Second infestation: A critical review of “Warhammer: Vermintide 2” (2018)

This week saw the release of “Back 4 Blood,” a kinda “Left 4 Dead” clone – excuse me, spiritual sequel. That makes this weekend a perfect opportunity to talk about a different “Left 4 Dead” clone/sequel: “Vermintide 2.” Technically it’s called “Warhammer: Vermintide 2,” but are you honestly going to remember that? Am I? Curiously, the first game is the one with the more complex title…

“Vermintide 2” is in many ways is a textbook example of what a sequel can be. It is much of what the first game was and then some, and for fans of the original game, that certainly means something. Some of it’s good somethings. Some of it’s infamous by now amongst the fandom. How does this admitted fan feel? To see where I fall on the spectrum, keep reading. For now, best to start at the beginning.

This blog actually really likes how “Vermintide 2” opens. It’s a tutorial set in a Skaven jail complex that reminds players of “Vermintide’s” excellent use of music to direct combat and motion. The game will return to the setting for the finale, giving everything a satisfying roundness. Also, the explanation for how everyone survived the extended conclusion of the last game, where they looked pretty screwed, is no more explicit than the tagline for “Crank: High Voltage,” which is very Vermintide.

Anyway, post-jailbreak the gang heads over to a crumbling tower somewhere and uses it as a staging ground for various strikes against the Skaven, who are not working alone. They are now joined by a clan of Chaos Warriors (Warhammer’s version of Vikings, for those not in the know) courtesy of the Skittergate, a rickety spatial portal large enough to transport an army. The less-than-heroes must use their disparate skills and moxie to destroy the portal before the ratmen patch it up, assuming they can stop bickering and shooting each other – elf mains, I’m looking at you.

I am an elf main, by the way. I acknowledge we can kind of suck.

At its core, “Vermintide 2” is pretty close to its predecessor. The game is still a dark fantasy cooperative hack and slash, hub and mission based, with a loose story line that can be followed by playing the campaign straight through or ignored by jumping into random missions where one is paired with an already active party of players. You are one of the same five heroes: a disenfranchised soldier turned mercenary; a dwarf with a stronger taste for booze than duty; an elf who quit her post following disturbing visions; a witch hunter who makes even other witch hunters feel uncomfortable; and a fugitive sorceress with a penchant for burning stuff. Missions consist of beating way your through hordes of enemies of varying degrees of hurtiness, from down-in-one-shot to holy-shit-how-can-that-be-fair. You will likely die along the way. See? Nothing’s changed.

Where “Vermintide 2” instead makes itself distinct is in its dressing. There are a lot of fancy new outfits for the old mechanics to wear. For example, every hero now has a special rechargeable ability to manage, on top of a variety of swappable passive perks. Heroes also have careers, alternate skins that sport their own special moves and passive perks, which translate to different styles of play. For example, Dwarf Rangers can focus on the class’s tank-like qualities as an Ironbreaker, or forego range and defense almost entirely as a Slayer. Most classes now feature a melee oriented, ranged oriented or support career, with a couple of glass cannons thrown in for fun. And for those with the time, currency and inclination, developer Fatshark tosses a new one into the game every now and again.

All the old enemies are back, as well as a few new ones, including shield rats, ratmen berserkers and flamethrowers, and a new breed of rat ogre. There’s also the Chaos clan, made up of squishy and crunchy infantry, at least one eldritch abomination, and a couple of annoying magic users (seriously, Plague Monks and Blightstormers can suck it). All of that means players have to develop more flexible strategies to confront a more diverse cast of foes. Completing missions successfully now awards chests, where you can win multiple weapons and trinkets, hats and shirts, deeds, whatever those are…

OK, I’ve been dodging the question: Are these new additions good? For the most part, yes. Everything in “Vermintide 2” clicks. It feels like a natural expansion of “Vermintide” the first, and that’s typically what one wants in a sequel. Since the core elements to the game are largely the same, the core enjoyment is the same too. It’s still tense to anticipate – and ultimately wade through – a tide of vermin. It’s still frustrating to wipe, but rarely so frustrating you don’t want to try again (assuming you have another 20 minutes to burn). And it’s still very satisfying to snatch victory from the bewhiskered jaws of defeat.

The game still looks right. It has that goofy Warhammer sense of size and fetish for skulls. The environments are big and twisty, all crumbling stone and dripping moss. Enemies look weird and threatening, and they have organic idle animations. There’s even weather patterns this time around, which is a nice touch and can make the same mission feel fresh on another play through.

The pacing of the game is good too, with some missions leading up to a set piece or boss fight that feels earned. There are a couple of stinkers, like some explosive barrel fetch quests (never this blog’s favorite in the first game), but they’re more than offset by a shuttered temple of Sigmar, an unholy ritual in the catacombs of a hospice, a solo siege, a city turned upside down before your eyes, some zany vampire high jinks in a piece of DLC. Actually, psychological horror fans should take note of that last one for its interesting interface effects. Cosmic horror fans too should pay attention to the last mission of the campaign. There’s the same old dark gods and occult science, along with a spontaneous mutation and Arctic weather (bet you thought I’d forgotten the cosmic horror theme already, huh? Warhammer has always been a little cosmic horror).

The soundtrack – both music and audio cues – is as strong as ever, emphasizing gameplay as much as setting the scene. The dialogue and voice acting are still top notch as well. The banter between heroes is worth the price of admission. Even big bad Rasknitt (he’s also back, despite previously kind of dying) gets a couple of choice lines. The characters are all given a little bit more of background, and while there might be some signs of growth, behind that they’re all still awful. That’s nice. These remain the people sent to do the job no one else signed up for – or even heard about.

On the player side, communication on the console has been improved courtesy of a wheel of dialogue options. There is now nothing stopping you from requesting ammunition, pointing out enemies or just saying hello, since the wheel can be brought up at any time (although the thick of combat is rarely the best moment).

The new elements are fun to mess around with. The special abilities are flashy looking, and the passive perks are fun for stat masters to stack. This blog settled on a couple of favorites as far as hero careers go – Waystalker, Huntsman and Bounty Hunter, in that order – but while I rarely stray by now, the temptation to dust off some of the others is always there and easy to satisfy.

In case you haven’t figured it out, “Vermintide 2” generally has a “more is more” approach. There’s more gameplay elements, more enemies, more story, more RPG mixing and matching, more prize boxes plummeting from the sky in a glitzy display. What it doesn’t have, which “Vermintide” apparently did, is focus.

I see more than ever there was a downbeat elegance in “Vermintide’s” simplicity. You were handed something sharp or heavy, pointed toward some rats, and told to go nuts. That was pretty much it. The difference between the hub areas says a lot. In “Vermintide” it was a shadowy and claustrophobic tavern, indicating quiet desperation. All that was between you and the apocalypse outside was a splintering door and a questionable coach driver. “Vermintide 2’s” hub is a spacious and well-lit tower, made airy by time and neglect. It’s vertical, above the fray, with impressive views from the roof and an arcane portal downstairs to zip you to your destination. It’s not a bad atmosphere. Just different.

There are a lot of new environments and locations in “Vermintide 2,” but the game loses some of the consistently dark and green Halloween vibe of the original. One novel difference I noticed was how the games were peopled. In “Vermintide,” the towns were vacant, the farms abandoned. Some players complained about this, suggesting a town devoid of even corpses hurt immersion, but I started to dig it upon replay. The environment is drained of everything but ratmen, and it’s eerie and very end-time. It made me question the motives of the enigmatic handler Franz Lohner. He’s always talking about safe houses, starving peasants and armies that need support, but we never see any of that. Under his direction, are we doing anything worthwhile? Is it all an act of desperation or perhaps even trechery? Well, in a couple missions of “Vermintide 2,” you have to rescue people. The character models look a little chunky, but I guess that answers the question of where everyone was: chilling in “Vermintide 2.” OK then.

None of this should make it sound like the game is worse. Think of it like the Mad Max movies. “Vermintide” is “Mad Max” – gritty and compact, a punch to the gut. “Vermintide 2” is “The Road Warrior” – expansive and expressive, a firecracker going off in your hand. I definitely like “The Road Warrior”; I just happen to like “Mad Max” a little bit more.

In a way, none of this matters. It has grown increasingly difficult to find human players and random matches in “Vermintide.” The sequel, by contrast, is both newer and still receiving a pretty solid amount of support (kudos to Fatshark for that). Accordingly, I’ve spent many more hours in the sequel, where I mostly spoil random people’s games by getting myself surrounded and killed on some difficulty level that is clearly inappropriate for me. All in the name of fun. It’s a good game.

Ah, I haven’t even mentioned the most important change, which is there is an offline mode now. Praise the Comet. It neatly solves our philosophical dilemma regarding the previous game and ownership, and I can’t tell you how happy I am about that.

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