Warhammer: Vermintide 2 is tense, dramatic, and frustratingly hard

Prepare to spend a lot of Vermintide 2 on the ground until you get real good.

We spent the weekend playing Vermintide 2's closed beta, smashing in the heads of large rats, running away from extremely large rats and generally getting killed a whole lot. Vermintide 2 adds loads more enemies to the first game's Skaven army with the Chaos faction, and likewise adds loads more complexity with an expanded loot system and leveling skill trees. It's also brutal, even on the easiest difficulty setting. Below, a dwarf, a knight, and James talk about the harsh welcome of Vermintide 2's first few hours. 

James: How about that field from the start of the Against the Grain map? It’s what I remember most from my time with the Vermintide 2 beta, not because it’s a particularly memorable field—I’ve seen enough wheat in my time to know a good pasture from amateur hour—but hot damn, Vermintide 2 is hard. On the easiest difficulty, Recruit, we could barely creep by that field before getting swallowed up by an unkind arrangement of poison tornadoes, assassin rats, and hordes of the Skavin and Chaos Spawn. I appreciated the difficulty and how it forced us to rethink our tactics immediately, but in these Left 4 Dead-likes, I prefer seeing the breadth of a campaign before it pulverizes me into submission. Why is it so damn hard? 

Wes: It took me quite a few tries to make it past that field, the farm beyond, and finally through the end of the level. One time a giant rat jumped off the roof of the farmhouse and wrecked us at, like, minute five. When we did finally finish it, I remember Steven, sounding totally spent, mumble "This game is stressful."

Making it to the end was partially getting a hang of when to swing and when to block and when to run like hell, but I think getting incrementally better equipment through loot helped quite a bit, too—after dying multiple times, slowly leveling up, and getting more powerful weapons, I was definitely surviving longer. But my initial impression of Vermintide 2 is that Recruit should be a lot easier. It's way more fun to blow through games like Left 4 Dead and Killing Floor 2 on easy difficulties as you learn the ropes, then up the ante as you get better. Getting utterly wrecked in 10 minutes starts to really feel like a grind (and feel like you're meant to grind before you can really progress).

A selection of loot after a few hours of play.

Steven: I totally agree. I want to love Vermintide 2 (and I already kind of do), but I’m apprehensive about how bloody difficult it is. What’s frustrating is that it’s not difficult in a good way, like a boss battle, but difficult in a sort of emotionally draining, "screw this shit" kind of way, like the brutally punishing corridor of enemies you have to kill repeatedly each time you attempt that boss battle. 

James: I’m guessing that we’re experiencing a vertical slice of a much more loot-focused sequel. Like Wes said, things got easier as we unlocked more gear and abilities, but I’d rather see that grind focused in the endgame. I don’t even want to think about what kind of fucking necklace my wizard is wearing until I’ve actually finished the campaigns from start to finish. Playing tourist to a pre-apocalyptic fantasy world is half the reason I’m playing, and the other half is because I want to bash rats with a hammer for hours on end. Those new special units don’t make it easy though.

I love that jolt of fear I get hearing their distinct chatter cut through the chorus of screams and realizing an already dire situation is about to get even worse.

Wes: I think Vermintide's equivalent of the "Special Infected" are what really make this game so brutal, yeah. In Left 4 Dead, everyone has guns. Melee is secondary. Vermintide is all about the melee, and the melee is fun, but there are several enemies that can drag you away from your party's melee range really fast. When a Skaven Packmaster speared Steven and dragged him away, my dwarf's crossbow didn't have the penetration to shoot through mobs and take him down. And I got pretty annoyed that when I did shoot one, he didn't flinch and drop his prey. You have to straight up kill them to break that incapacitation, which is just really frustrating in a game with limited ammo and slow movement speed.

I don't remember this being such an ordeal in Vermintide, but this time around there are way more special enemies thanks to the Chaos faction, and the AI director isn't shy about throwing them at you. I do really love the variety, though. How cool are those guys who make the magic tornadoes!?

Steven: I totally agree. Despite being too harrowing at times, the variety of enemies really keeps things exciting and tense. I love that jolt of fear I get hearing their distinct chatter cut through the chorus of screams and realizing an already dire situation is about to get even worse. In that regard, Vermintide 2 is exceptional at capturing that sense of overwhelming, hopeless dread. I remember when we were hiding in a farmhouse, using its single door as a choke point to help narrow down the onslaught of Chaos warriors and Skaven, and one of those Chaos wizards spawned a magic tornado that swept through the building, forcing us to abandon it or be trapped inside. It was awful in the moment, but afterwards I loved it. But, yeah, those Packmasters are just not fun at all.

Wes: I think what I'm most excited about—which I didn't get to touch in the beta at all—is Vermintide 2's talent system. Just like Killing Floor 2, you have 25 levels to work your way through, and every five levels you unlock a new ability option, like faster reloading or more damage or health. The idea of each of the five characters also having three separate specializations is really cool. Fighting defensively with axe and shield as the dwarf Bardin Goreksson was the only way I could keep myself alive for long, so I'm all about turning him into a beefy Ironbreaker. The shield's knockback is clutch when you're getting mobbed by a dozen chaos freaks and skittering skaven.

You'll unlock new talents every five levels, and each character also has three specialized career paths to go down.

James: The class and build versatility is more important as an expressive system than a necessary one for me. I’m hoping that the talent trees and specializations don’t get couched into use-case scenarios where for Level X, I know I should roll up as Character Y. Knowing how random the AI director can be, and with the addition of the Chaos Spawn, I don’t think it’ll be an issue, though I worry about getting too much RPG in my L4D. I just want to dissolve vermin and fantasy zombies with whatever signature style I develop. I think the sights and set pieces will determine how much fun I have with the combat anyway. 

Steven: I'm definitely excited to see how much variety there is in the level design. The three levels included in the beta were gorgeous and huge, but I really hope there's at least twice—if not three times—as many levels in the full game. Hopefully that's not wishful thinking. Part of what ultimately killed Left 4 Dead was how routine missions would become. I think Vermintide 2's Spawn Director seems to have more tools at its disposal to make sure levels don't play the same way twice, but with such stunning environments to skulk through, I just want so much more.

I just have strong opinions about the rat-smashing meta.

Wes: Well you're in luck there, Steven. As Tom wrote in our cover story, Vermintide 2's going to have 13 missions, which are divided up into "mini arcs" that "culminate in a battle with a ‘Lord’. These massive bastards will battle you in bespoke arenas and they’re even more powerful than the Chaos Spawn and Rat Ogre." That's a cool bit of narrative dashed on top of the formula, although I'm already dreading how tough these guys are going to be to take down, especially if those battles come at the end of a lengthy level.

Seriously, not to harp on the Left 4 Dead comparisons too much, but well, the Vermintide 2 levels we've played are long, and finishing them is all or nothing. It really makes me miss L4D's safe room structure, dividing campaigns into chunks. That made higher difficulty levels much more palatable, because you were fighting from checkpoints, not redoing entire levels. 

Steven: One thing I'm worried about is that the loot system isn't going to be all that rewarding. The slow pace of acquiring gear meant I didn't get to dive that deep into it, but all the pieces I obtained were the same items but with straight stat upgrades. It'd be cool to see gear that unlocks unique abilities or anything that makes the loot system not a basic stat grind because if that's all it is, I'm going to tire of it very quickly. You don't earn that much loot after completing a mission, so there really needs to be the thrill of getting some unique drops to make it exciting.

Ogre smash.

James: Like I said earlier, I think Fatshark is trying to integrate the loot grind into the lowest difficulties. A big mistake because it guts the fun of fantasy tourism, and I think it’s going to mean the early game loot will be pretty boring by necessity. Gotta save those big, memorable drops for the highest difficulties—that, or spend another couple months making unique, surprising loot for the lower difficulties. Hell, maybe it’s already there but the slow leveling pace and drop rates for each box are low. Or we just have terrible luck. Point is, I just don’t like it. Maybe I’m too much of a Left 4 Dead purist.

Wes: I agree that minor stat buffs on loot aren't the most exciting, but I think it's still a nice upgrade from the first game, where loot drops were especially meager. I think with a little difficulty balancing, we'll start to see loot drops as small rewards for finishing a level, not a lifeline for powering up enough to handle a challenge that previously wrecked our shit. I'm optimistic. Gimme that +5 necklace.

James: I don’t want to sound like I’m down on what I’ve played so far with my criticisms, because smashing rats (and now zombies) with buds on a trip through eerie pastoral landscapes is still one hell of a good time. I just have strong opinions about the rat-smashing meta. Dibs on fire wizard (I refuse to remember their names). 

Wes: That's okay, James. I'm sure Sienna Fuegonasus wouldn't remember your name, either.