Games that play out in a first-person camera perspective are regarded as the most immersive, focused and personal experiences to ever exist. Yet hardly any game before 2015 features a truly ‘great’ first-person melee combat. Those that tried, ended up being unsatisfying, overly complex and clunky, with some exceptions being Condemned, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic and Dead Island. Maybe people prefer shooting people from afar compared to up-close and personal first-person combat, or developers might be hesitant to go through all the hoops to deliver a compelling first-person melee experience. If you take a first-person RPG that offers both ranged and melee combat, you’ll see that the melee part is the least fleshed out and underdeveloped. But all of this is before a small group of Swedish developers took a big risk by making an online co-op game in the vein of Left 4 Dead set in the popular Warhammer Fantasy universe. One whose body, mind and soul revolves around the concept of visceral first-person melee combat. Thus, the Warhammer: Vermintide series was born and it stands as the textbook example of how to get FPM right. What’s their secret recipe? You really want to know?
One Tablespoon of Simplicity
The combat in Vermintide is smooth, fluid, satisfactory and above all, simple. No matter which melee weapon you’re holding, there is only a handful of things you should know (At least for casual players). You left click on shit, they die. You hold it down and release, shit dies faster, you right click for the block, and space for dodge. That’s Vermintide 101 for you. No confusing button combos, no need to press 20 keys at the same time, nothing. Easy to learn, hard to master and simplicity is the key. Sure there are lots of background stuff and nuances that go along with it such as precise hitboxes, tracking the full sweep of weapons etc. But most players don’t care about that. When they click on something, it’s going to die horribly and they feel awesome.
Two Cups of Proper Feedback
The most alluring aspect of melee combat is that it’s visceral, brutal and in-your-face. You hit a body of flesh and blood and don’t expect it to feel like you’ve hit a cardboard box. The combat in Vermintide is meaty and organic. You hit a ratman in the head with a 5-foot battle hammer and it will cave the poor sod’s head in. You slash the neck of a charging foe with the sharp end of a sword and the head will come clean off, accompanied by copious amounts of blood and gore. The weapons in Vermintide pierce, slash, crush and slice bodies in an over the top, yet organic manner that will induce an orgasm if a Viking warrior was to witness it. The way you swing your weapon slows down the character’s movement speed and retains it after the initial impact. Depending on which direction you move, the cadence of your strike changes. This is done by tying the speed of a weapon to the frames per second. Vermintide throws 50-60 enemies at you in the same time, yet you precisely cleave through them with respect to the weapon in question and the armour worn by the enemy.
The path and frame of each swing are so meticulously crafted that the combat never loses its momentum or flow. This immersion is taken one step further by the reaction of the AI upon being hit. They’ll twitch, scream, gurgle and give out depending on the intensity and location of your strike. Imagine cutting through European butter with a hot knife, except that the butter is alive with arms and legs and the knife in question is 5 lb greatsword.
Deep Fry in a Pan of Great Sound Design
All of the above will have nought effect if the combat isn’t accompanied by some beefy sound effects. Vermintide doesn’t disappoint in this regard not even for a bit. Although there can sometimes by synchronization issues when it comes to audio cues, combat sounds are handled exceptionally well. First of all, each weapon sounds just like they’re supposed to. No, I haven’t personally used a monstrous broadsword to murder people. But everyone has an idea how it should sound like with respect to the size and weight. Whether it be hammers, axe, flail, spear, falchion, rapier, dagger, mace, swords- all of them sound very satisfying and can easily be distinguished from one another.
You smash the exposed head of a rat slave and it produces a slushy, gurgling sound of the brain being mangled. When you hit the heavily armoured chaos warrior with the same weapon, it sounds as if someone took a big metal block and smashed into a bronze bell. Two things are taken into account here; the type of weapon you’re wielding and the body part you’re using it on. There are separate sound effects for headshots and critical hits to easily calculate your effectiveness while fending off a horde. Thanks to this excellent sound design, experienced players need not strain their eyes on how each swing is affecting one particular enemy amidst a horde. Just listen to the sounds your hits are making and act accordingly.
Vermintide excel where games such as Chivalry, Kingdom Come: Deliverance and Far Cry: Primal fails. Sure the game also features a satisfying ranged option, with one of the playable characters completely owning the ranged section. Still, the main focus is on melee and that might be the reason the developers keep nerfing ranged combat at higher difficulties. Vermintide, with its simple but hard to master combat and excellent audio-visual feedback, succeeds in delivering a visceral, primal and organic first-person combat experience no game has been able to surpass.