Warhammer: Vermintide 2 has risen from the shadow of Left 4 Dead four years later

Unpredictability, variety, and a spice of chaos

Left 4 Dead and its sequel loom large in the realm of cooperative action games. Numerous games have attempted to replicate Valve’s zombie horde shooter’s popularity, but the majority have failed, either failing to capture the essence of the game or, worse, staying too close to the source material. Warhammer: Vermintide, published in 2015, and its 2018 sequel, Vermintide 2, are two of the rare genre examples that have succeeded. They’re fundamentally similar to the Left 4 Dead series, although they differ in one important manner…

Warhammers. Axes, swords, maces, flails, and halberds are among the melee weapons available to the player. If Vermintide has a defining trait, it’s the shift in first-person combat away from the long-ranged headshots and spray-and-pray tactics of Left 4 Dead and toward thundering, concussive hits and frenetic, up-close-and-personal thwacking.

Vermintide 2, at over five years old, is a seasoned co-op classic. With thousands of players still matchmaking on Steam and developer Fatshark about to release its first-person shooter Warhammer 40,000: Darktide (pending more delays), I decided it was worth returning to Vermintide for one final fantastical adventure to reassess the game’s success.

Warhammer: Vermintide 2 has risen from the shadow of Left 4 Dead four years later

The setting is one of Vermintide’s strongest points. The impact here cannot be overstated – as a world that has been constantly expanded since the early 1980s, Games Workshop’s “Warhammer Fantasy” setting performs a lot of the hard lifting: It immerses you in its somewhat comical grimdark realm from the start. As I wrote in my review of Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters, Warhammer’s world-building and mythology have a history of achieving a lot with relatively little, having been built up around little plastic figures. Warhammer has an extraordinary ability to conjure up the delectable sensation of something unearthly with a single word. In Daemonhunters, I grew preoccupied with names like “astropathy” and “archeotech”; in Vermintide 2, the “Skittergate” captures the mind immediately.

Vermintide 2 centers on the danger of the Skaven, a species of ruthless, cunning ratmen that scurry about in the underground environment beneath the human kingdoms, as it did in the first game. The Skaven are responsible for the evocatively titled Skittergate, a Warpstone-powered gateway that connects to the realms of Chaos and is essential to the storyline of the main campaign. The ferocious Norscans, who, along with the Skaven, form the game’s various enemy hordes, enter through the portal.

And Vermintide 2 is a horde-based game, with crowds, floods, and swarms that, like the original Left 4 Dead zombies, scramble over structures and rush through doors to encircle you and your squad of heroes. As you feverishly slash at the incoming flow of rats and Chaos soldiers, beating back the horde takes on an almost rhythmic character.Swipe left, swipe right, make sure your adversaries are in front, not behind – battle may seem more like a spatial problem, akin to PowerWash Simulator, where you’re cleaning up a mess and sweeping up rubbish, than anything approximating a choreographed conflict. Ranged fighting isn’t entirely missing — in some circumstances, it’s a more effective weapon for killing elite adversaries — but it’s more of a complement to the melee action.

Warhammer: Vermintide 2 has risen from the shadow of Left 4 Dead four years later

Almost every hero has the ability to specialize – each of the five characters has four possible “careers” (three in Sienna’s case, as her last class has yet to be announced). Victor Saltzpyre, a Witch Hunter, may evolve from an agile, lightly armored assassin who excels in single-target killing to a gun-toting Bounty Hunter or even a highly armored, hammer-wielding Warrior Priest. The game’s combat focus makes experimentation with ranged weapons an appealing idea. However, the most essential part of this game is the sheer amount of personalization available: weaponry, career talents, and play styles.

This adaptability is critical to Vermintide 2’s long-term success. Although the game provides a plethora of cosmetic enhancements (some of which can be purchased with real money), paintings to collect and place on the walls of your hub area, and, of course, loot, none of these appear to be the primary reasons players return to play.

Cosmetics are notably insignificant due to the game’s visual age and subdued look. There’s a genuine dedication to grimdark Gothicism in Vermintide 2 – it’s tough to calculate how many caverns and gray-brown underground warrens you’ll traverse over the course of a campaign. One level takes you from an underground asylum through a sewer and eventually to a catacomb. There are other outdoor levels with more magnificent, pastoral landscapes, as well as the “Chaos Wastes” sector, which makes considerably greater use of Warhammer’s vibrant purples, pinks, and reds. However, these are outliers in a generally monotonous environment.

Warhammer: Vermintide 2 has risen from the shadow of Left 4 Dead four years later

Another factor that does not contribute as much to Vermintide’s continuing appeal as one might imagine is loot. Of course, it’s a tempting carrot on a string: Tomes and Grimoires are distributed throughout each level, and carrying them requires you to give up a health potion slot and/or a significant portion of your life (Grimoires diminish your health by 30%). These books are a typical risk-versus-reward mechanic – accept the penalty hit and complete the task with them, and the treasure chest you receive at the end of each level will contain greater loot.The looting creates a compelling cycle, as it does in other multiplayer level up-athons, but the steady supply of weapons, trinkets, jewelry, and charms isn’t what I’d call a game changer. A blade, whether orange or purple-tiered, nevertheless performs as expected; a crossbow at “Power Level” 300 behaves just as it did at Level 5.

It doesn’t take long to unlock each job and test out the majority of weaponry — and yet, with Fatshark’s ongoing support and a pretty vibrant player population despite the passage of time, there are definitely compelling reasons to keep playing even after you’ve seen everything.

The free The Chaos Wastes expansion has been the most significant modification to Vermintide 2 throughout the years. It’s billed as a new “roguelite” game mode that taps into what many people enjoy about cooperative action games in the first place: variety.

Warhammer: Vermintide 2 has risen from the shadow of Left 4 Dead four years later

While the original Vermintide 2 scenarios allowed for plenty of variation, The Chaos Wastes adds even more to the mix with its own version of Left 4 Dead’s famed “AI Director.” Your Expedition through the Chaos Wastes is a kind of randomized mini-campaign — you start with nothing but a basic set of equipment, and as you and your team progress, you’ll collect coins that can then be handed in at altars to improve things like your weapons or add new abilities and passive talents to your hero.

The Chaos Wastes adds a lot of randomness and unpredictability to your gameplay, modifying things as basic as level creation, with certain pathways being shut off or beginning and finishing locations being shifted around or even reversed. Loot also plays a larger part, since the game isn’t hesitant to let you become overpowering, or even simply weirdly made, with strange combinations of boons. After completion, everything is taken away.This is the finale of Vermintide 2 – and its finest feature. Forget about your “Power Level,” your unique equipment, or your profession. Enter the Chaos Wastes with buddies and bash your way through the hordes, loving the fact that you have no idea what’s going to happen next. Vermintide 2 has had a great core since the beginning, encapsulating much of what makes these types of horde games so popular. But it’s also demonstrated that it has something fresh to give with time, with The Chaos Wastes introducing some much-needed instability to this never-ending parade of fantasy brawls.

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