Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide is pretty much a re-skinned Left 4 Dead, but that's not a bad thing.
I don't really like Left 4 Dead, but I think maybe I just didn't really get it; at the time I was playing it, I'd barely played any first-person action games, I was playing with veterans who knew the game really well, and I had to cope with continental shelf lag. And it just felt pointless; walk around, flail wildly at baddies.
I had a similar feeling when I first started Vermintide, which is very much Left 4 Dead, only the zombies are rats. I kept expecting depth to materialise. I wanted the characters to have spectacular special abilities, upgrade trees and cross-class combos.
On the face of it there's not much to set the five characters apart. But as I grew to understand the game better, I came to appreciate the subtle differentiators.
There isn't any of that, but there are some interesting tactics that become more apparent as you play for a while, especially with the same group of people. Grouping up behind a sword and shield user, with backs to walls, will get you through most intense mob situations, for example. Forcing the enemies into choke points and positioning strong ranged players behind good defenders is useful. Having one character well-equipped to deal with armoured foes, and another for sniping specials, makes for much easier runs.
Graphically, it's impressive indeed, even turned down to medium on my unworthy PC. There's a dedicated key for examining your weapons, because the assets are so gorgeous. Some of the level design is simply gorgeous; and there's one particular moment in a level called the Wizard's Tower that - no, I won't spoil it. In general, environmental design is full of thoughtful and interesting touches, and there's even some level of interactivity. Weapons leave long-lasting marks on surfaces, and many assets can be messed with, although this is weirdly patchy (fruit explodes, but bread does not; some candles can be cut, but others can't).
— 'Tongs' Clodbill (@burgerdrome) January 4, 2016
The inn that serves as the game hub changes as you (or whoever is hosting) progresses - filling with food when you secure a supply line, for example - and the characters' bedrooms are thoughtfully decorated. Warhammer: End Times lore and aesthetic has been lovingly embedded in the game world.
To my surprise, I've been kind of sucked in by all this. Although the plot is bare bones, the character backstories are pretty interesting, and their evolving relationships have an amazing amount of heart, given they're delivered entirely via mid-battle banter.
My character of choice is the Witch Hunter. I chose him initially because someone else had already nabbed the Bright Wizard, and my friends said he was a bit of an odd duck - always snarking and making insults, while the rest of the team were staunchly positive. I was not disappointed in this choice.
The alternate weapon set ups mostly feel unnecessary. In general, the progression systems seem to have been implemented purely to encourage you to keep playing once you've passed all the missions.
Character choice was a whim I followed with a light heart, since on the face of it there's not much to set the five characters apart. But as I grew to understand the game better, I came to appreciate the subtle differentiators, and to love the Witch Hunter's little foibles. One of his initial ranged weapon choices is a "brace of pistols", allowing for rapid fire, armour-piercing ranged attacks. His base melee weapon is a rapier with a bonus to damage against heads.
These two factors combined make him a Stormvermin killing machine, and his unique ability - a cheeky ranged attack enacted without switching weapon sets, drawing from a second ammo pool - suits me very well, since I regularly fumble the switch weapon key when I get excited. I've had some great runs with this starting build, and have been disappointed by the way the loot I've found detracts from this setup without augmenting it or opening other options.
The crossbow is slower but no more deadly. The automatic musket thing clears crowds and fires quickly but is rubbish at a distance, and I feel like I may as well use my sword. Switching to a two-handed weapon made me more powerful but slower, which I personally hate, and the lack of extra headshot damage meant I was hitting more guys but getting less kills. Unless someone calls your favourite character and you're forced to adapt a different one for your preferred role the alternate weapon set ups mostly feel unnecessary. In general, the progression systems seem to have been implemented purely to encourage you to keep playing once you've passed all the missions. There's nothing wrong with that, but doesn't really work here. I'm in it for my pals, now.
In defence of the progression systems, there's a pretty clever mechanic for increasing your chances of good loot: if you give up your health item slot (or even sacrifice part of your whole team's health pool) to carry a treasure to the end of a successful mission, your loot die increase. Seeking out the treasures in levels is fun, and so is the extra challenge.
On the other hand, character level appears to be a completely functionless indication of hours played rather than providing any boost to your abilities, and the loot system is painfully fickle. Even with every available treasure you may (and frequently do) still roll a shitty duplicate common item. I've had quite enough of the perfidy of RNGesus over in Destiny, you know?
To counter loot dissatisfaction Fat Shark has added two separate systems for cashing in your unwanted gear in return for better stuff, one of them added as free post-launch DLC. One is purely RNG-based, which means you suffer much the same heartache, and the other requires stacks of a resource which seems to be in very short supply. This same resource is required for upgrading rare items, but in the games I've played so far I've received only a tiny fraction of the amount needed to upgrade even one of the many weapons I've found, all of which are, in their base states, less useful than my base equipment.
My friends and I spend a lot of time apologising for the loot system. "It's probably really good when you've played hundreds of hours," we say. Maybe this is even true. But I don't intend to spend hundreds of hours with Vermintide, as fun as it is, and in terms of player retention it seems counter-productive to skip over the excitement of finding useful and fun new gear within your first few play sessions.
This is all very puzzling, and to me Vermintide feels poised between two possibilities. In one universe, it's a free-to-play, online-only multiplayer game with leaderboards, ranked play seasons, randomly generated dungeons and microtransactions. In another universe, it's got good enough AI to make playing solo worthwhile, and it's a terrific linear narrative-driven action game.
In the universe we're actually in, it's neither one nor t'other, and as such I'm not sure it's going to find the long term audience its finer aspects deserve.
Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide is available now via Steam. It is coming to PS4 and Xbox One in 2016.