A 4-player, first-person action game set in the doomed Warhammer world. So, Left 4 Dead with rats, basically.
Left 4 Dead (obviously), the sound of rodent skulls cracking beneath your axe.
As well as being a fantastic, four-player exterminate ‘em up, Vermintide has my favourite bit of flavour text in any game. It’s a throwaway paragraph about a magical trinket. To understand it, you need to know that hammers are a holy weapon in world of Vermintide, because they represent the Empire god, Sigmar. Still here? Excellent. Here’s the good bit. The description tells of a Witch Hunter who executed 13 manual labourers for heretical use of hammers for menial work, before his own captains noticed that the scaffold used to hang them itself resembled a hammer, so he was executed for heresy, too. It’s a handsome analogy for the Warhammer world, and for Vermintide itself: brutal, fanatical and bleak, but textured with a savage sense of humour.
Even the name itself sets the tone for Vermintide. It takes place during The End Times. According to the lore of the tabletop game, the world in which it’s set doesn’t even exist anymore: an inauspicious start for a game about backslapping heroism. You and three other adventurers team up to fight off hordes of scheming Skaven, who are trying to destroy humanity by smashing the moon of Morrslieb into the planet. It’s loving, detailed, lo-fantasy shlock, with wonderful representations of familiar races. The elf is haughty and mysterious; the Witch Hunter sneering and untrusting; the Bright Wizard an ember of barely-suppressed rage. The dwarf is my favourite, cheerfully waddling through the apocalypse like a no-nonsense general builder from a dreary northern English town. The way the characters interact is a dream for any Warhammer fan, bringing to life relationships previously buried in the pages of mouldering lore books.
And then there’s the rats. The endless, varied, deliciously-killable rats. I mentioned above that this is essentially Left 4 Dead with rodents, but it’s far more fun than that. The Skaven in Vermintide are the most murderable baddies in any game I’ve played. They fall into soft, wet chunks as you chop them apart, and stick to walls, jittering, when you skewer them with crossbow bolts. Best of all, Skaven are hopelessly evil, so they always deserve it. The deeper the pile of broken rat bodies, the better a person you are. The endless slaughter is invigorated by encounters with special enemies - again, a trick borrowed directly from Left 4 Dead. Packmasters grab heroes round the neck with strangling polearms, dragging them away until a teammate frees them. Gutter Runners lurk in the gloom, knives dripping with poison, waiting to pounce on lone adventurers. And most fearsome of all are the Rat Ogres - basically a hirsute version of L4D’s Tank, soaking up sickening amounts of damage while knocking heroes about like empty soda bottles in a car park.
My favourite thing about Vermintide, though, is the setting itself. If you’ve ever read fluff in a Warhammer army book, or stared for a suspiciously long time at a map of The Old World, there’s a palpable thrill in seeing it realised so vividly. Empire towns feel like mazes of ancient buildings, which lean in and block out the sickly skies above; forests, by contrast, are isolated and threatening, far from the safety of civilization. It’s not a visually appealing game - you’re not ugly, Vermintide, just unconventional - but the detail more than makes up for it. It almost feels more precious knowing that this version of the Warhammer world has literally been blown to pieces, and no longer exists in the lore - a loving final glance a world that’s gone forever.
Vermintide is an unfulfilling experience when played alone, but if you can find three friends - ideally, the same three friends with whom you crowded into a basement to play Warhammer Fantasy - there are weeks of fun to be had freeing The Old World from shadow of the Horned Rat. Or trying to, at least - we already know how it ends.
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