Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide offers more than generic fantasy tropes.
Perhaps due to the severe culling of its active product lines, Games Workshop has been free with licenses in recent years and suddenly we’re drowning in new and upcoming titles like Space Hulk: Deathwing, Mordheim: City of the Damned, Warhammer 40,000: Space Wolf, Battlefleet Gothic: Armada, Blood Bowl 2, Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor – Martyr and of course Total War: Warhammer – to name just a few.
Of all of these, the one that’s really caught my eye is Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide, a first-person co-op action RPG where payers battle an infestation of the rat-like Skaven.
I don’t know that much about Warhammer, and one of the reasons I didn’t get on board was how generic the whole thing felt. Sure, some of the models were super cool, hinting at a more interesting fantasy universe, but in general it just looked like the standard Tolkien-esque elves and humans versus orcs and monsters set up – something all too common in fantasy in general, from Dungeons and Dragons through JRPGs.
Vermintide feels different, maybe because it’s the first video game take to be set during the setting’s apocalypse. My attention was first drawn when developer Fatshark revealed its mage character, choosing not the usual Gandalf knock-off but a sarcastic older woman with pyromaniac tendencies (see: my life goals). To my pleasure, the other characters similarly avoid lazy fantasy tropes.
Here, perhaps, is my gateway to the Warhammer universe, which according to friends in the know, is a lot more interesting than I had believed. For example: did you know that Rangers in Warhammer aren’t agile, sneaky archers? That’s why Vermintide’s ranger, Bardin, is an axe-wielding dwarf.
“Warhammer dwarf rangers don’t merely sneak around the forest, they come prepared for everything,” game director Anders De Geer told me.
“Clad in long chainmail and armed to the teeth, they turn the expectations of what a ranger is supposed to be on its head. The Warhammer universe is full of such surprises, and we like to showcase them.”
Even the most straight forward-seeming characters have a twist. Take Markus, the Empire Soldier: he’s a big gruff dude with a sword who just screams “default character”. De Geer confirmed that of the five Markus is definitely the one “closest resembling an average citizen of the Empire”, and yet his approach to life isn’t what we’d expect of the default warrior.
“He is a weary and disillusioned war veteran, fed up with military life, bloodshed, and most of all, incompetent leadership,” De Greer said. “He now seeks to reconnect with his family who lives on a farm near Ubersreik, so he is essentially on a journey home.”
Yeah: the typical tough guy just wants to get back to the farm and put his feet up, because war is for numpties. I don’t expect any fistbumps or shouts if “bro” out of him.
De Greer said that more complex characters are a natural extension of Warhammer lore, in which “there is seldom good or bad, only shades of grey”. Take the Witch Hunter, who is “least liked by the other heroes”, and in fact begins the game by arresting one of the others – but of course sees himself as the hero.
“If you would ask the Witch Hunter himself, he would tell you that he is of the highest rank in the group and therefore the natural leader,” De Greer said. “He would be quick to add that his cause is far more important than being nice to his underlings.”
In addition to the Bright Wizard mentioned above, the five-strong team includes a second playable female character, the mysterious Waywatcher. When you put the elven archer next to her magical colleague, what’s especially striking about them is that they’re not overtly sexual. Their boobs aren’t strapped under their chins; they aren’t shoving their bums and tits at the viewer through some amazing spinal choreography, they’re not stuck in permanent duckface.
This is almost unprecedented in fantasy video games, although not terribly surprising coming from Fatshark, the team who insisted on historically accurate warrior women in War of the Vikings.
“Since this is our own project, we can focus on what we want and think is best for our game, instead of being forced to comply with what external parties might think is commercially viable,” De Greer said.
“Our deliberate choice was to concentrate on creating interesting characters, and the results is what you see in the game. I think sexualization often feels like it’s used as a quick fix or shortcut instead of putting in a serious effort to create complex and appealing characters.”
In designing this motley crew, FatShark studied classic Warhammer class and race designs, hoping to ground characters in the setting “and make them believable in universe”, De Greer said.
“From smaller symbols and decorations to what material or hairstyle a certain race or class prefers,” he continued.
Fatshark didn’t feel shackled by its determination to faithfully recreate Warhammer’s lore – quite the opposite, in fact.
“The amount of available lore only helps us, in my opinion,” De Greer said. “It creates a frame of reference and a backdrop to work with, where we are free to explore the specifics in any way we want, as long as it fits in the Warhammer Fantasy world.”
Now that the Warhammer universe has been retired, it’s possible Games Workshop will give licensees the creative freedom to take it in new directions – but that’s not something Fatshark is inetrested in right now.
“Making games in the Warhammer Fantasy universe is what we’ve always wanted and we do not seek to change anything,” De Greer said. “We’re passionate Warhammer Fantasy fans, and we try to portray that amazing world as faithfully as we can.”
And there’s still so much of that world to explore.
“The Warhammer world is full of places, heroes and races that would be very interesting to work with,” De Greer said. “Of course we hope that Vermintide is just the beginning of our mutual journey in the Warhammer world.
“But what we want even more than that is to give the community a good, polished game, in fact we want to give them the best game we ever made.”
Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide is coming to PC, PS4 and Xbox One later this year.