Bond necklace trait, Cousin Okri, which Saltzpyre weapon has the best breakpoints, multiplayer quickplay matchmaking, support for semi-official sanctioned mods, and what the drop rates for cosmetic hats really are. But those are merely details, minor quibbles or treasured icing on the cake, to what is overall a fantastic game. A fantastic strategy game. And of, course a fantastic Warhammer game. It’s Vermin-time!
TL;DR: Vermintide 2 is an incredible strategy game, built around advancing and outfitting a band of richly-detailed heroes. You wield these heroes one at a time, guiding them through a series of replayable scenarios. The gameplay itself is real-time with a high degree of control fidelity as you make split-second tactical decisions about target selection, movement, and team coordination. It uses an innovative first-person perspective view, rarely seen in strategy games, to create a highly immersive experience. Combine the frantic pace of tactical combat with awesome word building, witty character dialog, and tough strategic choices and we have an obvious winner on our hands.
You might like this game if:
- You are a fan of fantasy-themed strategy games
- You have no aversions to demanding real-time games that require high APM (actions per minute)
- The Warhammer setting fills you with exuberance and the light of Sigmar
You might NOT like this game if:
- You don’t like Battlezone or other strategy games that utilize direct, first-person control of key units
- You have a phobia of rats and tentacles
- You don’t find elves funny
Oliver purchased Vermintide 2 of his own volition. Or perhaps Sigmar willed it. Oliver Kiley has played over 300 hours of Vermintide 2 on a Clevo Notebook ( i7-6700HQ Skylake CPU, 16GB DDR4, GeForce GTX 980m).