Apocalyptic pest control: A critical review of “Vermintide” (2016)

Video games used to be a simpler lot, and I don’t mean in the days before VR headsets threatened to become commonplace or everyone online decided “The Last of Us” was the first truly “mature” video game, not to mention the days before RPGs brought tabletop complexity to the desktop, before Pong or before Donkey Kong. I’m talking about the days before I entered the world of Xbox Live.

This blog wanted to play “Vermintide” for a while now, but the Xbox had to be online for that to happen since the game is online only. That’s fine. My Internet kinda sucks for games so I normally have it off, but I switched it on and sat through hours of Microsoft updates. Once that was done, I fired up the actual game. It explained I didn’t just have to have Xbox Live but Xbox Live Gold, which costs money and I’d never set up because my Internet sucks.

I bought a Gold gift card, fired up the game again, settled into an overstuffed chair and scratched the silver crud off the gift card, only to realize I didn’t need to set up a Gold account because the game was mysterious working now. I was online, in character and fully functioning with no idea of why. Not one to question providence, I played for the rest of the night.

I tried the game the the following night, and it was back to telling me I couldn’t have access cos I didn’t have a Gold account. What? Later, I learned Microsoft made Gold membership available gratis to all Xbox Live users for a weekend. Nobody tells me these things. Had I been playing on the weekend? I didn’t think I was. Maybe it was a glitch in my favor? That would be a first.

Wasn’t this supposed to be a video game review? I think so. Well, is “Vermintide” good? Yes, actually, it is.

I know the title is really something like “Warhammer: The End Times: Vermintide: The Next Generation: Jungle 2 Jungle,” but I ain’t got time for all that. “Vermintide” is the important part, cos you’ll be dealing with tides of vermin. “End Times” kinda matters too, but that’s why the rest doesn’t matter. When it’s the end of the world, do you really want to deal with subtitles and colons?

The “Warhammer” part might be important for some people to create a sense of place, but the gameplay itself seems delightfully unconcerned with its own mythology (the voice acting and script effectively create a sense of play rather than seriousness; I think one of the “helpful tips” the game offers is the Dwarven word for “kneecap”). This blog only has fringe experience with the Warhammer franchise, but I’ve always liked what I’ve seen: downbeat, violent and unafraid to play up all the ugliest tropes of dark fantasy, with trace amounts of cosmic horror and body horror. Those experiences also seemed more plot-heavy than “Vermintide.” In this game, any semblance of plot is incidental to killing rats.

If “Vermintide” is taking an irreverent approach, it would fit the game’s compact and pragmatic philosophy. These heroes aren’t doing the sexy quests. They’re not guarding royalty or assaulting fortresses or battling mad deities. They’re killing rats, lots of rats, cos someone’s gotta do it even if it is the end of the world. It reminds me of the anime “Goblin Slayer,” which I will heartily recommend to any dark fantasy fan. “Vermintide” has that show’s same gritty pessimism combined with its roll-up-your-sleeves approach to wading headfirst into gore.

In truth, one could mostly cover “Vermintide” by only talking about its blood-soaked, quantity-over-quality combat. Enemies swarm you, and although most of them go down easily enough, they can overwhelm overconfident players. The game borrows a lot from zombie shoot ’em up “Left 4 Dead.” In fact, it borrows as liberally as it can without encouraging a lawsuit. The zombies are now rats, but they are horde rats, hunter rats, giant rats and rats with little World War I-era gas masks. They’re also rats that lose arms, legs and heads as they are hacked down in rivers of steel and blood. No doubt the titular tide is red.

Basing itself on a horror game was a smart move, since “Vermintide” uses atmosphere very well. The maps skew toward the claustrophobic, and once you’ve been swarmed the first time, even pockets of calm have a tense or edgy feel. The game environments are beautifully over-the-top in Halloween Gothic dressing, and skittering and tittering sounds are impressively utilized to set the scene and warn of impending attacks. The music is fine and fitting too, all heavy brass under sinister electronic stings.

The closest to innovation over “Left 4 Dead” is the character selection, since choice does matter a little bit to play style. The oblivious soldier of fortune is the game’s melee fighter; the cackling dwarf is its tank; the criminal pyromancer is support; the abandoned-her-post elf is ranged; and the unpopular-at-school witch hunter is balanced. I prefer the elf, then the witch hunter, then anybody but the dwarf. Nevertheless, everyone’s weapons respond with chunky satisfaction. Also, given that everyone is presented as a drunk, screwup or mercenary, it fits with the game’s philosophy. These aren’t the people you call for the glorious duties. They’re pest control.

All levels are co-op, which means you’ll either be playing with computer controlled bots or humans online. The bots are straightforward, dependable but easy to fool. Humans are innovative and intelligent, but prone to bouts of stupidity and selfishness. Regardless, despite there being nothing cosmetically different about beating a level with a band of fellow humans instead of bots, it always felt good. Until, of course, the game bugged out on me.

Maybe it’s my fault since it’s my Internet that sucks (have I mentioned that?), but the gameplay penalty for a lost game was harsh. It didn’t matter much if it dropped connection mid-level, but if it did so at the end, that carried special hazards. In theory one gets experience points, a chance for new equipment and a chance at some of the game’s currency when they put the time and effort into beating a level. However, if the server disconnected at the moment a level finished, I’d only get experience points. Or else I’d get nothing.

It was possible to remedy that somewhat by setting a level to “private” and hosting it for myself by myself, but that’s trading both the fun, and perhaps the point, of the game for stability. This is one of my biggest beefs with online play. Even if you have the right hardware, you can’t necessarily access the game because of intermittent connection through the fault of forces outside your wallet, like geography or atmosphere. You have enough access to see the game but not enough to get a credible experience. It’s bad enough for a free game, but oddly insulting for a paid one. Of course, I have only myself to blame. They warned me I needed the Internet, but I didn’t listen.

There’s another layer to this too. If-and-when Fatshark or Microsoft or whoever is in charge decides to quit, there will be no support for the game, and then no one will have access to it. I don’t know exactly how these things work; I just know that they do work (until they don’t). One of my biggest issues with online only play of this sort is philosophical. Players don’t pay for a game that they can play whenever they feel like it. They pay for access to it, sometimes monthly, and that access lasts as long as it does. There’s no sense of mutual ownership, and therefore collaboration, between artist and audience, between designer and player. The company has sole ownership of the game because it can destroy it whenever it wants.

But you probably don’t want to hear about any of that, Tonstant Weader. You want to know if “Vermintide” is worth it. This blog is still figuring that out, but for now, I will say this: You would think a game that’s just about killing rats would get tired. It does, but it takes a long time to get there.

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