A furious roar rolls through narrow alleys and makes its way into the marketplace where our group is standing. A giant silhouette towers on a nearby rooftop and quickly jumps down between the buildings and targets us. There's only a matter of seconds for us to seek refuge and avoid being turned into a bloody puddle on the floor. We back up towards our fellow players and pray that the Skaven equivalent of Frankenstein's monster will spare us and focus on someone else.
Warhammer: The End Times - Vermintide is Fatshark's tale of the mutant rat-people, the Skaven, as they try to invade the human realm and take over the world, with the city of Ubersreik their first target. Five brave heroes are all that's left of the city's defences and they're thrown into dangerous missions in order to try and send the rats scampering away. Their base of operations is the Red Moon Inn, and here you'll organise your group, choose missions, handle your inventory, fill up on ammunition, as well as craft and upgrade weapons.
Then it's up to you to wade into the heat of battle, either as a host or joining as a player. If you choose the latter you need to be aware that you could well end up replacing a bot, which in turn means that you can get unlucky and have to start your game wounded, or the worst case scenario, already dead.
At the start there are a few stages available, and once you've finished these you unlock the next act, which includes more exciting missions. The environments are very varied and entertaining. Some missions require you to travel through multiple districts before reaching your goal, while others are so-called event stages. These are tremendous fun and extremely challenging when played on the higher difficulty levels (that's everything above "normal"). They revolve around completing some sort of task within a larger area, such as collecting sacks with food or barrels of gunpowder. Horde upon horde of Skaven will try and skewer you, hang you, beat you bloody, gas you, and shoot you. They're a nice bunch.
Each level is built around a unique scenario and visual style, but they all follow the same thread in terms of design and concept. You'll never know what to expect and there's a tremendous amount of attention to detail. As you progress through burning sections of the city you'll catch a glimpse of monuments seen in previous levels off in the distance. Everything is connected down to the smallest detail.
The concept reminds us of Left 4 Dead to a certain degree. You're tasked with getting from point A to B where someone waits to take you to safety. Certain special abilities remind us of the special infected in the classic co-op shooter. However, the concept entertains more here. So much thought has been put into it, and there's a greater attention to detail. It's grander, longer, more over-the-top, and offers interesting enemies that take things to a whole new level.
The atmosphere in Ubersreik is phenomenal. It's heavy and covers the city like a thick blanket of intense darkness. The gothic architecture and the lack of proper light sources, apart from the torches and fires that help to partially illuminate the city, are effective in creating this mood. There has clearly been a lot of work put into making this an interesting, organic world.
The buildings and the underground tunnels carved out by the enemy are cleverly designed with lots of chambers and winding corridors. There is plenty to discover and collect, but the enemy hordes tend to push you towards your goal. This is a good thing as there will be lots to discover even as you play the same levels a third or fourth time. If you take into account things like collectibles and mastering of all the difficulty levels, there's a ton of replayability here.
Co-operation is of the upmost importance, something that can be a problem when playing with strangers. If you get left behind or run off on your own the risk of getting caught by one of the more advanced Skaven enemies is very high. And then you need someone to have your back. If you're really unlucky your fellow players might have jumped down to a different level and so can't reach you.
Co-operation is most important when you fight side by side; if you don't mesh you won't get far. Working together is key when taking this sort of game to the next level, and Fatshark have done an excellent job of facilitating this. A positive surprise is that you can trust the bots in this regard, because compared to the beta version they now feel more "human". Previously they weren't too keen on saving you, but that's no longer a problem. They do however, tend to lag behind a bit, putting themselves in sticky situations, but luckily you can safely leave them behind if you want.
It's easy to manoeuvre your character and the controls are very responsive. We did notice that, at times, it was too easy to get caught up on small and seemingly avoidable obstacles. It might be a step, or when you try to enter an opening between two pillars, but sometimes it looks as if the scenery won't get in the way. When there's an incoming horde or a Rat Ogre breathing down your neck, getting unexpectedly snagged can be very stressful. There's also occasional lag, but hopefully this is something that will be ironed out before too long.
That takes us to the visuals, and these are something of a mixed bag. It's a bit rough in places, and the quality's not consistent across all areas. Certain rock textures appear flat next to detailed beams, or there's some wooden items that look like rubber, and grass and foliage isn't perfectly executed. There's a contrast between the beautiful surroundings and some of the less crisp details in your immediate proximity. The enemies can also look a bit unpolished, especially when they appear in large groups. That said, the visuals are often breathtakingly beautiful.
What really shines is the gorgeous lighting, which is chiefly responsible for the great atmosphere that Fatshark has managed at create. It produces the menacing, dark and foreboding sense that dominates Ubersreik. We also need to mention the reflections you can see in the weapons, blood and water - as they all impress.
The Skaven troops are made up of many different units and together they form a deadly and interesting force. Thanks to the number of enemy types and their different behaviours, you're constantly having to adapt your tactics. It makes for very dynamic encounters. You constantly shift between ranged and close-quarter combat as the enemy can appear from any direction. You have to be prepared for anything. There are often stragglers joining the battle just when you think you've taken care of the last of the vermin. And it's not unusual for substantial hordes to orchestrate ambushes.
Listening to the sounds of Ubersreik can be of great help. The various types of rats have different sounds and battle cries, something that can help you prepare for what's ahead. The music is pretty grand and there are many subtle touches that fit the game perfectly. It's well balanced and ramps up as the battles get increasingly frantic, before settling down as the last Skaven falls. Expect explosions and thunder strikes, along with the echo of death cries that float through the town.
Vermintide also impresses in terms of the playable characters. In terms of weapons, distinctive features, and looks. Each hero has a unique set of weapons, all carefully picked for that character. You don't start with access to all of them, but unlock them as you complete levels and rank up. Including all of the upgrades, there are more than 8000 variations of weapons in the game. This means you'll have a very different experience depending on what character you choose. And if you pick the dwarf you'll see the world from a lower perspective than the other characters, yet another nice detail.
What carries the story along and pushed the game forward is the sequences that play as a level begins, where you're informed of what your objective is. There is plenty of colourful dialogue that reveals strong characters and interesting backstories. There's also an introduction that ties things together and explains what has actually taken place, why these are the heroes tasked with saving the city, and what role the inn keeper plays. Unfortunately we weren't able to see this first-hand when we reviewed the game, as it will premiere when the game unlocks on release.
There is no mistaking that this is a game that lives and breaths Warhammer. The design, the characters and their abilities, come across as authentic. The assembled cast have been well thought out, and once you've played with a few of them you'll notice that their rooms at the Red Moon Inn are individually decked out. It's a nice way to experience the Warhammer universe, regardless of whether you're new to it or a longtime fan.
For us the game simply clicked. The action feels good, and we notice a smile creep across our face when the bloodthirsty Skaven rush us and we're forced to make our way through makeshift buildings and underground tunnels. Our heart stops as we frantically try to locate an assassin whose whispers echoes in the shadows. As our blade severs the heads of our enemies amidst the chaos it feels tremendous. Vermintide generates strong feelings. There is plenty of game here and it never got boring. The pace is high, almost stressful at times, and the hours slip away. "Just one more stage". But it never stops at just one more. We found ourselves immersed in this world, and now we want to know everything about it.
Originally we felt inclined to give the game a slightly lower score, but the atmosphere it generates, alongside the dynamic gameplay that Vermintide offers, tipped the scales in its favour. Simply put, the experience is wonderful. Here's hoping Fatshark continues to make Warhammer games and that next time they focus on another exciting race and a different part of the world. After all, there's plenty to pull from.