Art by Quendan Comari
When I reviewed Outriders earlier this month, I was coming fresh into a new game that’s still very much in Early Access, unfinished and raw.
This time, though, I’m reviewing a game I’m much more familiar with, to the tune of 200 hours played. Warhammer: End Times—Vermintide II. Specifically the new free update, The Chaos Wastes, which adds a whole new rogue-lite game mode to a game that was already, by every reasonable standard, complete.
The question I’m going to look at here is…is it enough to breathe new life into a three year old game?
So, just to recap: Vermintide II is a co-op horde shooter in the vein of Left 4 Dead. The maps are linear, but the resources and enemies you encounter are varied by a narrator AI so that no two runs through the same map are exactly the same.
It also has the distinction of boasting what I consider to be the best melee combat in any first-person game. Every weapon has its own attack pattern: some slash sideways through the hordes weak foes but bounce off the sturdier elites. others do huge armor-piercing damage to a single foe but don’t cleave into the minions so well. Some come down powerfully overhead to consistently score headshots, others don’t do so much damage but stagger every enemy they hit, allowing you to control and contain them.
Blocking and dodging are highly necessary, especially on higher difficulty levels, but tuned so as to make you feel like, say, the doughty dwarf planting his shield firmly before him, or the nimble elf deftly sidestepping a clumsy beastman’s untrained smash. You never feel weak for having to defend yourself: even playing defensively is heroic in this game.
Another of Vermintide’s strengths is that, unlike the two L4D games, your choice of which of the game’s characters to play is meaningful, and genuinely affects how you approach combat. In Valve’s genre-defining original, the characters were basically interchangeable, and your skills and play-style depended entirely on what weaponry you found as you played through a particular campaign. The characters were well-realized and full of personality, but ultimately the choice of which one you played was entirely cosmetic.
The first Vermintide game added the refinement of giving each of the characters their own distinctive strengths, and even perspective. It’s noticeably harder to score headshots in melee when you’re playing Bardin Goreksson for instance because, well, he’s a dwarf. The enemy’s heads are further away. Usually.
Whether you’re playing steadfast mercenary Markus Kruber, precise and righteous witch hunter Victor Saltzpyre, flamboyant bright wizard Sienna Fuegonasus, or the decidedly prickly wood elf waywatcher Kerillian (whose nickname for the others, rather tellingly, is “mayflies”) has a profound impact on what you bring to the table. Each character has a passive ability, an active ability, and their own stable of different weapons to choose from…and out of a pool of five, only four come along on the mission. You’re always missing somebody’s contribution, and it matters.
Vermintide II took that process a step further by giving each character several sub-classes, with new ones still being added. The end result is (currently) seventeen different ways to play the game, even before you’ve delved into the precise combination of melee weapon and ranged weapon you’re bringing into the mission. And then there are the qualities and unique traits on the weapons, and three items of jewelry (Necklace, Charm and Trinket), and the fact that each subclass gets to pick five perks with three options per perk…
The point is, you can really finesse your build in this game, and after a while you’ll find a combination that works well for you, which you can then happily lean into and rely upon as you play through the game’s campaign and DLCs.
All of which is why it’s rather fun that the first thing the new game mode does is take most of that control away from you.
The Chaos Wastes
The new update adds a very different game mode parallel to campaign mode. All the stuff I said above about customizing your gear only applies in campaign mode, including the Winds of Magic DLC, which is essentially a variation on the theme and uses a slightly different system to achieve the same result. Chaos Wastes, on the other hand, is a rogue-lite.
Fittingly for a story and mode built around the ever-shifting, treacherous and unpredictable nature of Chaos, this mode takes away much of the certainty you have when launching into a run (or “pilgrimage” to use the in-game nomenclature.) You pick your character, pick your perks, and pick what kind of weapons you’re using…but that’s it. You’re not using your carefully collected legendary equipment here. You have basic, dull grey versions of your weapons, and no trinkets, necklaces or charms at all. By Vermintide standards, you’re naked.
From this bare beginning you choose which of two nodes you want to proceed through next in your journey toward the final trial, along a branching tree. Each node has modifiers—you might find fewer healing items if you go path A, but also run into fewer elite enemies to drain them. On the other hand, path B might challenge you with more of the game’s miniboss monsters or a meddling hex from one of the four Gods of Chaos, but you’ll find more Pilgrim Coins with which to buy upgrades and boons.
Whichever way you choose to go, each cleared node will give you a powerful boost that lasts for the rest of your run, such as extra health, increased crit chance, more stamina for blocking…
But of course, this is an online team game, and your party-mates might not agree with you on the best path, or even just want to troll you. And voting in this game, so far as I can tell, seems not to be a case of simple majority. Instead, the game seems to randomly choose a “winner” and goes with their choice. So, the more people vote for a stage, the more likely one of them will win and the party goes that way…but a lone dissenter can throw your group off course if they win the dice roll instead.
Then there’s the process of gaining power as your pilgrimage progresses. Throughout each map, you’ll pick up the aforementioned Pilgrim Coins, which you spend at shrines scattered randomly around each map. Some shrines upgrade your current weapon to a higher tier, with random qualities. Others replace your weapon entirely, with a different but more powerful one chosen at random.
A third kind of shrine will give you a random boon, with effects such as increasing the size of the explosion your bombs make by 50%, or causing you to receive more healing whenever you heal. A fourth costs nothing to activate, but spawns a monster you must defeat, after which you get to choose one from a pool of three random boons.
Random, random, random, random, random. Chaotic, even. Very apt.
This interplay between predictability and chaos truly upends Vermintide, in a good way. You can no longer be certain of what you’re going into. For instance, when playing Kerillian, I usually favor the “Nastirrath” longbow and “Ceyla” dual swords. By the end of one run last night though, while I’d successfully managed to keep my longbow, I’d swapped out the swords twice – once for a slower but more damaging greatsword, and then again for an armor-piercing axe. These weapons play so differently that I had to adapt my approach to fights on the fly, and remind myself how each one worked as the mission unfolded. It was a challenge, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
There is, however, a flip side to that coin. Not a problem exactly, but a concern.
Blessing or curse?
For my money, there are certain subclasses that handle this mode better than others. Kerillian’s waystalker, for instance, passively regenerates her own health to 50% and can take a perk that spreads that ability to her teammates—vital when you’re locked into a pilgrimage that will last across five maps with healing in short supply. For similar reasons, Kruber’s mercenary, with his ability to give everyone a huge burst of temporary health whenever he activates his own ultimate, seems like an absolute must-have. These are solid, sensible, no-nonsense, safe classes.
Campaign mode, however, allows you to play with a little more flourish. For instance, my favorite of Sienna’s subclasses is Pyromancer, who accumulates heat from casting spells and is at risk of exploding if she accumulates too much (being a wizard in the End Times setting is dangerous!) But the tradeoff for that is, the higher her heat, and the closer to disaster she rides the line, the faster she attacks and the more likely she is to score a critical hit.
In campaign mode, you can min-max that dynamic, stack on carefully cultivated attack speed and crit buffs, and turn the wizard into a gory glory. At max heat, hordes of enemies run into her dagger like a sack of rats being dumped into a wood chipper. It’s high-risk, high-adrenaline, high-reward gameplay.
Chaos Wastes, with its emphasis on, well, chaos, renders that build less reliable, as there’s simply no guarantee of finding the boons and buffs needed to make it shine. That’s not to say the subclass is completely non-viable in that game mode, just that it’s generally better to go with a more prosaic strategy. Pick the good all-rounder who performs no matter what they get.
Ultimately, though, all of the subclasses remain viable, and if you can resist the urge to optimize the fun out of your own experience, you can still absolutely dive headlong into the enemy mob with a live piglet on your head, screaming about repentance and surfing the disaster curve to your demented heart’s content. Just know that you may struggle to make progress on anything more challenging than Veteran, the games second-easiest difficulty mode, where a safer option might see you through.
There is something missing, however.
One key feature of rogue-lite games is the progress you make between runs. Take Hades for instance, in my opinion about the finest example of the genre you could ever hope to play. Although most of the resources you pick up during a Hades run are temporary, and expire when the protagonist does, a few are permanent, and allow you to buy upgrades that will make your next run a little easier, and perhaps allow you to go a little further.
Chaos Wastes…doesn’t have that.
You keep a few of your coins between pilgrimages, but that’s it. You’re handsomely rewarded for completing a pilgrimage, receiving a flurry of good loot boxes full of gear…but the gear you receive is only useful in campaign mode. You’ll gain a healthy chunk of XP to level up your character too, but that’s the same as completing an ordinary mission, not Wastes-specific.
So, as far as I can tell, there isn’t any kind of permanent progress that lasts between pilgrimages in Chaos Wastes mode itself. Once you’ve finished one pilgrimage, your gear and boons go away, and you start the next one back at square one.
This one, I think, is a problem. The entire point of updating a three-year-old game with new content is you want to lure back some older players and convince them to, say, buy the new cosmetic pack you launched at the same time. It worked on me! I own that five dollar piglet hat, and I’m not ashamed to admit it!
In order to keep your players playing, though, you really need to give them some progress, and once you’ve got all your characters to level 35 and unlocked 300-power gear, there’s not really anywhere to progress to. Winds of Magic addressed this problem with the Athanor, an XP-based system for levelling a completely separate armory of gear used exclusively in that mode, but Chaos Wastes has…nothing. All your progress happens during a pilgrimage, and then resets with nothing carried over.
In short, this game mode is crying out for some permanently unlockable somethings you can plug in to replace your empty necklace, charm and trinket slots. Minor permanent boons to make the next run a little easier, like finding more coins, or being able to re-roll a single random boon once per run. Something like that.
Play it for the story
The novelty value of this new game mode is certainly alluring, and it’s brought me and my gaming buddies back to Vermintide II after quite a long absence of playing other stuff. But novelty fades quickly. The two things that retain a player once novelty has worn off are progression, and story. And as I explained above, Chaos Wastes adds nothing in terms of progression.
It does, however, add a healthy chunk of story, and if there’s one thing Vermintide has always done well, it’s story.
It’s the End Times. I’d warn you of spoilers, but it’s right there in the title. The Dark Gods are on the march, and the forces of what passes for good in a Games Workshop setting are doomed to fight valiantly but ultimately fail. Chaos will overwhelm the world and unmake it, to be reborn in the Age of Sigmar. If you’re a Warhammer fan, you probably already know all this.
That’s all in the future, though. For now our heroes, the Ubersreik Five (or four, doesn’t matter) are on a pilgrimage deep into enemy territory, the titular Chaos Wastes. They’re chasing the legend of a holy citadel where the gods of order—Sigmar, Valaya, Mermidia, Taal and Lileath, among many others—may deign to answer mortal prayers. It may be a vain hope. It may all be a trick. So far, I don’t know. But I’m enjoying finding out, and enjoying seeing these five characters continue to bicker and snipe while obviously growing secretly fond of each other. With each update these characters have grown, gained new dialogue, come to understand each other better, and their relationships have matured. It’s subtle, understated storytelling but bloody magnificent.
I don’t know how much longevity the Chaos Wastes update has. I suspect it’s not much, which is a sad thing to say about a genuinely excellent expansion to a genuinely excellent game. It adds a lot…but it doesn’t add enough.
Nevertheless, if you’ve never played Vermintide II, now is the time to get it. If you have played Vermintide II, now is the time to revisit. And if you are playing Vermintide II, well…
See you online, I guess.