I am intimidated by the word “Warhammer” — maybe you can relate?
I hear “Warhammer” and I picture hundreds of intricate figurines flanking a stack of dog-eared rule books filled with increasingly difficult-to-pronounce names, places and things — like, say, “Vermintide.” So please trust me when I say that the most exclusionary bit of Warhammer: Vermintide 2 is its title. (And maybe the ultra-violence.) The game requires no knowledge whatsoever of its predecessor, its series or its brand. In fact, Vermintide 2’s focus on blunt melee combat makes it a surprisingly forgiving entry in a genre known for twitch reflexes and precision aiming. If ever there were an entry point to Warhammer, this is it. And if you don’t care about learning an ounce about Warhammer, well, you should give Vermintide 2 a shot anyway.
If you’ve heard one thing about the Vermintide series, it’s probably the inevitable comparison to Left 4 Dead, the cooperative zombie shooters published by Valve back when Valve published that sort of game. In both franchises, you and three other people sprint from the beginning of a level to its end, slaughtering hordes of fast but brainless enemies along the way. For spice, a handful of especially dangerous creatures with unique skills appear now and then to throw off your rhythm. Survival is ultimately earned through teamwork. Run off from your group? Get stingy with your healing kits? You’re doomed.
The most obvious divergences, as you can tell from a single screenshot, are that the zombies of Left 4 Dead have been replaced by fantasy creatures and gun combat swapped out for melee. The differences do go deeper, though, reflecting how games have changed since Left 4 Dead debuted a decade ago.
Vermintide 2 features five different character types, each with its own abilities and upgrades, along with three distinct subclasses. For example, the rogue character has an optional subclass that focuses on aggressive melee combat and long-range arrow attacks, and another subclass that rewards stealth and backstabbing. Roles are obfuscated by some in-fiction jargon (the rogue is called Waystalker, stealth class is Shade and so on), but every bit of tricky verbiage is accompanied by a concise layman’s description. If anything, Vermintide 2 is gradually making me fluent in Warhammer’s terminology; go figure.
The other shrewd and modern addition to Vermintide 2 is loot, and the reward boxes that accompany it. As you complete missions and level up your character, you get boxes that contain random new charms, armor and weapons. Each stage features tomes and grimoires that, if carried to the end of the mission, improve the quality of the loot boxes. However, tomes fill the inventory slot for healing items, and grimoires take the space of potions, adding a nice risk/reward to the proceedings.
Even if you don’t bother with tomes and grimoires, Vermintide 2 borrows from the lessons of Destiny, dishing out rewards that are roughly at your current level or slightly better. You always seem to be improving, if only slightly. Mercifully, the game doesn’t allow you to purchase loot boxes, and, at least in the first few hours, rewards them liberally, so that you feel as if you’re constantly becoming a more powerful slayer of human-sized vermin. And so you may find yourself craving one more round, and then another, and oh, what the hell, how about another.
The loot box loop benefits from the quality of the weapons, which aren’t merely invisible upgrades to your strength; they handle quite differently, serving different purposes for your party. Daggers have a small window of attack, but are quick and lethal. Spears are slower, but they can swipe in 180-degree arcs, and easily push enemies to the floor. (This ability — to knock back a dozen or so enemies, creating some temporary breathing room — is another small but wonderful way in which Vermintide improves on the Left 4 Dead formula.)
What I didn’t expect to love about Vermintide 2 is the focus on melee, a design that kept me away from its predecessor. Where Left 4 Dead and its sequel felt like the glossy Hollywood horror films of the 1980s and 1990s, Vermintide 2 has the immediacy of the handheld-filmed horror of the 2000s. Hordes of enemies are far more terrifying when confronted at arm’s length, and evading their grasp feels more like a complex dance, rather than an endless bout of circle strafing.
This focus on close-quarters combat could be claustrophobic, but Vermintide 2 features many grand, open environments. Sometimes it struggles to nail its tone (one minute your character is joking, another minute you stumble across the site of what appears to be a mass suicide), but most often, the game gleefully embraces the colorful silliness of a good B-movie.
Playing with friends also helps to keep the tone breezy. While Vermintide 2 offers serviceable bots to fill your party, I found that even voiceless strangers made for more tense, more surprising adventures. The game doesn’t demand the strategic execution of team shooters like Overwatch or Rainbow Six Siege, making rounds winnable with the pop-up text box. Higher difficulty levels add challenges like friendly fire and no doubt require more collaboration, but the lowest difficulty option maintains tension and allows the team to fill the screen with blood, arrows and fire without fear of total self-destruction.
For people like me, people discouraged by a humongous franchise, it’s helpful to think of Vermintide 2 like a roller coaster in a sprawling theme park: The gaudy entrance may suggest a greater connection to some larger fiction, but once you’re in your seat, all that matters is the ride.