By the Blood of Khorne! Part 2

Space Marine, Vermintide and Total War

Welcome back as we continue our dive into the gameplay and graphics evolution of the video games under the Warhammer video game franchise, inspired by the tabletop phenomenon.


Last time, we looked at Dawn of War, Mark of Chaos, and Blood Bowl, three titles that strived to take the complexities of the various Warhammer strategy games and put them into both real-time and turn-based video game spaces. These early titles had both great success and failure (looking at you, Mark of Chaos), and created a baseline for future Warhammer titles to follow.

While the last three games we covered were strictly based upon the strategy games that preceded them, two of our next titles are shooters, which is a big departure from controlling masses of units on a complex battlefield. They are also produced several years ahead of the previous titles, so they have the advantage of increased processing and graphic power to translate their visions into something viscerally beautiful to look at. We will see in Space Marine influences from several older and successful action games and shooters. It’s not a game that really takes any risks in terms of its gameplay, relying on its subject matter, name recognition, and its graphic presentation to carry it (which it does). Likewise, Vermintide copies directly from Left 4 Dead, a hugely successful game that was the very first to showcase the idea of the multiplayer survival shooter. The philosophy seems to be “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Both Space Marine and Vermintide were commercially successful and critically acclaimed, so they must have been doing something right. Similarly, Total War: Warhammer isn’t anything particularly new in the world in terms of how it plays or what it looks like, save for the Warhammer universe’s own unique visual styling. It’s a Total War game, it plays like those games play, just with a Warhammer flavoring. That doesn’t make it bad, just not particularly innovative. But I’ve gone on too long, let’s get into it.

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine (PC, 2011)

Our next entry ventures into the realm of Third-Person Shooters with gusto. Warhammer 40k: Space Marine is the story of Ultramarine Captain Titus and his subordinates Sergeant Sidonus and Marine Leandros. These three Space Marines are sent to Forge World Graia alongside their chapter brothers to repel an Ork invasion, and upon the discovery of Chaos forces, stop the evil ones from obtaining a Titan war machine [ 1 ].

As these games move farther towards modern day, we naturally see a progression of graphic fidelity. The resulting presentation in Space Marine is nothing short of gorgeous. Captain Titus himself is exquisitely detailed. His face is handsomely drawn, though it has notable scars of cerebral implants and an old cut on his eyebrow. His Ultramarine armor shines a brilliant blue, with the golden skulls of his station adorning the massive pauldrons. He moves at super-human speeds, which is to be expected of any Space Marine; he never tires and never relents in his pursuits of the enemies of man. Only at the very end of the game, in the final cutscene, does Titus show that he is even a little bit tired. Every aspect of Titus’ character is designed to live the power fantasy of an unstoppable warrior, and it delivers. Even with his basic starting equipment, you are going to look cool and feel awesome as you dispatch waves of Orks and Chaos Space Marines alike.

Space Marine finally gets up close and personal with these genetically engineered titans of the Imperium of Man.

As you traverse Graia, you will discover various weapon upgrades for Titus. Your beginnings are humble, with just a Bolt Pistol and Combat Knife, though in the hands of a Space Marine Captain even these weapons are very deadly. Your first upgrade will come in the form of a Chain Sword, the iconic weapon of the Space Marines, which makes quick work of regular Orks. Soon to follow is the Bolt Rifle, a stronger gun with limited ammunition. More weapons you’ll discover include the Heavy Bolter, Stalker Pattern Bolter (a sniper rifle), a Vengeance Launcher (grenade launcher), Plasma Pistol, Plasma Gun, Melta Gun, Power Axe, and the iconic Thunder Hammer. There are also hand grenades, and several sections where you can take charge of a gun battery to really rain down the Emperor’s vengeance. Titus will also gain his own version of the infamous Devil Trigger, in the form of a Fury meter. When the meter is filled, increasing every time you damage a foe, Titus can enter Fury Mode, enhancing his melee attacks and giving him health regeneration. As if a Space Marine Captain wasn’t powerful enough!

Space Marine’s HUD is simple and un-intrusive, allowing maximum space on the screen to observe the battlefield. Titus’ health bar is displayed in top center, with an outer bar representing his personal shielding, and the inner bar his secondary health. The bottom right displays the current ranged weapon, ammunition count, and available grenades. The Fury meter is bottom left, shaped as the golden “U” of the Ultramarines, adorned with a skull and fist. As there can only be one melee weapon at a time, that weapon is simply shown in Titus’ hand, or in the case of him holding a two-handed gun, the melee weapon appears when he switches to melee combat. To switch between ranged weapons, one brings up the quick swap weapon wheel. There’s not too much to keep track of, making it simple to stay in the action.

The game’s setting of Forge World Graia is quite extensive, and the player will take Titus through many of its war-scarred streets, vast mechanical tunnels, through the skies on the backs of Valkyrie war jets, and into the heart of a chaos-corrupted orbital spire. The textures and lighting in every location is top notch and creates a deep immersion into the steel-clad and technology-laden forge world, even as it cracks apart from the conflict. While it appears that many of the textures are re-used in the later stages, their high quality negates that slight shortfall. The exterior locations feature gothic-inspired buildings of stone and metal work, praising the machine god with their designs, as any forge world would. Interior areas are vast networks of wiring, pipes, and metallic sheeting, some of it rusting or blasted apart by the conflict. The Imperial Guard outposts are reminiscent of real-world bunkers, complete with sandbags and anti-tank obstacles. There are enough little details in every environment to keep the player fully immersed in the setting of 40k. 

The last awesome aspect to note about Space Marine is the melee weapon executions. When a foe is stunned, Titus can perform an instant kill execution, which changes depending on the weapon he is wielding. A simple stab through the skull with a combat knife, a complete evisceration with a chain sword, or smashing a skull into paste with a thunder hammer. On top of the visual satisfaction, the executions replenish some of Titus’ health, giving the player the ability to turn the tide of battle when things look grim.

While I didn’t have initial interest in Space Marine on release, the spectacle of others broadcasting their play online drew me in. The fantastic visuals and satisfying gameplay, on top of its compelling story, were more than enough to keep me interested from start to finish. I was pleasantly surprised to see a cameo by the Blood Ravens in a later stage of the game, which I felt was a nice callback to Dawn of War. Space Marine has earned its stripes as both a third-person shooter and a Warhammer game.

In terms of influence in the gaming sphere, Space Marine seems to take more than it gives, bringing in cues from games like Gears of War for its four gun limit of pickup/drops, and Assassin’s Creed or God of War for its execution-style combat, though it does crank these up to eleven. Its system of regenerating health or shields bar has been common since the days of Halo, though the added mechanic of regaining health from executions has been copied in later action games, such as Shadow of Mordor and For Honor. While Space Marine didn’t reinvent the wheel, it strived to take existing trends and refine them into a better final product. 

Warhammer, The End Times: Vermintide (PC, 2015) 

Our next entry for the Warhammer Fantasy setting is the Left 4 Dead-inspired Vermintide by Fatshark games. This multiplayer action combat game is set in the End Times of the Warhammer Fantasy world, where basically everything is going to Hell and the forces of good are making their final stand against the forces of evil. The heroes of this story are up against the Skaven, a race of vile rat-men that have lived for centuries underground, waiting for the right moment to come to the surface and destroy the Empire. That moment has finally come, and the endless tide of vermin are now swarming in, hungry for blood [ 2 ].

Vermintide, as mentioned above, is a Left 4 Dead-style action combat game. You and three others will choose from among the five available heroes: Victor Saltzpyre, a Witch Hunter wielding a rapier and pistols; Sienna Fuegonasus, a Bright Wizard bringing fire magic; Bardin Goreksson, a Dwarven Ranger carrying an axe, shield, and crossbow; Kerillian, Elven Waywatcher, dual-wielding swords in melee and using her Elven longbow at range; and finally, Markus Kruber, an Empire Soldier wearing heavy armor and brandishing a great sword. You can mix and match these heroes in any fashion you like, taking advantage of their respective skills in melee and ranged combat. One is bound to find a favorite amongst these five heroes, though each one is very well built and rarely are they ever useless in a scenario. Each hero’s character model is superb, having the artfully crafted detail one would expect for such a recent game. The Witch Hunter is very dour, wearing his wide-brimmed hat and long trench coat, his older face gaunt and serious. Sienna’s eyes and hair glow brightly as the fires of her magic burn at the tip of her wizard’s staff. With this attention to detail, no matter which hero is chosen, the player will feel as though they are controlling a true champion of the Empire. As you play through the game, you will also gain access to additional gear for your heroes, making them stronger and more versatile than their original loadouts allow.

The Vermintide sub-franchise has pushed the boundaries of immersive UX even further.

Vermintide features several different maps with different objectives, not unlike those found in Left 4 Dead. The maps are quite extensive, but you’ll move through them quickly if you have an experienced group with you. The main game missions are broken up into three acts, with each mission accomplishing something different in the story. In Act One, the heroes must gather up the resistance forces and maintain their supply lines. In Act Two, the heroes take the fight to the Skaven, attacking a nearby camp and destroying siege engines and some of their magical artifacts. In Act Three, the heroes will face the final waves of the Skaven hordes and eventually try to kill their leader. Each of the maps in these acts takes place in the Ubersreik, an important free city in the Empire that is a central trading hub in the Reikland, placed near the river Teufel. So, while there is some variance in the maps, for the most part the city of Ubersreik is where you will be facing off against the seemingly endless hordes of rat men. The details of these maps are, of course, excellent, with top-notch textures and lighting that set the grim mood of this game. 

While all the enemies in this game are Skaven, the ranks of the rat men have several different loadouts. Clanrats are the most common foe, bearing short blades and other weapons, preferring to attack in overwhelming numbers to give themselves a chance. Contrasting these are the heavily armored Stormvermin, which act as the elite shock troopers of the Skaven, wielding halberds and other large weaponry for maximum melee damage. Then we have the giant monstrosities known as Rat-Ogres, beastly, mutated creatures with little intelligence but incredible amounts of strength and stamina. These are just some of the many dangerous foes you will face, and each comes with its own terrifying visage. 

This game is immensely fun, and I for one could lose hours of time playing it. I already enjoyed the format of Left 4 Dead, so jumping into a similar styled game but in the Warhammer Fantasy setting was incredibly satisfying. The sequel, Vermintide 2, was recently released and promises just as much of a good time as the first game, with a new set of heroes to choose from. I’d highly recommend both titles to any fans of Warhammer Fantasy or Left 4 Dead

Vermintide has the odd situation of being a copied format, as mentioned. The established multiplayer survival horror game was already done quite successfully in Left 4 Dead, so any attempts at adapting that game’s format would have to be done especially well, and it would have to be in an IP distinct enough that the game didn’t just feel like a tired copy. Vermintide manages to do all of that. While we have yet to see this game format go very far beyond these two franchises, it’s clear enough that, with the proper care, there is more room for games of this specific niche. Both Vermintide 1 and 2 have several downloadable content packs (DLC), which is another trend in new monetization models of games. Too often, this model of offering more content after the fact leads to games having core content cut and put behind an additional paywall, but both Vermintide games manage to avoid this easy pitfall, offering some additional cosmetic items for heroes, and additional mission maps for play. This is a good thing, as it is bucking the typical trend of unchecked greed from game publishers.

Total War: Warhammer (PC, 2016) 

After the somewhat disappointing launch of Mark of Chaos, fans of Warhammer Fantasy were still looking for a better video game representation of their favorite tabletop war game. Enter Total War: Warhammer. The prestige of the Total War franchise by Creative Assembly is known across most gaming platforms and bringing that team in to work on the next installment of Warhammer strategy video games was an excellent decision. This time around, while there are many different factions to choose from, there is one central campaign where they are all played—the battle against (or as) the oncoming threat of Chaos from the northern wastes. For the purposes of this review, I played through the campaign as the Empire, the faction central to the Warhammer Fantasy setting [ 3 ].

If you hadn’t guessed, a game that was released only a few years prior to this article is, of course, expected to have excellent graphics, and Total War: Warhammer is no exception. This game took everything that Mark of Chaos did and made it ten times better. Individual unit detail is greatly increased, showing more of the signature Warhammer aesthetic. Empire Swordsmen have wax-stamped prayer scrolls that hang from their armor and waft slightly as they move around the battlefield. Heroic units have even more personality with their moving portraits and more customized livery. Regiments are also larger, supporting up to 120 units, depending on what kind of regiment it is. This massive increase in the number of units on the field is what players were looking for in Mark of Chaos. Now, we can truly experience the feel of a massive clash of armies in the Old World. 

Not to be outdone by Blizzard, Total War: Warhammer has been wildly successful in conveying the scope of Games Workshop’s Old World.

There are two HUDs we need to look at. First is the Campaign Map HUD. On the overworld campaign map, we can see our current army locations, the locations of any enemy armies that are within view, any nearby settlements, which are either friendly or able to be conquered. We can also see the main menu options in the top left, the campaign menu options in the top right, along with the world map display. On the bottom right is the radial menu featuring unit management, resource management, city management, and the Turn Over button. Yes, this time we have actual turns in our campaign. In each turn, individual armies have a total movement they can take, and cities progress any upgrades they are currently working on as the turn is passed. You also gain income (and pay upkeep, which is automatically deducted) as turns pass, which may mean you are waiting a few turns before moving an army out as you try to build up a reserve of gold to add units to it. Other things to kept track of on this HUD (if you are playing one of the forces of Order) are Public Order, Vampiric Corruption, and Chaos Corruption, all of which have somewhat self-explanatory effects on your settlements.

Our second HUD is in combat. The top left main menu buttons remain, while the top right changes to playback buttons. You can pause, play, speed up, and quickly speed up the gameplay of battles, if you desire, though speeding up the battles should be used only when victory is already guaranteed, as the AI will move itself much faster than you can react. Below these playback buttons lies the minimap. On the bottom left is the current unit portrait, with an option to zoom in on that unit. The bottom center displays the total army cards, including their current health, displayed in a numbered bar at the top of the card. This is another part of the game that has a lot of information to keep track of, and the interface reflects that, but it’s designed in such a way as to not be overly cluttered. 

Both the overworld campaign map and the in-combat maps are beautiful. The map of the Empire and the rest of the Old World is brought to life in 3-D detail for what I’m sure is the first time (Mark of Chaos had only some of it, not all). Beyond the Empire, you can travel to the northern reaches of Kislev and the Chaos Wastes, approaching but not quite reaching the unknowable lands of Chaos itself, and as far south as the wasteland known as the Border Princes. Every region offers its own resources, with some settlements having unique building options, as well as chances for allegiances with other factions of order. While traveling the Old World is certainly a visual spectacle, it’s more likely you’ll be spending your time observing enemy troops’ movements and keeping an eye on your own resources than gazing at the world—but it’s still nice to have. 

Combat is, of course, the meat of any Total War game and especially so when combined with Warhammer. Now that the battlefield can literally have thousands of units on it at time, controlling your massive forces correctly is more important than it’s ever been. High and low ground, as well as tree cover, matter a great deal when positioning your ranged attackers, or when taking cover from ranged fire with your melee units. Flanking lines with cavalry is also an important tactic to employ, as lines of ranged units can’t hope to stand up to charging steeds coming from their sides, nor can the melee front defend its back from the classic Hammer and Anvil strategy. Depending on the faction, you can also employ artillery, ranging from simple catapults and trebuchets to full cannons and Gatling guns. Apart from these regular ground troops, there are large and massive units, like Trolls and Giants, which can knock anything smaller than themselves flat, disabling and possibly killing them outright, causing massive disruptions in the melee line. Additionally, there are also airborne units in the form of flying Daemons and special mounts like Griffons or even the legendary Dragons.

You won’t see these devastating units until much later on in the campaign however, but when they show up you had better pay attention. Whole regiments can be lost to these powerhouses, but of course if you have them on your side, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing your big units crush your foes before them. Of course, if you desire, you can choose to Auto-Resolve a battle. Usually, you only do this if you have overwhelming force and the fight would be a decisive victory for you, or in the reverse case where even your best tactics could not overcome the massive army bearing down on you. It seems slightly off brand for a Total War game to encourage the player to not actually go into combat in this way, but when you take into account that any given Campaign game will take place over hundreds of turns, and possibly have hundreds of battles, this option is absolutely required. One should be aware, however, that the Auto-Resolve calculation heavily favors ranged units and artillery, discounting any tactical movements at all, so Auto-Resolving a battle between shock cavalry and heavy artillery may not go the way you’d like.

If you hadn’t guessed, there is quite a complex depth of strategy to Total War: Warhammer. You can’t just build a full army of Knights and expect to win (unless you’re playing Bretonnia, but even then, you need other units). Whenever you decide to declare war on a faction, you need to consider its strengths and weaknesses carefully. Dwarven armies are heavily armored and will thus require a lot of armor-piercing units to deal with. Beastmen armies can move across the map through secret paths called Beastpaths, allowing them to circumvent terrain that would block other armies, making pursuing them quite difficult. As I mentioned before, some armies can bring monstrous units to the field, like Giants, which will require you to bring anti-large units like Spearmen or Halberdiers (Empire units). Some enemy units can inflict Fear or Terror, which greatly harm the morale of your units, so you will need a general with strong Leadership buffs to negate that. This also works in reverse (obviously), so you must watch out for the units that counter yours. Outside of combat, you can move individual hero units around the map to attempt various maneuvers, such as reducing an army’s movement for a turn, breaking down walls around towns, or even assassination attempts on other heroes and generals. Once you’ve absorbed all that information, imagine considering most of it on every turn you take, and you realized just how long it will take to play through one campaign. That is, assuming you win. 

Total War: Warhammer was the game that made up for the shortcomings of Mark of Chaos, but it was also more. It brought Warhammer Fantasy back into a place of recognition, bringing with it more of the iconic armies of the tabletop war game. I very much enjoyed playing the campaign mode, though admittedly I had to restart several times because I just did poorly early on. Skirmishes against the AI allow anyone to play with larger and more impressive armies, letting you get into the thick of things and see these awesome units in action. I’d absolutely recommend this title for fans of Warhammer and strategy games alike.

I’d like to say that Total War: Warhammer innovates some sort of industry standard, but it really doesn’t. Many of its mechanics are directly lifted from Total War: Atilla, to the point that the game’s maps and interfaces look very similar. In terms of the game marketplace, this game also features several packs of DLC for purchase on the Steam store. Thankfully, these pieces of DLC are not exploitative, as they do not lock necessary story content or other game features behind a paywall, nor are they terribly priced, with some even being free, so Total War: Warhammer, as with Vermintide, does buck the trends as far as predatory monetization is concerned. It’s heartening to see that kind of consistency from the folks at Games Workshop.

The list of video games under the Warhammer franchise is a lot longer than I could possibly cover in one article. Many of them, particularly the early attempts, are sub-par, but these next-gen PC games have captured the essence of Warhammer and created immersive and fun game worlds with that IP. Even where these games fell short, they created a groundwork for improvements in later titles.

Images

  1. Space Marine finally gets up close and personal with these genetically engineered titans of the Imperium of Man.” Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. PC/Windows, Relic Entertainment, 2011. 
  2. “The Vermintide sub-franchise has pushed the boundaries of immersive UX even further.” Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide. PC/Windows, Fatshark, 2015.
  3. “Not to be outdone by Blizzard, Total War: Warhammer has been wildly successful in conveying the scope of Games Workshop’s Old World.” Total War: Warhammer. PC/Windows, CREATIVE ASSEMBLY, 2016.

A man of many talents, Clayton has worn several hats. His work focuses on visual mediums like film and gaming. A practiced martial artist and a graduate of Johnson and Wales University with a Bachelor’s in Graphic Design & New Media, he brings both tactile experience and academic credentials as measures of his considerable expertise. Clayton is both Manager of Steam-Funk’s core writing staff and part of the firm’s senior creative team, helping craft both The Living Multiverse and firm policy.

Resources

  1. Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. PC/Windows, Relic Entertainment, 2011.
  2. Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide. PC/Windows, Fatshark, 2015.
  3. Total War: Warhammer. PC/Windows, CREATIVE ASSEMBLY, 2016.