As we arrived at the Fatshark offices in Stockholm we had absolutely no idea what was in store for us. Sure we knew they were working on a Warhammer tie-in. But what kind of game was it? Fatshark has made everything from multiplayer shooters, to puzzle games, medieval third-person multiplayer, retro platformers and action-RPGs. The answer was something far removed from the turn-based strategy origins of the license.
"Vermintide is a first-person co-op game set in the End Times of Warhammer," explains Fatshark CEO Martin Wahlund as we sit down for the presentation.
In a way the story of Warhammer: End Times Vermintide is also the story of Fatshark. What started as a company made up of refugees after the collapse of Amuze (who developed the Headhunter titles published by Sega) evolved into an outside resource that aided projects in need of assistance has grown to become a self-publishing and rather sizable developer in its own right. They would become known as a team who could turn around a small project quickly and work across multiple genres. They never had the time or luxury for any longer period of pre-production or extended development cycles.
Back when the core group of the original Fatshark started working in the industry they would sit and play Warhammer after work, and it's something that followed them and there was always the dream of making a game in the universe at some point. In 2013 they approached Games Workshop with the concept, and after having worked on multiple projects simultaneously with small teams - the studio has grown and now it is fully dedicated on one project - Vermintide. A relatively long pre-production phase is followed by a longer than usual production phase, and as the studio sold off their ownership in the Bitsquid engine last year - they are in the unusual situation of having more resources and time on their hands.
"We began the project in the beginning of 2013," said producer Mårten Stormdal. "We had an unusually long pre-production by our standards. Seven months that wound up in a prototype for internal use. Proof of concept with a level, some enemies. Since then we've been working towards alpha."
Vermintide is indicative of another major change at Fatshark. Instead of being a Swiss army knife style developer they know operate with a singular focus - namely multiplayer games.
"We've done Krater and [Escape from] Dead Island, but our strength isn't in those kind of games," said game designer Victor Magnuson. "Our strength is gameplay and multiplayer. It's what we do well. And you have to specialise to really excel at something."
End Times is an apocalyptic event in the world of Warhammer that is playing out currently in a series of books. Vermintide takes place in the city of Ubersreik at the beginning of the End Times. The Skaven, a race of rat-men, thought legend by most has taken over the city as our heroes arrive. And so they find themselves in a situation where they have to fight for their survival.
But this isn't a hero's tale where you'll rise to the challenge and put an end to the End Times. Your reasons to stay and fight are very different. Each hero (5 in total) has a unique story and background that players will experience via dialogue prior to and during missions. We were introduced to two heroes - a Witch Hunter called Victor and a Bright Wizard called Sienna. Victor is out to get the Skaven for personal reasons as one of them ate one of his eyes, and the characters all have different motivations that don't necessarily have to do with saving the city. Missions may revolve around easy to relate to objectives such as getting provisions from the marketplace, but ultimately the fight will take our band of heroes down to the Skaven empire below.
"We wanted to make a proper co-op game in the Warhammer universe," said Mårten Stormdal. "That was our basic mission. The feeling we were going for was the old Mark of Chaos trailer. Dark and harsh. Troubling. We wanted to achieve that dark feeling of Warhammer."
The Skaven army mainly consists of Clan Rats - your typical foot soldiers. They will pour out from every corner, sewers and alleyways as well as jump down from rooftops. They can overwhelm a player who goes at it alone, but are fairly easy to deal with as a group. The Clan Rats all have different armour elements, hats and looks if you take to time to look closely before dispatching them. However, they will fall rather quickly. Clan Rats will make up the bulk of the Skaven army you'll face and they are very much disposable - something that rhymes well with the nature of the Skaven faction. Life is cheap.
This is perhaps most apparent with one of the Elite units - the Ratling Gunner. The Skaven are great at making genius contraptions and this ratling gun is one such invention. It's rather slow and bulky and the Ratling Gunner will focus its firepower on one player. He will however move slowly so you're going to an opportunity to run out of the way - and any Skaven caught in the line of fire will pay with their life. Of course, if you run past another member of your group the Ratling Gunner will focus his attention on that player instead, so if you're not careful you could easily be responsible for the downfall of the entire group.
There is another Elite unit called the Stormvermin Patrol - and these you may want to leave alone. They won't attack unprovoked, but if provoked they are very difficult to deal with as they have superior firepower and armour. The idea here is to force the player to play the game tactically rather than wage all out warfare on everything in fur that moves. This patrol can be heard from afar so you can plan your actions accordingly.
Every facet of the game has been designed with teamwork in mind. You're only rewarded with loot if you succeed in accomplishing the main objective for instance, no points for killing the most enemies or rushing ahead. In fact if you go at it alone you could end up in some serious problems - one class of Elites - the Packmaster has rod he uses to capture and drag one player away with. This player is now helpless to do anything if another player doesn't take out said Packmaster. Stick together or die alone.
Fatshark were unwilling to reveal an exact number of Elite units - three were revealed, a fourth briefly spotted during a presentation, but there won't be a ton as each Elite will have a specific role to play.
Naturally you can fill different roles as a tank, or perhaps as a sniper at the back of the group, but you're always equipped with both a ranged and a melee weapon so you're never out of an option. And since the Skaven attack from all sides as well as from above and below, your role may have to switch depending on where the danger is. Resources are relatively scarce in Vermintide. You'll need conserve ammunition and search for health kits and therefore the best choice may often be to avoid open conflict with the Skaven if you can.
As you'd expect replayability is a core pillar of Vermintide. And while the levels and objectives will be unchanged the enemies you face, what types and where they spawn will be procedurally generated. Will the Ratling Gunner be spawned at the end of a narrow passage? If so, you're job gets a lot harder. The "conflict director" will aim to make things hard for you to predict and challenge your teamwork skills. The loot system is also a huge part of replayability - while you will unlock more weapons it's not necessarilly more powerful ones, but ones that allow you more playstyles. There are also trinkets that work like perks (and helps you define a class for your hero).
"It's insanely important not to reward the wrong things," said Victor Magnuson. "If we reward the wrong thing here we will get player behaviour that we don't want."
As you'd expect there game offers a constant ebb and flow of intense action sequence and periods where the player is encouraged to lay low and make tactical decision such as choosing your route or going after side objectives.
"An important job now is going to be balancing the pacing so that you get the flow of action, relative calm, a little eerie, so that you begin to worry that enemies are coming," explains Magnuson.
It's still early days and the code we saw of Warhammer: The End Times - Vermintide was of the pre-alpha variation where certain animations and assets were either placeholder or missing. What is clear is that there is a tremendous amount of promise here, regardless of whether you're a fan of Warhammer or not.