I love Warhammer games. From the amazing Dawn of War, to the mediocre Mark of Chaos and most recently, the great Total War: Warhammer, I’ve found great joy entering the elegantly crafted worlds created by Games Workshop and experiencing the blood-soaked warfare they offer.
Whilst Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy Battles/Age of Sigmar have always been their money-winning properties, they’ve created a variety of spin-off titles over the years; Gorka-Morka, BloodBowl, Space Hulk and Necromunda to name a few, and whilst they never have received quite as much love from fans or support from the company, they’ve held a place in the hearts of many players for years.
Recently, GW have been licensing their spin-offs to various Game Developers to make them into fully-fledged digital experiences, with the best known probably being Blood Bowl. In 2015, they released a PC video game version of Mordheim, a skirmish variant of Warhammer Fantasy, with the name Mordheim: City of the Damned, to a mixed reception. It finally released on console on 18th October 2016, but has it improved since it’s initial PC release last year?
Mordheim is set 500 years before the Warhammer Fantasy game, in a city within the territory of The Empire; Warhammer Fantasy’s Germanic Human faction. After a comet crashed in the city, warbands and gangs from various factions rose up to claim the remnants of the crash; magical, powerful pieces of stone, called Wyrdstone, which are sought after by those above them. You are tasked to build your own warband and rise through the ranks, collecting as much of the valuable ore as possible.
The game itself is essentially a tactical squad-based RPG, in which you create a team of characters, customise them, and send them out to battle enemies and collect Wyrdstone within the city to ensure you have enough to send to your faction. You can choose between 4 factions; Human mercenaries (soldiers), Skaven (rat-people), Sisters of Sigmar (nuns) and the Cult of the Possessed (chaos); all of which have their own customisation options, heroes, leaders and henchmen. The four playable factions all have their own strengths and weaknesses, but what really concerned me was a fifth entry on the faction selection screen; Witch Hunters. As I went to select them, in the middle of the screen in bright red, I was told that I didn’t own the DLC for them, and was directed to the PSN Store if I wanted to play as them.
Now, generally I don’t mind games having DLC shortly after release. What I object to is it being rammed down your throat from the very start and almost goaded into buying it. In my eyes putting the bright red, cool looking faction first and foremost on the faction select screen is a direct “GIVE US MORE MONEY!”
Regardless of this, the starting factions provide a decent amount of variety. I just wish there were less humans and more of the interesting factions you’d otherwise find in Warhammer Fantasy games. Give me Elves, give me Dwarves. Maybe not Tomb Kings; they’d struggle to fit into the lore, but I’m sure you could at least give me a second non-human faction.
Customising your warband is a joy; from the off, you can customise each and every member’s equipment, abilities, look and name, making them very much YOUR warband. As things develop you grow with them and see them become an effective team of cut-throats and killers, which has it’s own, valuable charm. If you wanted to, you could spend hours on that customisation screen making your own group of bad-asses.
Once you’ve hired the various members of your team from the Warband menu and customised them to your heart’s content, you embark on a mission within the dark, grungy city. There are a variety of mission types, but they all come down to the same basic ideas; kill the enemies, collect the Wrydstone and investigate the various search points. Each turn, your characters act in order to move around the world and do these various things. Movement is controlled from a third-person, over the shoulder perspective, which feels as oppressive as it would feel to actually be in the city. Rather than being tile-based, Mordheim gives you free control of a character’s movement, using circles around the character to show the distance they can travel with each “step”. Whilst it did work to a degree, I found it was difficult to predict just how far I’d be able to move in a given round. Also, navigation of the game world can often be tedious. I did find a basic map within my first few hours, but due to the huge and unclear nature of it I still struggled to figure out where I needed to go.
One thing I did like about Mordheim’s movement was the implementation of dice-rolls into jumping up and down levels. The fact the failure rate is clearly shown can help you to make difficult placement decisions, weighing risk and reward; and it doesn’t just stop there. As you run around you have a plethora of options to choose from, including making perception checks, setting up ambushes, preparing to dodge/parry and going into an overwatch stance. These appear both within combat and out of it, giving you the ability to really get the drop on your enemies.
The combat itself though; arguably the most important element; didn’t really impress me. Once I finally found enemies, battles quickly turned into a war of attrition, with very little actual agency required from myself as a player. Once in combat, you’re pretty much locked into a slow mutual pummelling where you patiently wait for the enemy to hit you. You can try to flee/disengage, but that has penalties and you’re likely to get caught again anyway. What made it even more tedious was the clunky, slow-paced way in which the battles commenced. I gained no excitement from them until I began to unlock abilities, but even then they didn’t really help to enthuse me. Don’t get me wrong, I like patient combat and weighing up actions based on stats, dice rolls and percentages, but it really needed an extra element; whether it was aimed strikes or whatever; to take it from “slow” to “considered” combat.
It also wouldn’t be so daunting if the bar to entry wasn’t so high. Early on, the game describes itself as a “hardcore” experience, clearly jumping on the Dark Souls bandwagon. Damage, more often than not feels ineffective, with it taking many turns to kill even the simplest of enemies, and it’s easy to make mistakes in your calls leaving you just one hit behind in a battle. Whilst I approve of jumping in the deep end, there is no leeway for mistakes or helping hand; even in the earliest stages of the game; to guide you through. Whilst there are a few tutorials available, that first mission was a rude awakening and frankly just very frustrating, and it continues throughout. If feels like difficulty for the sake of difficulty.
My other criticism is of the controls themselves. Whilst certain things make sense for a controller, others don’t whatsoever, and I found myself constantly struggling to figure them out time and time again. On the warband creation screen I got completely befuddled attempting to create any sort of warrior. In a battle I couldn’t figure out how to use items or bring up a map. It’s the little things, but the fact that so much is so unclear is incredibly frustrating. I think that’s my biggest problem with Mordheim overall; whilst there is so much to love here it’s hidden behind a wall of frustration.
I definitely love the visual design of the game, despite my feelings towards much of the gameplay. The dark, yet colourful nature of it represents the Warhammer World perfectly, showcasing the gritty, dark nature of it alongside it’s sillier elements. Unfortunately the models and fidelity isn’t the best I’ve seen on PS4, but honestly I’ve seen a lot worse, and the actual aesthetic does a lot of make it look good.
The sound design is also excellent, bringing a great amount of atmosphere to the product. Everything feels dark and foreboding with some well-crafted background music and voice work.
Mordheim isn’t my cup of tea. Whilst I can see value in it’s team customisation, the atmosphere it fosters, the dice-based nature of it and the depths the developers have gone to in order to stick to the lore, I also find it unnecessarily frustrating. Whether this was to keep it as close to the table-top version as possible, I don’t know. What I do know is that it’ll be incredibly off-putting for players who aren’t willing to traverse hours of frustration and a steep learning curve. After you get there, the game offers a fair amount of turn-based fun in an interesting, atmospheric locale, with a plethora of customisation options which will keep you wanting to play as your own little cabal of killers.
If you’re willing to look past the frustrating elements and don’t mind your combat a little slow-paced, or are a massive fan of table-top war-games, you might be able to get past these issues and to the fun stuff.