The end isn’t nigh in the Warhammer universe. It’s well underway.
Here’s the Cliffs Notes: a ritual has awoken Nagash, the world’s first necromancer, progenitor of vampires, and Supreme Lord of the Undead, and he’s grumpy after his nap. A full, poison-green moon is carting along the sky, a beacon of capital-c Chaos. Hordes of vicious, intelligent ratmen known as Skaven swarm the Empire’s cities. Even for a world mostly populated by monsters that’s perpetually in war, it’s been a hell of a week.
Roll all this bad stuff together and you’ve got The End Times, an event currently playing out in Warhammer’s fiction, and the grim background for Swedish studio Fatshark’s biggest game ever, Vermintide.
The perfect pests
Fatshark’s pitch is simple but interesting: Left 4 Dead: Warhammer. Vermintide is a four-player, cooperative FPS that intermingles melee and gunplay, and the Skaven, those pesky ratmen, are stand-ins for the undead. There’s an AI director pulling the strings in the background, procedurally populating levels with new threats. A finale caps off each level. Several types of “Elite Skaven,” including a roided-out rodent equivalent to L4D’s Tank, seen above, challenge you alongside hordes of basic rats.
The parallels to Valve and Turtle Rock’s zombie co-op classic are anything but blurry. But my visit to Fatshark’s Stockholm office, making me one of the first in the world to see Vermintide, reassured me that the similarities are coming from a place of reverence for Valve’s series.
“We love Left 4 Dead. From the get go we wanted to do a game ‘in the genre’ of Left 4 Dead, in their interpretation of cooperation.” Victor Magnuson, one of the designers, tells me. “The only way to really do it is to take the approach where if you go off alone, you’re in bad shape, you can’t survive on your own,” Magnuson says.
Enter the Skaven. Although they play a similar role to L4D’s zeds—crowds of lesser enemies meant to slow your progress and make you feel tough—Fatshark is embracing their decades of Warhammer lore and personality. “They are relentless, swarmlike, and power-hungry. They are a backstabbing, scheming, really nasty group of characters,” says Magnuson. “Also, there are so many of them, which makes them the perfect enemy for a co-op game. We feel like it’s really important that you’re up against impossible odds at all times so you really need to cooperate.”
The Skaven are anything but the Level 1 rats that decades of RPG heroes have dulled their swords on. The basic ones carry long knives and spears and spawn in packs of seven or eight in the current pre-alpha build. They have little variations in their clothing and fur. I watch a two-handed warhammer parry two Skaven thrusts, then knock one of the grunts on his back before stamping its pointy little head into mist. The corpse flops against the cobblestone—the ragdoll is expressive, generous, and funny, just as it should be. Dismemberment is still being implemented, but I grin when Fatshark mentions that tails will eventually be among the choppable appendages.
Every point of detail counts on these basic enemies. They’re the bread and butter of Vermintide, and the fun of clobbering them can’t erode too much over the hundreds of hours many players will invest. Vermintide’s pawns need to to be as polished as its rodent knights and bishops.
A handful of “Elite Skaven” comprise that higher tier, and Fatshark’s demo brings us steel-to-whiskers with several of them. Like Left 4 Dead’s family of special infected, these enemies each bring a single, deadly ability to the battle. The Ratling Gunner lugs around a massive rotary gun, chasing one player relentlessly before spinning up its cannon and unleashing a hail of bullets. Life is cheap to the Skaven, though, so the gunner won’t hesitate to mow through his kin to get to you. That can be used to your advantage, Fatshark claims—depending on the level layout, you may be able to trick the gunner into cutting down groups of lesser Skaven.
The Packmaster, on paper, is less intimidating. Mechanically, he’s the rodent cousin of Left 4 Dead 2’s Jockey. He carries a long yoke that works a bit like one of the hooked canes vaudevillians used to yoink boring acts off stage, but again, the lay of the level changes his effectiveness. At one point I watched players ascend higher into the city by stepping into an elevator cage one at a time. When a hero outside the elevator got pulled away by a Packmaster, the elevated teammate could only watch from behind bars as his friend was noosed, then pulled backward through the level.
There’s also the Rat Ogre, the unignorable mighty mouse in Vermintide's screenshots. Like the Tank in L4D, you have to tackle him together. “The best tactic will be to have one player draw its attention, using blocks and dodges to avoid taking damage. While that player will not be able to deal any significant damage to the creature, the rest of the team will be able to focus the Rat Ogre down while it is distracted,” Magnuson says.
Together, Fatshark says it wants players “to feel like you’re the Fellowship of the Ring going through Moria. There’s a lot of these easy enemies who make you feel really empowered, and suddenly something shows up that’s too powerful for you. They are heroes, but there are threats out there that are greater than you, says Martin Wahlund, one of Fatshark’s co-founders.
The biggest of those threats that Fatshark revealed is the Stormvermin Patrol, a sort of Skaven Navy Seals. “You don’t want to mess with these guys,” Magnuson says. “You’ll be hearing them coming, so they’re easy to avoid, and that’s actually what you should do. If you attack these guys, chances are really good that they’re gonna kill you.” Fatshark wants to put players in situations where someone may need to sacrifice themselves in order for everyone else to hide and survive. I like that there’s an enemy that you shouldn’t (but can) fight—running and hiding will hopefully break up Vermintide’s steady action.
Fatshark likes Left 4 Dead’s template, but I’m happy to learn that its symmetrical characters aren't being borrowed. Vermintide’s five playable heroes are mechanically unique, although they aren’t classes per se. Above all, Fatshark wants to avoid slotting players into archetypal fantasy roles. “There’s no healers or tanks,” Magnuson says, but each hero will have a roster of weapons to pick from to tune their fighting style. You may equip a sword and shield, allowing you to push or stun Skaven and block more, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be the designated damage-absorber of the team.
A progression system unlocks these new weapons over time. And interestingly, you’ll be able to increase your chances of earning better weapons by completing difficult optional tasks during a mission, like by killing a special Skaven. Likewise, one end-of-level finale forces you to gather sacks from a large area and load them into a cart before completing the level. Recover more than the minimum amount, though, and you’ll earn an extra loot die to roll at the end of the match.
Of the five heroes, Fatshark revealed two: Sienna Feugonasus, a Bright Wizard, and Victor Saltzpyre, the Witch Hunter, who can carry a rapier and dual pistols. The Witch Hunter is built for agile, precision combat, for eliminating specific enemies with a lunge attack or pistol burst. Sienna is wilder. “She’s a crazy old lady who’s obsessed with area-of-effect fire damage,” says Liam O’Neill. “Rather than having a typical mana or ammunition system, she has an overheating system. When you use fire magic, if you use too much in a short amount of time, you’ll start setting yourself ablaze.” Play too aggressively, O’Neill says, and you’ll immolate yourself to death.
Fatshark’s expression of Warhammer’s world has a good chance of being an interesting character in and of itself. Every piece of stone and wood is slightly askew, as if hurriedly constructed. An underground tunnel level is a lovely mess of random pipes and construction, curved walls and labyrinthine holes that’s more beaver dam than symmetrical sewer. The tunnels terminate at a raised shrine that the Skaven have erected, connected by a thin bridge. Here, as a finale event, you have to set explosives at the shrine (without being nudged off the tiny ledge by Skaven), then escape back through the tunnels Indiana Jones-style as everything behind you falls apart.
Vermintide has the makings of a memorable co-op game. Left 4 Dead is a great north star to follow, and on Fatshark’s side is its experience with multiplayer melee systems (War of the Roses/Vikings), and the freedom it’s gaining from self-publishing the game. Most encouraging of all, though, is its unquestionably genuine love of its source material. “Warhammer runs through our DNA. It’s part of our bloodstream. The core guys here at Fatshark are true Warhammer fans,” Magnuson tells me. Mårten Stormdal, producer on the project, is a 15-year veteran player (and roleplayer) who owns hundreds of models. Anders De Geer, Fatshark director, sold Stormdal his first army, a Vampire Counts set. “It’s the game we’ve always wanted to make,” says Wahlund.