The world of Warhammer is being invaded by the Skaven, as the dirty ratmen emerge to usher in the End Times…
Rat Shark’s offices are being invaded.
There are armies on the march, vile Skaven inhabiting showcases, shelves, and desktops. A couple of giants and a band of ogres have taken over the larger meeting room, and there are more evils lurking in boxes all over the joint.
The company has, basically, gone Warhammer mad.
It’s been a while coming, too. Since the formation of the company, before it was even an independent game publisher, its staff played Warhammer Fantasy Battles as a way of relaxing after work, and a lot of staff kept at it even after they moved to other companies. But even back then, as Fat Shark moved from supporting other companies to making their own titles, there was one game that everyone wanted to make – and now Fat Shark’s dreams have come true. Enter Warhammer – The End Times: Vermintide.
THE END IS NIGH
The End Times isn’t just a handy title – it’s also one of the biggest ‘in-game’ events to ever hit the Warhammer Fantasy tabletop world. In a series of novels, game, and model releases, Games Workshop is taking an apocalyptic approach to its oldest gaming franchise, shattering old alliances, shaking apart the world, and – if the rumours are to be believed – completely changing the way the game itself works.
One of the main antagonists in this massive upheaval are the Skaven, the evil, underground-dwelling ratmen. Tunnelling under every city in the vast Old World, the Skaven are boiling out of the sewers in massive, almost overwhelming numbers, pillaging and devouring all in their path.
Which is pretty much where Vermintide begins. The co-op game takes place in the city of Ubersreik – a name Warhammer fans should recognise – as the Skaven over-run nearly the entire city. At this point our heroes arrive, and they band together to try and save the city and its inhabitants, over roughly a dozen linear missions.
STICK TOGETHER, OR DIE ALONE
At every stage of the game’s development, the Fat Shark crew has been focusing on making a dedicated co-op game. Every design decision always harkens back to one question – does it reinforce and reward cooperative play?
“That’s our complete focus,” says Victor Magnusson, Game Designer at Fat Shark. “It’s nothing else but a co-op game, focused on replayability. And everything in the game supports playing co-operatively over and over.”
“We don’t have prede ned spawns, or anything like that, so every time you play Vermintide, it’s all different in terms of where enemies come from.”
The game actually features what Fat Shark is calling the Con ict Creator, a system that generates where enemies spawn, where certain loot like grenades and potions appear, and even PC dialog. If the players are having an easy time, it ramps up the action, or introduces an ‘elite’ enemy type to mix up the action.
It’s basically Left 4 Dead with giant rats.
The Fat Shark crew aren’t ashamed of that, either. “It’s a good game,” says Anders De Geer, Game Director, “so we’re not worried about that.”
“And co-op is popular, but still pretty underrepresented,” adds Liam O’Neill, the game’s Producer.
We got to see a typical game in action, and it’s looking pretty thrilling, though, it must be said, this writer is a fan of the Warhammer world. Like most multiplayer games, it begins in the lobby, except in Vermintide, the lobby is actually an inn, where you spawn in, in your own room, surrounded by your own trinkets and gear. You can walk around, check out other player’s rooms to see what they’ve been up to, and generally soak in the dark gothic feel while you’re waiting for everyone to get ready.
When you are ready, you examine a map, and the innkeeper gives you a mission, which could be anything from exploring the local cemetery for a poisoned water source to following strange noises in the sewers. We asked about more mission styles, and while it’s a work in progress, it looks like there’ll be a range of different mechanics in each one.
So, you pick your mission, and off you go.
When you spawn in, the Con ict Creator makes sure it’s never the same experience twice – Skaven are in different numbers, different locations, and backed up by different Elites. In one game, there were two groups of about a half dozen clan-rats (the most basic, most numerous Skaven type), and a Ratling Gunner (who focuses his stream of fire on one player, ignoring all others and even mowing down his allies, if you’re clever with kiting him) backing them up. In another game, the early portion was clear, but the next bit of the level was even more crowded, and featured a Packmaster, a Skaven Elite that uses a large man-catcher to grab a player, and drag them off.
We never got to see the end of that cemetery mission, but the game’s level designer, Daniel Platt, did walk us through another map. This one was the town’s Merchant Quarter, a selection of twisting streets, cramped allies, and market squares, all dominated by the ram-shackle and highly gothic buildings of the Old World. As he said, not a straight line or right angle in sight, which really does add a lot of Warhammer atmosphere. But it’s a complex map, in terms of gameplay, too.
“Most levels are very linear – you go from point A to point B – but we like have lots of ways to get there,” he told us. And sure enough, the map is full of different paths – through ruined buildings, over bridges, and so on. But this choice does lead to some other challenges in Vermintide’s level design.
“As level designers, we need to work with the game’s Con ict Director, and know how that works, so that we don’t trap characters in areas they simply cannot get out of,” Daniel says. “And Skaven are very mobile; they can climb, so we need to think about how the players are limited to the ground, when the skaven are not.”
“It’s fun to think of the enemy options in a level, to make them interesting as opponents.”
Effectively, you’ve got enemies that can spawn anywhere, and – in some cases – move everywhere, such as rooftops and over walls. You can avoid them, by using the environment, and in some cases, you’re going to want to. There are Rat Ogres, giant, monstrous creatures that pack and awesome punch, or Stormvermin patrols, whole units of elite Skaven that only the best players will be able to take on.
But con ict is inevitable. In the Merchant Quarter level, you have to eventually get to the market square, and gather sacks of grain, loading them into a carriage. You can complete the level with just six sacks, but if you want to aim higher, you can gather more, and possibly get more rewards.
This is balanced, however, by one simple mechanic – you only beat a level when you nish it, and you only get access to loot then, too. There’s a constant balancing act between risk and reward, which, again, is intended to force the players to constantly think about what they can accomplish together.
MEET THE HEROES
There’s a wide range of ratmen to ght, but who will be lighting them? We saw three characters on display during our demo session, and there’ll be five total. Interestingly, Vermintide is a four-player game, the idea being that even if you’re the last person to choose a character, you’ll still have a choice. Each character also has their own distinct backstory, and relationship with each other, all of which is brought out via dialogue, so even that will be different each time you play.
The Warhammer world is full of interesting characters, and some of the most iconic are on display in the game. There’s the Witch Hunter, a dedicated sword and pistol type that focuses his damage on a single target. The Bright Wizard is spellcaster with an interesting mechanic – her spells are not powered or limited by mana. She can cast as many fireballs as she wants, but if she gets too greedy, she risks immolating herself. “She’s the only character in the game that can kill herself,” admits Liam.
Though not explicitly mentioned, we also saw the Empire Soldier in the live demo, who was armed with the massive warhammer that could target multiple enemies, or seriously hurt a single opponent, and a black-powder ri e that can be used in both focused and shot-gun-like attacks.
What the other two characters are the Fat Shark team isn’t saying yet. They say they’re trying to avoid common tropes in fantasy games, and indeed, there are no tanks or healers as such. But in Warhammer terms, the three characters are pretty iconic, which makes us think that the other two will likely include a dwarven Troll Slayer – one of the most visually striking characters from the Warhammer world – and hopefully a Wood Elf archer. (and yes, that is last pick is totally the author mercilessly wishlisting – shut up)
LEWTS, PHAT OR OTHERWISE
Because Fat Shark doesn’t want a split between veteran players, and newcomers to the game, they’re eschewing traditional RPG elements that might see players argue about who belongs in a game session. They are, however, including some progression systems in the game.
Your account will effectively level up, which is basically a cosmetic prestige system. You can level characters, but that merely unlocks more weapons choices; and, when you start getting serious magic items as loot – which will happen pretty regularly – you can improve those weapons as well.
The loot system is looking to be one of the more interesting aspects of the game. Weapons, for instance, are all character specific – a Witch Hunter can’t use Bright Wizard gear. But Fat Shark sees this as a positive. Since you never quite know what character you’ll be playing in a given game, it’s important that you have access to advanced gear for every character, and this system promotes that.
How you get loot is interesting, too. At the end of each game, you’re awarded ‘loot dice’, which is Fat Shark’s nod back to the tabletop roots of Warhammer. The better you do, the more dice you get, and the more likely you are to get really good gear. And that gear should come pretty regularly. “Within a half hour of first starting the game, you should get some good gear,” said Creative Director Anders De Geer.
Which, of course, begs the question – with so much gear oating around, will there be some form of player economy for all this loot?
“Can we answer that?”
“I don’t know…”
Being huge fans of the setting, Fat Shark is doing its best to get the look and feel of the Old World just right. Not only are many of the developers long term Warhammer players, but they’re of course working closely with Games Workshop.
“They’ve been really good to work with,” Liam tells us. “We send them pretty much everything we come up with, and so far they’ve only had one objection, which is pretty good.”
“We keep asking if we’re using too many skulls,” says Victor. “Apparently, there’s no such thing!”
In fact, the team is working very closely with two of the setting’s established writers. They can’t say who, but it’s clear that the back-story of Vermintide is pretty much an of cial part Warhammer lore.
But the team’s obvious passion for Games Workshop’s oldest setting de nitely cuts both ways. For one thing, Fat Shark approached Games Workshop with Vermintide in mind, and the company was so pleased it signed off on the deal soon after – that’s a lot of pressure. It’s also one of Fat Shark’s biggest projects, and while having the freedom to make it without publisher oversight is good – apart from GW’s interest in looking after its IP – it’s still a big risk.
Finally, for such huge fans, getting it right is personally very important. Everyone on the team is very aware that the Warhammer Fantasy setting has never really set gamers on re. They’ve played Warhammer Online, remember the old strategy games, and one of the company’s aims is to show the world they love to fans and new gamers alike.
Perhaps the most positive thing we took away from our day in the Fat Shark of ce is that if anyone can pull off this task, it’s these guys.