There are few things quite as satisfying as the feeling of popping a ratman’s head like a grape with a giant war hammer. Or cutting that head clean off with an ax, or possibly unloading a full revolver clip into it, or just burning the whole thing to a crisp. The truth is, just about every one of the multitude of ways Warhammer Vermintide 2 gives you and your co-op team to kill your enemies is punchy, powerful, and a whole lot of fun.
Vermintide 2 (and its predecessor) wears its Left 4 Dead inspiration on its sleeve, but it’s by no means a carbon copy of Valve’s co-op zombie FPS. It’s a similar structure: four players fight their way through a linear level filled with hordes of rat-like skaven and decomposing Chaos soldiers, with some variety coming from some Elite enemies that will grab your allies with hooks, throw poison smoke, or even fire machine guns. But Vermintide 2 has out-of-match progression with levels to earn, skill points to assign, and lots of new loot to collect – even if that loot is largely boring.
When you make contact with a mace or a sword and an enemy’s face, you can practically feel it reverberate in your bones – especially with the slow and heavy two-handed hammers available. But nearly every melee weapon hits hard, with tons of feedback in the form of forceful sound effects and staggered reactions from your enemy. If its a killing blow, blunt weapons send the now-limp body flying, while bladed options instead slice through heads, limbs, torsos, and tails – it’s a display that’s even more spectacular when cutting through groups of skaven with wide-cleaving weapons.
Calling in the Exterminators
The dozens of weapons available are varied and balanced enough that each one feels different. The flail is a favorite of mine because it’s faster than most other blunt weapons and still has a cleave effect, but I rarely use hammers because of their slower swing – but both can be effective in the right hands. Picking one weapon over another feels like a matter of preference, not the temptation of raw power.
That said, the combat tactics in Vermintide 2 aren’t quite as deep as its weapon pool. You can aim for the head to deal more damage, use a slower but stronger heavy attack, block, and dodge a short distance, but that’s about all the nuance there is. Most fights are matter of circling hordes of baddies, swinging at the head and avoiding hits. The higher difficulty levels can be extremely challenging and do require tight, coordinated teamwork to survive, but it’s still simple, hack-n-slash fun at its core. That’s perfectly okay as long as you aren’t expecting the strategic nuance of something like Chivalry: Medieval Warfare.
The Elite enemies also shake things up a bit, and there are a surprising number of different ones you can encounter. Many of them, like the Hook Rat, Assassin, and Leech, can single out isolated allies, forcing you to stick together. Others, like the Rattling Gunner or poison-throwing Globadiers can deal out tons of damage in a large area, pushing you to move around the battlefield. The scariest of all are the enormous Elites, like the Rat Ogre and the Spawn of Chaos, which act as smaller boss fights in the middle of a level and demand your full team’s attention. Even though all of these Elites are still killed by pouring damage into them, they are fun (and often frighteningly difficult) hurdles between hacking at the weaker hordes.
It’s still simpler, hack-n-slash fun at its core, and that’s perfectly okay
In addition to a melee weapon, every character also has a ranged weapon with a limited amount of ammo. Similar to the melee variety, there are a whole range of play styles available here; bows can fire quickly and accurately whereas crossbows hit harder but generally reload slower. Even within the different guns, you can use single-shot pistols, powerful shotguns, rapid fire repeaters, and lots more. I still prefer the feel of a broadsword to a bow, but they aren’t a neglected way to play in the slightest.
In fact, whole characters can revolve around one style of combat or the other. There are five characters/classes to choose from, each of which has their own skill tree, pool of potential weapons, and special passive and active abilities. But each of those characters also has two additional unlockable alternate versions (called careers) which you can gain access to through leveling. Those careers change your abilities, skill tree, and general play style, essentially adding up to a total of 15 different character options with pretty significant differences between them.
For instance, Markus Gruber is a tankier character who uses huge two-handed weapons by default. His base-level Mercenary career gives him extra attack speed when he hits three enemies at once, but his unlockable Huntsman career instead focuses on ranged combat and allows him to recover ammo on headshots. That meant that if I liked one character’s available weapons, but not necessarily their abilities, I could mix and match to better fit both my preference and whatever the party needed most at the time.
Sienna the Fire Mage is by far the most unique of the bunch, as her magic weapons replace ammo entirely with a clever and challenging overheating mechanic. Using her ranged spells will charge her up, allowing her to deal out damage even quicker, but if you overheat you’ll explode in a burst of flames and collapse. It can be used as a last-ditch area attack, but leaves you vulnerable until you find a healing item (which are rare on higher difficulties). Even if a couple other weapons borrow this mechanic, it makes Sienna stand out in the roster and comes with some exciting weapon options, like rapid-fire fireballs or a freakin’ laser beam.
You can further customize your characters by allocating points to different skills. Every five levels grants you the choice between one of three new buffs in a skill tree, which can do things like modify abilities or improve your stats. While it takes a fair amount of playing to get those levels, you can reallocate your skills at any time. It feeds into the idea that Vermintide 2 wants you to experiment and explore everything it has to offer, not stick to one path that you have to max out to be effective.
The Loot Box In The Room
The good news is that there are zero microtransactions in Vermintide 2. However, the big, ugly catch that somewhat undermines this interesting and adaptable system is how you unlock and upgrade your equipment: randomized loot boxes. Though not as bad as something like Star Wars Battlefront 2, I still find this kind of progression extremely unsatisfying because you don’t have much control over which rewards you’re working toward. And, in this case, the loot usually isn’t that interesting: it’s thrilling to find a brand-new type of weapon and I’d often rush to try it out in combat for the first time, but it’s boring to find that same weapon again, this time with a power level of 88 instead of 85. Hooray?
Vermintide 2 takes a note of out Destiny’s playbook here, with your character’s power level being based on the power level of your gear plus a boost from your character level, with the higher difficulty settings locked behind a minimum power requirement. A higher power level increases damage, attack penetration, and stagger, but it often feels like an incremental and relatively invisible upgrade in the heat of things.
The weapon variety is exciting, but the other items are as dull as the metal they are made of.
Completing a mission rewards you with a loot box, but it’s hard to be all that excited when three of the five item types you can find and equip from them are functionally identical, the other two being your melee and ranged weapons. The Necklace, Charm, and Trinket are all generic vehicles for a power value and some bonus attributes, like increased critical chance or dodge distance. While weapon variety is exciting, these items are as dull as the metal they are made of. I generally just mindlessly click the biggest number item I have and scrap the rest for materials, seeing no difference between the slots.
The saving grace is that Vermintide 2 has a pretty robust crafting system that lets you break down extra items to create new ones, upgrade current ones, and even reroll bonus attributes. It gave me a welcome level of control over the inherent randomness of the loot boxes, which also (thankfully) only give you items for the character you have selected when opening them.
The contents of your loot box rewards can be upgraded by finding any of three hidden Tomes during a mission, which you need to carry to the end instead of a health item. There are also two Grimoire books, which actually lower the max health of your entire party while you are holding them and are significantly more hidden than the Tomes, often locked behind elaborate jumping paths or hidden button puzzles.
I love that missions have secrets to find and the decision involved in that risk-reward trade-off, but it was annoying that basically none of this is explained to you. I only found out about these books at all by being paired with a group who knew every book location like the back of their hand, which meant by the time I knew there was treasure to find someone had already picked it up outside of my view. It’s a seriously cool system, don’t get me wrong, but it feels like it’s designed to be solved through a Google search. That’s a bit disappointing, especially when an ill-advised Grimoire pick-up from a random teammate who knows its location can sometimes doom an underprepared party.
Vermintide 2’s loot box progression system isn’t egregious or offensive in the way other similar systems are, like Star Wars Battlefront 2, in that it doesn’t drag the fun co-op brawler it’s built for down. But it isn’t a reason to keep playing, either, which makes me wonder why it exists at all. Simply put, it’s just boring loot. If you want to max out and challenge yourself with the hardest possible difficulty levels you’ll need to invest into that system, and that’s definitely frustrating. But playing more casually, it wasn’t too hard for me to just ignore power entirely, use the weapons I wanted to use, and have fun killing rats with friends.
Knight In The Woods
One thing that keeps impressing me every time I play Vermintide 2 is its downright gorgeous locations. The wooded forest levels in particular are just stunning, as Vermintide 2 has managed to make over a dozen settings that are bright and colorful without feeling out of character with the signature doom, gloom, and gore of Warhammer that takes place within them. The basic enemies you fight also have tons of visual variations that range from fancy, superfluous armor to grotesque battle scars. Even your hub headquarters – basically just a fancy menu between missions – feels like a lived-in area with lots of side rooms to run around and explore while waiting for your party to gather.
Its 13 different missions are set in snowy war camps, dark caves, lush forests, lovely farms, dank swamps, and a whole lot more. For the most part they are laid out in a similar fashion, with linear walking sections broken up by special obstacles in your path that do a good job of shaking things up. These include wheat fields that obscure enemies, rudimentary button puzzles to solve, and payloads to push – there’s even a tense level that briefly makes you fight your way through a pitch-black cave while escorting a minecart.
Vermintide 2 also does a nice job capping off each mission with a creative finale. One level has you aligning a huge, three-tiered puzzle wheel as you’re mobbed from all sides, while another has you hunting for infected polyps to destroy in the heart of an enemy base. There are also specific boss levels that pit you against significantly more powerful unique enemies. They aren’t so different from the larger Elite enemies and are still killed by just whacking them a bunch, but they do present a very real challenge that requires teamwork and coordination to overcome.The VerdictWarhammer Vermintide 2 is a beautifully dark game, and I’m in love with its hard-hitting, meaty melee weapons. It’s a gorgeous game with tons of fun play styles and customization options to uncover, even if most of the loot you earn for your efforts is a letdown. But thankfully you don’t need to pay much attention to it to simply enjoy the hack-n-slash, Left 4 Dead-inspired co-op fun of bashing hordes of rats and zombies to a pulp.