One of the biggest tragedies of the PS3 generation, other than Genji: Days of the Blade, was the fact that Valve’s seminal co-operative shooter Left 4 Dead never made it to Sony’s last-generation home console. Now in 2016, it is Swedish developer Fatshark who addresses that most egregious of oversights, with Vermintide staking its claim as not just a fine take on Valve’s classic shooter but also as one of the very best online multiplayer games you can buy on PS4.
Left 4 Rats
Look, there’s no getting around it – if Left 4 Dead didn’t exist, then Warhammer End Times: Vermintide wouldn’t either, such is the magnitude of inspiration that is on display here. This is no bad thing though because Left 4 Dead was brilliant and by proxy, so is Vermintide in many similar ways. Set against the sprawling Warhammer fantasy mythos as fashioned by tabletop specialists Games Workshop, Vermintide has players choosing from one of five different heroes as they attempt to turn the tide on the invading Skaven; a sneering race of angry ratmen with a thing for breaking faces and stabbing things until they stop moving.
Built with multiplayer in mind, Vermintide has players kicking things off in a tavern that doubles up as safe haven hub. From here, you can elect to leap straight into a quickly matched mission, or, you can customise your matchmaking to take part in a particular mission. Pointedly, you’ll spend a lot of time doing the latter because there’s actually a story that runs through Vermintide, binding each of the missions with a narrative thread that while nothing spectacular, serves as more than sufficient pretext for Vermintide’s almost fetishistic fixation on first-person violence.
The campaign itself is a substantial thing too, spread across multiple acts and then split down further into individual missions, each of the latter boast up to five difficulty levels that in turn offer increasing amounts of experience points and loot, thus providing more than ample incentive for players to go back time after time. Even when the campaign has been thoroughly conquered (and we’re talking hundreds of hours here), Vermintide offers a horde mode called Last Stand that pits players against an infinite amount of Skaven warriors until everyone bites the dust.
Each of the heroes provide additional longevity in their own right too, as they all play differently from one another. Whether it’s the lightning quick twin blades of nimble Kerillian the Waywatcher, or the explosive projectile napalm of Sienna the Bright Wizard, Vermintide offers true variety in its cast of characters and a real reason to tackle the game multiple times.
Bringing the Warhammer down
Regardless of whomever you choose, each hero has a primary and a secondary weapon which can be swapped out for alternatives depending on your play style. Kerillian for example, can switch out her twin knives for a single sword that offers more attack and stronger defence at the expense of speed and recovery. Furthermore, each weapon of a certain quality can also be upgraded at the local forge, adding extra traits to their existing stats that help to layer the compelling progression of Vermintide yet further still.
A common issue with first-person hack and slash efforts, and something that even Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls franchise is not beyond reproach on, is that the heft and impact of your attacks often feels ineffectual and intangible; the feeling that the hand holding your weapon and the world in front of you somehow exist on two totally differently planes. That isn’t the case here though, because in Vermintide blades cut through gristle and bone with satisfying gusto, while maces and axes crush marrow into goey paste and separate limbs from their attached bodies with visceral aplomb. Essentially, Vermintide has made killing rats satisfying again.
Elsewhere, a wealth of items found during each mission can also help to make things a little easier too. Various types of bombs, potions and health replenishment items can all be found and traded between players, while tomes and special loot dice can be uncovered from chests to improve the quality of potential loot scored at the end of the mission.
Visually, Vermintide elicits quite the ocular spectacle. Though not as technically resplendent as the likes of Uncharted 4, the talented artists at Fatshark have done a fantastic job in bringing Vermintide’s horrifying ratpocalypse to life, as up to thirty or forty Skaven at a time can beset the player group, streaming down walls and leaping across chasms with the sort of vigour that the shambling horrors of Left 4 Dead could only dream of, an onrushing Skaven horde is never not a terrifying thing to behold.
The environment also has been given due care and attention with some great shadowing and lighting effects and, most importantly, a rock solid framerate that doesn’t dip in even the most chaotic scenes. Whether you’re charging a small legion of Skaven in the city streets, or tearing through elite units in Castle Drachenfels, Vermintide always manages to give a great visual account of itself.
When you’re not acting like a sentient meat grinder, you’ll find that Vermintide demands a level of team-working quite unlike anything else out there. While a great deal of mission objectives often demand some level of cohesion in the team, such as carrying explosive barrels from one location to another, or, defending a particular area, it’s really the various types of Skaven that tax the often fragile bonds of comradeship the most.
Beyond the bog-standard and easily vanquishable Skaven troops, Vermintide spices things up considerably with the inclusion of specialist enemy types. The Stormvermin are perhaps the most straightforward to deal with; covered in plate armour everywhere except for their heads, these hugely damaging enemies can only be defeated with strong powerful strikes or with weapons that boast armor piercing traits. Much more troubling though, are the Pack Masters and the Gutter Runners.
In the case of the former, these Skaven carry long lynching poles that can be used to incapacitate and drag players away; the poor victim highlighted in the UI with a red outline to allow their comrades to find them in good time. Much worse though are the Gutter Runners; supremely agile assassins, they have a pounce ability that lets them leap onto a player and incapacitate them with a constant stream of vicious stabbings until either someone saves them, or, they die. Rounding out the selection of enemies are gas bomb firing Skaven, the amusingly named but horrendously dangerous Ratling Gunners who can pin down an entire group and finally, the gargantuan Ratogre; a colossal, damage-soaking monstrosity that can decimate a gang of players with ease.
What all of these double-hard Skaven types share though is a need for players to stick together, lest anyone who gets left behind is ambushed and killed before the rest of the group can go back and save them. Adding further wrinkles to the formula is Vermintide’s ‘AI director’ that dynamically adjusts the quality of the opposition in every mission; resulting in different foes and attacks each and every time you play. Should you end up shuffled off your mortal coil, death isn’t the end in Vermintide, since assuming the rest of the group is still alive and well, the deceased player can be found ‘asleep’ later in the level and revived back into play.
Where Vermintide assuredly excels however, is in how all these elements coalesce together into a grander sum. Every mission in Vermintide feels hard fought for; that final dash for the escape wagon, as you fend off seemingly hundreds of rabid Skaven, or, reviving a comrade in the midst of battle – all of it feels like edge-of-the-seat stuff that you just don’t see anymore and its pressure cooker like intensity is only magnified when playing with other folks.
Some chinks in the armor
Oh, and playing with other flesh and blood humans is something you’ll want to do whenever you can simply because while not consistently terrible, the AI bots that fill the numbers until players show up can sometimes be dunderheaded to say the least. Pointedly, on more than one occasion I have witnessed other AI players simply standing around whilst I was on the floor, choking up my guts in desperate need of a revival that would never come. Equally, other AI transgressions include getting stuck behind easily navigable obstacles, not picking up loot and most annoying of all; failing to kill a foe that has captured you. Simply put, if you have to choose between hosting your own game with bots, or, waiting for a game full of players, you should do the latter every time.
Something that will be of inevitable disappointment for a few will be the fact that Vermintide does not facilitate split-screen, local co-operative play. Given the sophistication of the graphics engine in Vermintide it’s understandable why this option might have been cut (on the standard PS4 at least), but its omission will still rankle those who remember the wonderful intensity of Left 4 Dead’s split-screen multiplayer sessions.
An eye-opening take on the Warhammer franchise, developer Fatshark has erased all memory of their risible Escape Dead Island effort from 2014 with Vermintide and in many ways stands as the true successor to Valve’s Left 4 Dead series. Without a doubt, this is one of the most engaging and blissfully enjoyable co-operative experiences you can buy on PS4.