As we struggled to reach the end of our journey, the sound of my mage's fireballs incinerating their target joined in chorus with the thud of massive hammers, metallic twang of steel and impact of our archer's arrows on seemingly endless waves of lethal, skittering Skaven. In the end, just moments from victory, success was snatched away from us by a particularly cagey and tactically savvy band of rat-men, who captured and hoisted us on poles to die, inaccessible to our party's one remaining survivor. I've been playing RPGs for decades -- mine was the generation that first sat down to a game of Dungeons and Dragons -- but rarely have I felt so fully engaged in battle as in Warhammer Vermintide 2.
Like its predecessor, Warhammer Vermintide 2 is a four-person co-op RPG -- a little like Left 4 Dead in the Warhammer universe. Although Games Workshop has been pretty free and easy with its licensing, and a lot of dreck has appeared with the Warhammer name stickered on the box, Vermintide 2 is a standout product and an improvement in every way over the already excellent first installment.
Beginning with the immediately captivating opening cinematic and tutorial mission that introduces some of the game's basic weapon and team mechanics, Vermintide 2 impresses, with outstanding art and character design and detailed graphics, varied level architecture and rewarding combat. Although it's loathed to explain a lot of its systems and can seem a bit obtuse after that first few minutes' rush of adrenaline, Vermintide 2 snares the player right up front. Set in the post-apocalyptic End Times, the rodent Skaven have allied with the Chaos raiders to purge the already-gloomy world of anything good and decent and it's your team's task to hold them back. This is not a game for a solo player, both literally and conceptually, as teamwork is critical and the key to surviving the game's epic battles. Like every game in the team/squad genre, the best experience always comes from playing with friends or lucking into a game with skilled random players.
Players choose from one of five classes familiar from RPGs since the genre first spawned from the unsuspecting mind of Tolkien -- mage, archer, warrior, assassin, tank -- and each class levels up and branches off into sub-classes called Careers, giving players a really wide range of specialties to play with. Successful completion of levels rewards the player with loot -- armor and weapon upgrades, cosmetic additions -- but even mission failure happily gives the player a boost towards level advancement. It's great that failing a level is not totally a waste of time. While there are "loot boxes" post mission, there is nothing to buy. It's a refreshing departure from so many current titles, though accessing the loot post-match involves about three too many steps.
There are thirteen levels set in dark and dank dungeons, rural landscapes, decrepit villages and imposing castles, and while the levels remain the same enemy placement is controlled by an "AI Director" that keep the pacing of the mission constant and surprising, and no two playthroughs of the level will be the same. Level design is outstanding, with lots of shortcuts and verticality baked in, allowing for squads to flank the enemy or avoid encounters. There are simple mechanical puzzles and collection tasks as part of each mission, further enhancing the value of a well-rehearsed quartet of heroes.
Unfortunately, there are some issues with the matchmaking and online implementation. Disconnects and host migration problems cropped up more than once and a bored or frustrated host can torpedo an otherwise successful run. On more than one occasion I spawned into a match literally in the last couple of seconds and was rewarded will a full suite of goodies and upgrade points. Another little niggle is that many of the game's subsystems -- career paths, stat enhancements, item uses, etc-- are either never fully explained or hidden. Some familiarity with the first Vermintide helps, but there is enough new in the sequel that both veterans and newcomers may feel under-informed.
Even on the easiest, "recruit" setting, Warhammer Vermintide 2 is a difficult game with the threat of failure nearly always imminent, sometimes made even more challenging by the AI Director deciding to cruelly spawn a particularly large number of mini-bosses. There aren't a huge number of enemy types, a blessing in a game where learning the move set and weaknesses of foes is critical. Combat is surprisingly nuanced and far more skill-based than simply slamming a big hammer into a squishy skull.
For a game with so much going on at nearly every moment, and set on such elaborate stages, Warhammer Vermintide 2 has a solid and reliable framerate and very few technical hiccups. It looks fantastic, the combat is epic and thrilling, and the sound design and musical score by the insanely prolific Jasper Kyd round out an impressive sequel. Lack of clarity, some brutal difficulty spikes and some core conceptual and mechanical issues with the game's absolute reliance on co-op are the only sour notes in a dark symphony of epic action.