This month has seen the launch of Warhammer: Vermintide 2, the follow-up to the obscenely named Warhammer: The End Times - Vermintide, and at first glance, developer Fatshark hasn't reinvented the wheel.
There are, after all, still four characters. It's still a game of whirling axes, brutal melees and unending last stands as these characters try to complete missions.
However, past the entrails — they're a natural part of slaughtering man-sized rats, don't be shy — and you can see that Fatshark has taken inspiration from MMO raids to mine tension for the game, and it could be a big part of keeping the Vermintide 2's audience engaged with the game.
Vermintide 2 doesn't give away much for free. The game feels impossibly hard for the first few attempts, and requires a lot of learned behaviour for players looking to seize victory. The game only hands out loot when a character levels up or when a mission is completed, meaning that progression can be slow if players aren't playing well. This is a step away from the loot hoovering of many action-RPG's, but by making any loot feel like a success, it's recapturing the feeling of raiding in elderly MMOs which is that anything you get at all, no matter what, should feel like an event.
It's the antithesis of loot hoovering action RPGs like Diablo or Borderlands, in addition to a larger trend of vomiting items over players. However taking away the expectation of players to receive new items for any achievement has the effect of making players focus on the gameplay, allowing a new axe or shiny Dwarfen shotgun to feel like its own event, rather than part of the core loop. It's something that has to be earnt.
This is a design philosophy that is shot through the entire game. Most of the chests in Vermintide 2 are empty, solely so that when you open a chest and there's something in it, players will get a kick out of it. Bosses feel like godlike killing machines, so that when players do, finally, fell a bile troll after a 25 minute fight, the elation is a real thing. In a weekend of playing the game, I encountered a chaos spawn several times, but still don't have any idea how I'm supposed to survive one's assault.
During that weekend with friends however, I heard people whoop in elation after fights were survived, or sigh with genuine relief when a health draught was dug up in a back room. Fatshark making Vermintide 2's more sparing with handing out goodies has made even the most mundane parts feel rewarding.
For a game largely centered on running the same missions again and again with different groups of friends, Vermintide 2 faced a difficult task to convince its audience that it's worth the investment. By tying it to the difficult curve of MMO raids, they've created a challenging environment that should keep those who buy into this particularly brand of Warhammer themed slaughter invested for the long term.