Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. You and your three friends creep through a city infested with man-sized monsters, armed with a few blunt objects and some projectile weapons. You round a corner to find yourself facing one of the monsters, which screams and charges at you, alerting the rest of the horde. They swarm all around you, and in the chaos, a special monster grabs one of your friends and starts dragging him away to his doom. You only have seconds to save him, but you’re busy dealing with another creature flinging toxic waste at you. Hopefully one of you – what? I should have stopped three sentences ago? This is obviously Left 4 Dead?
I suppose I forgot to mention that the monsters are feral rat men, not zombies. Warhammer:The End Times – Vermintide is a campaign-driven four player cooperative shooter set in the Warhammer Fantasy universe. Developed by Fat Shark interactive, the game promises to be endlessly replayable thanks to a procedural encounter design system that places enemies and items in response to player progress. So yeah, it’s a Left 4 Dead clone, but that’s not necessarily a mark against it. Left 4 Dead is a landmark co-op game and one of the most enjoyable multiplayer shooters ever made, and aside from Valve’s own sequel, there aren’t many games that follow its formula. Left 4 Dead 2 came out nearly six years ago, so by all rights we’re due for another round.
It’s clear that Fatshark knows what makes this kind of game tick. Runs through the Skaven-infested city of Ubersreik are frenzied and require serious cooperation. When the Skaven get going they can totally engulf your entire group, and you need to clear through them quickly before the special variants show up. Once they do, you’ll have to deal with clouds of noxious gas that restrict your movement, skilled melee fighters who can pick you out of a group and eviscerate you in the blink of an eye, and long-range minigunners who will hone in on a single player and keep firing until they’re dead. Overcoming each of these enemies requires different cooperative tactics, and Fatshark has managed to make them feel largely distinct from Left 4 Dead’s special infected while still serving the basic purpose of punishing players who stray from the group.
Fatshark is distinctly well-suited to follow Valve’s lead, too. The Stolkholm-based company prides itself on its flat hierarchy and open studio environment, which frees its developers to pour their full creative energies into projects that interest them. The devs I played with are clearly passionate about the Warhammer Fantasy universe, and they’re excited to play around with the setting’s new End Times campaign. Games Workshop has been building up to this event for a long time now, and it’s brought major changes to the tabletop game and the lore surrounding it. For fans of Warhammer these are exciting times, and this magical apocalypse serves as the perfect backdrop for this sort of cooperative play.
Like Valve, Fatshark also has the benefit of working with their own in-house engine, Bitsquid, which has been rechristened “Stingray” in the wake of an acquisition by Autodesk. Autodesk intends to compete with Unreal and Unity, and if the visuals on display in Vermintide are any indication, they can do it. The lighting and shader effects look spectacular, and the Skaven might well have the best-looking fur I’ve ever seen in a game. They’ve used it to similar effect in their breathtaking medieval combat simulators War of the Roses and War of the Vikings.
While Warhammer: The End Times – Vermintide isn’t the most original game in the world, it at least has the good sense to copy an older game that people are starting to miss. More importantly, it copies that game well, with AAA polish and production values. Warhammer’s lore gives it a distinct flavor as well, and fighting something other than zombies with medieval-era weaponry feels fresh despite the derivative mechanics. If you’re a Warhammer fan who wants to delve into the lore, or just a gamer looking for a solid coop fix, Vermintide should be on your radar.