In the world of cooperative action games, Left 4 Dead and its sequel loom large. Numerous games have chased the success of Valve’s zombie horde shooter, but the majority have stumbled, either failing to capture the spirit, or worse, cleaving too close to the source material. Warhammer: Vermintide, which was released in 2015, as well as the 2018 sequel, Vermintide 2, are two of few genre examples that managed to thread the needle. They’re structurally reminiscent of the Left 4 Dead series, but nevertheless distinguish themselves in one key way…
Warhammers. And axes, swords, maces, flails, and halberds; an entire melee suite at the player’s disposal. If Vermintide has one central, distinguishing feature, it’s the reorientation of first-person action away from Left 4 Dead’s long-ranged headshots and spray-and-pray tactics, and toward thunderous, concussive blows and frenzied, up-close-and-personal thwacking.
At nearly half a decade old, Vermintide 2 is itself a wizened co-op classic. With thousands of players still matchmaking on Steam, and developer Fatshark about to release its first-person shooter Warhammer 40,000: Darktide (pending further delays), I thought it worth jumping back into Vermintide for one last fantasy romp to reevaluate the game’s successes.
One of Vermintide’s strongest features is its setting. The impact here can’t be undersold — as a world continually developed since the early ’80s, Games Workshop’s “Warhammer Fantasy” setting does a lot of the heavy lifting: It absorbs you, from the get-go, in its slightly whimsical grimdark universe. As I mentioned in my review of Chaos Gate - Daemonhunters, the world-building and lore of Warhammer, having been built up around small plastic figurines, has a history of doing a lot with relatively little. Warhammer possesses an uncanny knack for conjuring up the delicious sense of something otherworldly with just a single word. In Daemonhunters I became obsessed with terms like “astropathy” and “archeotech”; in Vermintide 2 it’s the “Skittergate” that instantly seizes the imagination.
As with the original game, Vermintide 2 focuses on the threat of the Skaven — a species of cruel, conniving ratmen who scurry about in the subterranean world beneath the human kingdoms. It’s the Skaven who create the evocatively named Skittergate — a Warpstone-powered portal that leads to the realms of Chaos, and which is central to the main campaign’s plot. Through the portal arrive the bloodthirsty Norscans, who, together with the Skaven, make up the game’s many enemy hordes.
And Vermintide 2 is very much a game of hordes — of throngs, floods and swarms that, like those original Left 4 Dead zombies, scamper over architecture and pour through doors to surround you and your team of heroes. Beating back the horde takes on an almost rhythmic quality as you furiously hack at the oncoming traffic of rats and Chaos warriors. Swipe left, swipe right, make sure your enemies are in front, rather than behind — at times combat is a kind of spatial puzzle, more in common with PowerWash Simulator, in which you’re washing up a mass of mess and sweeping up trash, than anything resembling a choreographed duel. Ranged combat isn’t completely absent — in some cases, it’s a more efficient tool for dispatching elite enemies — it’s simply more of a punctuation to the melee action.
Almost every hero can specialize — the five characters each possess four different “careers” (three, in Sienna’s case, as her final class has yet to be released). Victor Saltzpyre, a Witch Hunter, who initially feels like a nimble, lightly armored assassin who’s excellent at targeting single enemies, can eventually become a gun-toting Bounty Hunter, or even a heavily armored, hammer-wielding Warrior Priest. The game’s melee slant certainly makes experimenting with ranged weaponry an alluring prospect. But the most important aspect here is the sheer amount of customization: weapons, career abilities, and play styles.
This flexibility is vitally important to the ongoing success of Vermintide 2. Although the game offers a mass of cosmetic upgrades (sometimes paid for with real money), paintings to collect and hang on the walls of your hub area, and of course, loot, none of these feel like the reason people continually return to play.
Cosmetics feel especially inconsequential, due to both the game’s visual age and its muted aesthetic. There’s a real commitment to grimdark Gothicism in Vermintide 2 — it’s difficult to quantify the amount of caves and gray-brown subterranean warrens you’ll cut your way through in the course of a campaign. One level funnels you from an underground asylum into a sewer, then finally, a catacomb. There are a few outdoor levels offering more spectacular, bucolic vistas, as well as the “Chaos Wastes” area that makes much better use of Warhammer’s vivid purples, pinks, and reds. But these are anomalies in an otherwise staid landscape.
Loot is another aspect that doesn’t contribute as much to Vermintide’s enduring popularity as one might think. It’s an enticing carrot on a string, of course: Tomes and Grimoires are scattered across each level, and carrying them means sacrificing a health potion slot and/or a hefty chunk of life (Grimoires reduce your health by 30%). These books are a classic risk-versus-reward mechanic — take the penalty hit and complete the mission with them in your possession, and the treasure chest you receive at the end of every level will offer better loot. Like all multiplayer level up-athons, the looting creates a compulsive loop, but the constant flow of weapons, trinkets, jewelry, and charms isn’t what I’d consider a game changer. A sword — orange or maybe purple-tiered — still works exactly how you’d expect; a crossbow at “Power Level” 300 behaves just as it did at Level 5.
It doesn’t take much to unlock each career and try out the majority of weapons on offer — and yet, with Fatshark’s continual support, and a relatively healthy player base despite the passing years, there are clearly good reasons to continue playing even after you’ve seen everything.
The biggest change to Vermintide 2 over the years has been the free The Chaos Wastes expansion. Billed as a new, “roguelite” game mode, it leans into what many love so much about these kinds of cooperative action games to begin with — variation.
While the original Vermintide 2 campaigns allowed for plenty of discrepancy, with their own version of Left 4 Dead’s lauded “AI Director,” The Chaos Wastes adds even more ingredients into the mix. A kind of randomized mini-campaign, your Expedition through the Chaos Wastes is entirely self-enclosed and non-permanent — you begin with nothing but a basic set of equipment, and as you and your team progress, you’ll collect coins that can then be handed in at altars to enhance things like your weapons, or add new abilities and passive talents to your hero.
The Chaos Wastes introduces a mass of randomness and unpredictability to your playthrough, changing up things as fundamental as the construction of levels, with certain paths being blocked off, or starting and ending points being moved about or even reversed. Loot also takes on a more significant role, as the game isn’t afraid to let you become overpowered, or even just oddly built, with bizarre combinations of boons. All is stripped away after completion. This is Vermintide 2’s endgame — and its best facet. Forget all the cosmetics; forget your “Power Level,” specific equipment, or career. Jump into the Chaos Wastes, with friends, and smash your way through the hordes, relishing in the fact that you’ve no idea what’s next. Since the beginning, Vermintide 2 has had a solid core, capturing much of what makes these kinds of horde games so enduringly popular. But it’s also proven, over time, that it has something new to offer, with The Chaos Wastes adding some much-needed volatility to this endless procession of fantasy brawls.