When last the Skaven began their march on the Old Empire, Vermintide quickly proved to be an engaging and creative romp in the Warhammer fantasy universe. It faithfully recreated the setting’s mixture of historical analogue, grimdark horror, and zany comedy. It accomplished all of this while following in the footsteps of Left 4 Dead, and separating itself from the former to make a unique experience. While rough around the edges, the game was imbued with so much creativity and fun that it kept me coming back to it consistently. The sequel adds material in every aspect, and while I appreciated most of it, I found that some of the additions, surprisingly, detracted from the overall experience.
Once again, five heroes must band together to fight back the hordes of Skaven, intelligent ratfolk who have swarmed over the borders of the Empire and started to bring it low. You will choose among these heroes to battle through them, accomplishing various missions that take you across the maps and challenge your skills at perception, combat, and cooperation. You will do battle with spears, swords, maces, shields, bows, guns, magic, special abilities and more, all the while experimenting with your preferred playstyle.
The combat is more deep than you would expect, complicated by the viciousness of special enemy types and the fragility of your characters. While the Skaven appear at first to be mere walls of armed flesh, you quickly find how experienced they are in defense and coordination. Blocking and shoving your enemies is vital to survival, as is keeping track of your allies. Many enemies have abilities to disperse your group, single members out, or force you to act as distractions as other players can get behind their defenses and deal damage where it counts. If you are not paying attention and coordinating, your mission is sure to end swiftly and without dignity. Once you get to higher difficulties, where friendly fire is turned on, you have no choice but to work as a team and share your preciously limited healing items to make it out alive.
Helping you through this campaign are five heroes, each with different strengths and playstyles. These playstyles are informed not only by the special equipment that each hero can access, but their new passive and active abilities. Kerilian the elf has a focus for precise, quick weapons and ranged attacks. She can heal slowly if below half of her HP and can quickly rush forward or let loose a stream of arrows that cuts through a line of enemies. Fueaganasus, the firy wizard, makes use of flaming one handed weapons and mystical staffs which can ignite large areas on the battlefield. She has to manage her heat levels, however, or risk becoming temporarily stunned and damaging herself. Meanwhile she starts with the ability to teleport forward in a straight line, leaving a trail of flames in the path between her starting point and destination.
These abilities help make up for the lack of item variation in game. Apart from two bomb types and three potion types, you rely on your own skill and with rather than drops within the game. Unlike in Left 4 Dead, where you find diversity in looting during the game, Vermintide is about building your character and working together as a team.
As the game progresses, each hero obtains two additional career paths, each of which have different passive and active abilities and skill trees to upgrade with perk points. The more you lean towards a specific playstyle, the more the game gives you the tools to truly excel at it. There are some nice easter eggs in these careers as well, such as the dwarven Slayer class. Unfortunately, you are also required to do so. While the first game allowed you to level yourself as a whole, giving you equipment for every hero, the sequel restricts experience and equipment drops to only the hero you are playing. If you decide you want to experiment with another of the five characters, you will have to reset yourself to the bottom tier of advancement. If you and a friend both favor one over the others in a match, one of you will have to take a serious downgrade by choosing someone else.
The Skaven were dangerous enough on their own, with multitudes of specialized rats that have seen a return. However, they have now found a deadly ally in the legions of chaos: berserker cults who have fallen under the sway of fell magics and abominable experiments. These new enemies add variety to the experience and can force you to completely rearrange your tactics on the fly. For fans of Warhammer, they are also a well appreciated nod to the lore. The one downside is that Vermintide 2 makes for a harsher learning curve than its predecessor. Even most of the way through your first run of the 13 mission campaign, you can be caught completely off guard by a new enemy type and not be prepared to counteract them. This would be a benefit, adding variety to the experience, were it not for the overall chaotic nature of the game; some armored enemies require precise aiming, and I have yet to be sure in the maelstrom of enemies, allies, and spells whether I have successfully killed one of them or merely been nearby when it happened.
The special enemy types, being more plentiful than in previous entries, sometimes step on one another’s toes, as well as those of the hordes. You encounter fewer basic enemies this time around, instead meeting two or three specialty foes at a time, who appear to have reduced HP from the last game. Often you are slashing and firing so blindly that you don’t get to appreciate the care and design that went into these encounters.
Bots and matchmaking have been vastly improved in my experience. The AI intelligence has proven consistently helpful and cooperative, sometimes even moreso than players, who have the baffling tendency to rush forward seeking kills which do nothing to help the overall goal. I had little experience with the bots, however, because of how effortless the matchmaking has been so far. Within seconds, I was able to find matches for specific maps, and even faster for the Quick Play mode, which drops you into a somewhat random map with players.
Meanwhile, while my time with the first game was marred by occasional mid-game drops, none of my matches have been cut short in the sequel. I had one person lagging during a boss fight, walking forward in a straight line while three of us lied helpless on the ground gasping for air, but after completing the main campaign that was my only network issue.
Sound design has also seen a boost. The first game had pleasant voice acting that was loaded with character, and this continues to have numerous context sensitive cues for each hero in every mission. As a fan of this universe, I also appreciated how those cues gave us insight into not only the characters, but the worlds they inhabit. The interchanges between the elf and dwarf on the infancy of man as a world power, or the witch-hunter and wizard on the nature of faith in the Old Empire are more than just witty banter. They help flesh out the setting that these heroes are fighting for. If there is an issue, it’s that they speak a little too constantly. The player in front always shouts which direction they are headed, even if close to the rest of the group. Characters often announce loudly the presence of a bomb or potion, even if there was only one and they picked it up for themselves a second ago.
All of these are minor quality of life changes next to the massive upgrade in terms of level design and visuals. The first Vermintide largely saw you creeping through slums and sewers, or the occasional rooftop skirmish. The sequel will send you to farmlands, mountains, caves, temples of Sigmar, and more. While you go through them, you will have more to do than bash in heads. The mission types vary throughout the game, giving you yet more reasons to change your tactics to fit the situation. Moreover, their design is linear only in broad strokes. Individual encounters see you cutting across alleyways to escape or flank your enemies, using leverage and height to your advantage wherever possible.
Enemies don’t just die, of course. They explode in sprays of blood, burst into flame, get sliced in half by the swings of your blade, and fall to arrows sticking out of their eyes. Even on moderate graphics settings, this game is a visual feast. I wish I could look through the maps without the constant threat of rat hordes because of how detailed and vibrant they are. The team at Fatshark put love and care into making these levels feel inhabited, and that something significant was being lost at the hands of chaos.
Vermintide 2 also has a rudimentary crafting system, but this is where things grind to a halt for me. See, with the character levelling system you already had to play the game through multiple times to see any improvement. Gear is where things just start to feel tedious. Every match you win gives you a new few pieces of shiny gear. These are only different from your starting gear via incremental advances. They may have different abilities, but these are often fairly minor in the grand scheme. You can manipulate them to create something special, but only by grinding for equipment to scavenge into its constituent parts to get what you actually want, requiring multiple levels to slowly be able to manage.
Most of the time, the only real difference is the equipment’s contribution to your overall hero level, a nebulous number that affects damage and critical chance in ways that are unclear. You are actually getting new gear to make a number go up, so that you can get more gear to make that number go even higher. It is connected to higher difficulty levels, but the system wore thin almost immediately once I caught on to how it functioned.
Thankfully, there is a reasonable variety to the missions. With 13 in total, each having uniquely self-generated enemy placements and equipment drops, you can play this for a long time running before feeling like it’s a monotonous experience.
You can also boost your experience and loot by finding tomes and grimoires in game, items that take up your healing item slot or reduce your health but grant you a boost once the level is finished. Along with loot dice which are stashed away in random places, there is an emphasis on exploring each level thoroughly before leaving, if you can survive the attempt. Higher difficulties also grant you more experience, which makes levelling less of a daunting challenge if you have the skill for it.
Just as with the last game, there will come a time when all of this will wear thin for me and I won’t feel compelled to go on. However, the journey to get there will be full of laughter, character, creativity, and satisfying coordination between me and my friends. For a clean $30, Fatshark is helping to end the lie that good games have to come with a $60 price tag, and giving you one hell of an experience for the time you choose to invest.
John Farrell is a legal aid administrator, living in West Chester Pennsylvania. You can listen to him travel the weird west as Carrie A. Nation in the Joker's Wild podcast at: https://jokerswildpodcast.weebly.com/
Vermintide 2 is a stylish, engrossing avenue into the horror and hilarity of the Warhammer Fantasy universe. Despite some small hiccups which you won’t shake, this game is sure to get you and your friends working as a team to survive the onslaught of the Skaven and Chaos hordes. With a variety of playstyles and in game tactics, this experience proves it is far more than a Left 4 Dead clone, and left me eager to jump back into this game.