‘Vermintide’ excels with gameplay, lacks polish

“Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide,” to be released Oct. 23 suffers from technical glitches in otherwise promising pre-order beta. Courtesy Fatshark

Games Workshop, holders of the storied “Warhammer” (1983-present) and “Warhammer 40,000” (1987-present) intellectual properties, has had an interesting couple of years. Its core miniature war-gaming business has chugged along per usual, but there has been a huge spike in the number of “Warhammer” and “Warhammer 40,000” video games that are being released. Like a dragon squatting on a mountain of gold, Games Workshop has jealously guarded its IP, granting relatively few developers licenses to produce games set in its universes — but no longer.

Games Workshop has shifted licensing strategies recently, opening the proverbial floodgates by permitting a comparatively huge number of developers to make “Warhammer” and “Warhammer 40,000” games. The result of this strategic adjustment has, predictably, been the release of a deluge of titles of varying scope, and, unfortunately, varying quality. “Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide” (2015), by Swedish developer Fatshark, is due to be released on Friday. It is the latest title to come out of this glut of games and is presently in the midst of a technically flawed — but extremely promising — pre-order beta.

“Vermintide” is set in the “Warhammer” universe, which is essentially medieval Germany with heavy fantasy elements. More specifically, the game takes place during the “Warhammer” world’s “End Times,” a long-prophesied apocalypse where the evil forces of Chaos sweep down upon the nations of the world and inaugurate a conflict of world-ending proportions. One component of this multi-faceted doom is the Skaven — repulsive rat-men — rising up from the sewers of mankind’s cities to slay all that they come across. It is these foul creatures that players of “Vermintide” must confront.

The game’s official Twitter account aptly characterizes the game as an “action co-op” title. In “Vermintide,” four players work together to kill hordes of computer-controlled Skaven while also completing objectives, all from a first-person perspective. Each player takes control of one of five heroes drawn from across “Warhammer’s” rich lore and uses their character’s unique abilities in concert with those of their teammates to progress through each level. These heroes are based on well-trodden gaming archetypes: Markus Kruber, a large human solider, and Bardin Goreksson, a burly dwarf ranger, are able to soak up the most punishment, while the Witch Hunter Victor Saltzpyre and the elf Waywatcher Kerillian are comparatively fragile but can output greater damage. The Bright Wizard, Sienna Fuegonasus, is the odd duck of the group, and uses her flame magic to incinerate groups of enemies at a stroke. Each hero has a melee weapon and a ranged weapon with limited ammunition, with the exception of the Bright Wizard, who will simply explode if she overuses her flame magic.

It is a pleasure to play as each of these heroes, who fight with the kind of physicality that many games have tried, and failed, to capture. The verbal interactions between the characters, which occur spontaneously during gameplay, are well-written and provide an insight into the characters’ relationships, as well as the state of the “Warhammer” world. Although all the dialogue is performed well, the caustic witticisms of the Witch Hunter, delivered in an imperious snarl that would put Severus Snape to shame, stand head and shoulders above almost any video game voice work. The environments through which the heroes battle are also impeccably well-realized, with gorgeous cobbled streets and detailed buildings, all under the green-tinged half-light of a baleful moon. This faithful presentation of the “Warhammer” universe results in a game that truly inhabits its setting.

The first-person action-game formula, in which four players battle hordes of enemies, was established by Valve Software with its“Left 4 Dead” (2008-2009) series. From the “special” Skaven that pose particular challenges to players to the fountains of gore that erupt from slain enemies, “Vermintide” wears the influence of these games on its sleeve. The “Left 4 Dead” games were rightly criticized for quickly becoming bland; players could easily experience all the content they had to offer in a handful of play sessions. Fortunately, “Vermintide” seems to have learned this lesson from its predecessor. By introducing a progression system whereby players are rewarded with equipment at the end of each level, “Vermintide” may surpass what came before by giving players a reason to play again.

For all its excellent presentation and gameplay, the “Vermintide” beta has, at least for this reviewer, been dogged by technical flaws. From crashes to perpetual loading screens, it suffices to say that Fatshark has some bugs to squash before the game’s final release.

Though the beta may suffer from serious technical flaws, “Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide” is an outstanding multiplayer romp that fully leverages the richness of its setting. However, prospective buyers may want to verify that the game is in a better state before shelling out money for it.