RPG Codex Review: Mordheim: City of the Damned
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RPG Codex Review: Mordheim: City of the Damned
Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Fri 13 May 2016, 20:51:31Tags: Mordheim: City of the Damned; Rogue Factor
[Review by Darth Roxor]
Turkish Song of the Damned
The earth shook, hurricanes ravaged the land and wolves howled in the night as the unthinkable was unleashed upon the world. The guy responsible for the reasonable handing out of video game licenses at Games Workshop had awakened from his long slumber. He gazed upon the works of his minions from the last ten or so years, saw the hilariously misguided Warhammer 40k-related shovelware and was reported to have had only one comment. “Flow my tears”, he said.
Yet after he was done shaking his head, he started giving various developers the rights to all manner of games from GW’s catalogue. While the studios themselves still looked sketchy for the most part, the products revealed during the huge wave of announcements held a lot of promise.
One of these was Mordheim: City of the Damned, an adaptation of the tabletop squad tactics game set in Warhammer Fantasy. It was to be developed by Rogue Factor, aka a bunch of people you’ve likely never, ever heard about. Could these no-names do the ol’ Mordheim justice? I have no idea, because I’ve never played it. I only have some limited knowledge of its WH40k sister-system Necromunda. I can, however, tell you how it works out as a tacticool game of many tactics.
Boys from the County Hell
The basic backdrop of the game is fairly typical. Mordheim used to be a rich human city, whose rise to prosperity was quickly followed by a slide into decadence. That is, until one day a comet crashed into the city and instantly turned it into an irradiated hellhole, which some people claim was the way Sigmar, the patron god of the Empire, had chosen to display his dissatisfaction with his subjects. Apart from turning Mordheim into the so-called City of the Damned, the comet also brought with it a huge supply of magical rock called wyrdstone (or warpstone, depending on whom you ask), a highly toxic and unstable mineral that is sought after by anyone interested in the arcane arts. Bands of treasure hunters, sorcerers, madmen and whatever else you can think of quickly started flocking towards the city in search of wyrdstone and leftover riches. Your task is to guide one such warband on its way to fame, glory, and horrible death and defeat.
There are four warbands for you to choose.
- Human mercenaries. These men from Reikland are in only for the profit. They are very effective in ranged combat, to the point that their access to guns is broader than of all the other warbands put together. Plus, while not too shabby on the offence, their warriors also make for excellent roadblocks. All that is left is to combine the two aspects and receive a team of trench warfare specialists.
- The Skaven. The ratmen of clan Eshin are sneaky-strong, and their chief goal is to fetch-find as much warpstone as they can. They are by far the fastest and most agile team in the game, but they pay for that with very low survivability. However, to offset their general squishiness, they have access to many debilitating poisons that let them tip the scales in their favour.
- Chaos heretics. The so-called Cult of the Possessed wants to claim the city in the name of its daemon lord. The cultists are a diverse bunch which includes daemonhosts, mutants, chaos spawns and other assorted crazies. Their specialty is raw strength with little consideration for defence, but they also have access to mutations that give them unique benefits.
- The Sisters of Sigmar. Angry nuns that are so angry they’ve been disowned by the official Church of Sigmar. Their mission is to combat WITCHCRAFT, HERESY and MUTATION and redeem themselves through it. They are by far the toughest and most magic-heavy warband in the game, and can become nearly unstoppable when bunched up and buffed with their many auras. However, they have no access to any ranged weapons, which may be seen as an almost crippling flaw.
Initially, the gameplay diversity across the teams might not look like much, and someone could just say that these are all “different shades of humans”, but the differences really become apparent once you switch from one warband to another. While I played neither the sisters nor the cultists, I first led a Skaven band to maximum rank and then took the mercs for an extensive spin. It felt amazing how much the game had changed. With the Skaven, I’d typically organise into two groups placed far between themselves and split the enemy, taking advantage of the rats’ mobility to quickly regroup and outnumber the separated foe. In comparison, the first thing that hit me with the humans was how ridiculously slow they were, and how I could no longer reliably reposition using elevation, because the fat slobs would keep failing all their climb checks. So, instead, I made use of their ranged capabilities, setting up overwatch hells wherever I could by posting 2-3 roadblocks in strategic chokepoints and hiding a mob of archers all around them. But I’ll return to strict gameplay matters later.
Mordheim offers a fairly robust warband management layer that is slightly similar to Blood Bowl. Your team can have a maximum of 10 active warriors, and a further pool of 8 inactive reserves, should you ever be in need of replacements. Characters are divided into four categories: leaders, heroes, impressives and henchmen. Leaders are the embodiment of a warband’s main racial characteristics, and they are arguably the best warriors around. You can have only one active leader, and his presence is mandatory for a team to function. Heroes are powerful specialists – these include spellcasters, dedicated archers, meatshields and glass cannons. Heroes are limited to four slots. Impressives are the warband’s “big guys” – ogres, chaos spawns, maidens of Sigmar and rat ogres. They are supertough heavy hitters with a slew of special abilities but are limited to only 1 per warband and take up 2 hero slots. Henchmen are your generic footsoldiers with subpar stats. You can have a maximum of 5 of these, and they are typically divided into “slow guy with moderate hp” and “fast guy with low hp”.
There is a lot of fiddling you can do by mixing and matching warriors of different categories and moulding the warband into your liking. Even doing as little as assigning a different equipment loadout to a character can greatly change the way he operates. And on top of that, you have: items of varying quality (normal, good, masterwork), item enchantments (different for every item category), skills (active and passive, some are unique for each race), spells (each race has a different selection) and single-use elixirs. Not to mention all the vanity paint you can apply to your units - you can even customise their beards!
Pimp my magus | You came to the wrong neighbourhood, asshole
Watching your warband grow in power and evolve from a bunch of disposable assets into a gang of murder machines is also very satisfying. Characters are recruited for a handful of gold as level 0 rookies with basic stats and no skills. They can progress up to level 10, and their level up bonuses follow a set track. Still, you have a lot of freedom here as well – character stats are divided into 3 categories (physical, mental and martial), and XP grants category advancements that you can allocate as you will into specific stats. The bonuses each advancement gives are relatively small percentage upgrades, but they are applied across the board to the many derived stats. They also serve as requirement thresholds for skills – these are bought for skill points and money, take a few days to train, can be upgraded into skill masteries (except for henchmen) and have a good few dozen to choose from (although many of these you’d have to be mad to pick).
A fresh warband starts with only 5 character slots (leader, hero, 3x hench) – the rest are unlocked as the team itself levels up. There are a few things about it that bother me, however. For starters, it takes a while for your team to become “fully operational”. But what’s worse is that by the time you get the last hero/impressive slot, you’ll have to recruit a level 0 scrublord to a warband where everyone else will be around level 6. In theory, this can be circumvented by getting “hired swords” – veteran warriors of random types and levels that are sold on rotation. However, the hired swords may also come with (potentially crippling) injuries. Not to mention that they are expensive as shit.
Which brings me to my next point – money in Mordheim is surprisingly tight. Never, at any stage, did I have enough money to really buy everything that I wanted. I always had to save up for everything, be it hired swords or necessary skills. Things like item enchantments or skill masteries are a friggin’ luxury. And on top of that, you also have to pay your warriors for each mission they undertake, as well as healing fees for any incurred injuries. This typically takes up around a quarter of the cash you loot during a successful mission.
Apart from tending to your warriors, there’s also some general warband management to be had in Mordheim. There’s a market with a cyclical rotation of goods and random events (including “robbers stole all of this week’s shipment!”). There are also auxiliary factions that you can provide with wyrdstone, and the “veteran system” that I like to call the “coach xp track”.
Each warband is affiliated with three factions – one is your “sponsor” in Mordheim, and the others are various smugglers, militias, etc. If you have spare wyrdstone, you can sell them to these factions to get gold and reputation. The more reputation you have, the more unique bonuses you unlock. However, I find that the costs for getting the later reputation tiers are so ridiculously high, you are unlikely to ever progress past rank 2 (out of 5). Plus, most of the wyrdstone you get has to be hoarded and sent over to your sponsor once you get a shipment request, and you don’t get reputation for that. Not to mention that while the payment terms are rather lenient, failure to meet them can have serious consequences, and missing four shipments means game over.
The veteran system is the only thing spanning wider than one warband, as it influences all the teams you play. By accomplishing certain tasks (outfitting warriors with best gear, killing x enemies, meeting y deliveries, etc), you get points that increase your veteran level. Each level grants you game-wide bonuses (such as more starting gold for warbands or better hired swords appearing on rotation) and “veteran skill points” to spend on various utility skills (such as unlocking better missions, lowering upkeep fees or extending the time limits for shipments).
One last thing regarding warband management that I need to mention, and one that I am not particularly appreciative of, is that Rogue Factor have been adding more hero-type characters to the game as paid DLC. I’m not sure to what degree those warriors can be seen as “pay2win”, but it’s still a rather questionable move. They cost 2 bucks a piece, which might not look like much, but at the moment there are 4 of them out already, effectively equalling 20% of the game’s base price.
This game has a story?
The Rat Race
I’ve repeatedly seen people describe Mordheim as some sort of “fantasy X-COM”, but I really do beg to differ (as I always do with such preposterous claims). The game shares similarities with a whole lot of other representatives of the genre, but it manages to retain an identity of its own. There is no real need to compare it to X-COM (or even XCOM), especially when it shares the least with it in particular.
The basic game mechanics should be familiar to anyone with any knowledge of the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay system (or other assorted 40k Dark Heresies). Every action performed by a character is rolled with a percentage die, attackers roll to hit and defenders have a single dodge/parry roll to nullify a blow, spell casts may cause horrible backfires, etc. But there are many aspects that are very different.
For starters, characters’ action points are divided into two pools: strategy points for movement and utility actions, and offence points for offensive actions. Some moves may require both, like an aimed shot that needs enough offence and 2 strategy points. Henchmen have half the SP/OP pools of heroes and leaders. Managing your action points is a very important part of Mordheim, and one that makes Skaven particularly deadly – their access to AP removing poisons and spells, put on top of similarly working skills also available to everyone else, can make even the mightiest warrior a sitting duck.
To hit rolls also take into account more than just the attacker’s weapon skill. All characters have inherent melee and ranged resistances that are subtracted from hit chances. There are also obvious other mods like shooting into melee, elevation, fear, etc. Plus, given that characters partaking in melee can only disengage if they have enough space behind themselves to safely back away makes roadblock warriors with massive melee res much more useful than you’d think. It’s all a matter of approaching from the right angle to keep an enemy heavy-hitter safely occupied and unable to murder your squishies. Also, I’d say that the primary difference that sets Mordheim away from X-COM is how beefy some characters can get, particularly at late levels. Generally speaking, unless you put a rookie against a level 10 master, you will never get killed by less than 4 blows, and even that is rather extreme.
Magic carries your typical Warhammer touch o’ chaos, and while some spells can be really powerful, using them is always a gamble. Every spell is followed by three rolls – the wizard’s spellcasting chance, the target’s magic resistance and the chance for a curse of Tzeentch to happen. Curses of Tzeentch are magical backfires with a wide range of effects. Some can be relatively harmless, like minor resistance debuffs, but they also include catastrophic effects like mass-stunning explosions around the caster or the mage getting smitten by 9999 damage.
Characters that are taken out of action are “KO’d” and subsequently removed from the battlefield. However, once the battle is done, they have to roll against an injury. Some may get lucky and emerge unscathed, others will lose limbs or even die. Each time you lose a warrior in combat, you better take out a rosary and say a few Hail Marys.
Finally putting all this aside, how do missions in Mordheim really work? Well, that depends, because they are divided into two types: generic skirmishes and campaign missions.
When it comes to skirmishes, you always have a few to pick from on your mission map. They have an assigned premise, difficulty and side objective. The premise determines the starting locations for both warbands (both deploy around their base wagons, one is scattered while the other spreads outs into patrols, etc). Difficulty raises enemy stats and gives you more XP for victory. It doesn’t affect enemy warband composition, however, because skirmishes are always “mirror matches”, i.e. the enemy team always matches yours in shape (so you are never outnumbered, and you will never fight an enemy impressive if you don’t use one yourself). However, higher difficulty can spawn a “neutral” roaming daemon on the map that will attack anyone it sees. Side objectives are optional goals that you can accomplish for more XP, and they comes in three types: wyrdstone rush (grab 50%+ of the wyrdstone on the map), marked for death (kill certain enemies and take their trophy trinkets) and crush their will (steal the idol from the enemy’s wagon and bring it back to yours, basically capture the flag). If you are not satisfied with your mission selection, you can pay scouts to find you another location, or simply pass the day to get a new rotation.
When you begin a mission, you first need to deploy your troops at a set of pre-defined starting locations (or not, if you start scattered). Then, the warriors take their turns according to their initiative scores. The main objective is always the same – wipe out the opposition. You don’t have to kill every enemy, however. Each warband has a morale meter, whose volume depends on the combined leadership scores of all warriors. Each time a character dies, team morale goes down. Stealing a warband’s sacred idol also damages morale. When the meter goes under 40%, the team leader has to roll leadership to keep his comrades from routing (and losing the battle). If the leader is dead, a hero can roll it. If heroes are also dead, or if morale reaches 0, the rout is automatic.
The mission specifics described above also serve very well to mask Mordheim’s somewhat limited map pool. While the skirmish maps are procedurally generated from 8 sets of maptiles, you’ll quickly learn to recognise many of their building blocks, and it’s not rare to stumble upon an area constructed in the exact same way multiple times. However, the multitude of possible starting locations give the maps a lot of much needed novelty and staying power. Not to mention that their structure is fairly complex. Not only are they huge, but you’ll also find plenty of vantage points, shortcuts leading through multiple climb/jump tests or strongpoints ideal for turtling up. Positioning is very important in Mordheim in general, and it’s good to see it reinforced by the level design.
The final thing you need to know is that all the maps have wyrdstone and loot points dumped all around them. Their amount and quality depends on the map’s rating, and their placement is random. Wyrdstone gathering adds another tactical layer to a skirmish for a number of reasons. First is that you obviously need to satisfy your sponsor. Second, warpstone is radioactive and applies debuffs each time it’s picked up (although I wish they were actually named for quick reference in lieu of just being called ‘WARP EFFECT’ as the case is now). Third, your warriors’ inventory space is limited, so you can’t simply delegate one guy to harvest all the tiberium on the map.
There are a couple of issues with skirmishes that I think are obvious even when only reading the above paragraphs. For starters, there could really be more to them than just “eliminate the enemy”. Further, the side objectives are extremely limited – marked for death is hardly even a “side” objective, and so is wyrdstone rush, although that one at least needs some effort to carry out. On the other hand, crush their will is nearly impossible to accomplish, at least against the AI, because against a human opponent you can play the necessary mind games. More side objectives would really be welcome. Finally, gathering wyrdstone is not only banal but also a pain in the ass. Banal, because the AI completely ignores both warpstone and loot points. Pain in the ass, because of the stupidly long animations. Let’s say your dude with 5 inventory slots arrives at a patch of wyrdstone. To get all of it, he’ll have to repeat the following cycle 5 times: sheathe weapon -> kneel down -> gather stuff -> get up -> unsheathe weapon -> sway a bit as he gets irradiated. Rinse and repeat, try not to hang yourself while watching this extremely fascinating set of activities.
But even with the above flaws, there is just something about those damn skirmishes that makes them very addictive. I suppose it’s partly the game’s compelling formula, partly the complex map structures and partly the fact that everything is RNG-reliant, which means that something unexpected can happen at each step, even during completely routine runs (but make no mistake, Mordheim is not as frustrating as Blood Bowl in this respect, although its equivalent of Nuffle can kick you in the balls just as well when it has a bad day).
However, as mentioned before, Mordheim is not just skirmishes, as there are campaigns to be had as well.
Each warband has a “story” campaign of eight missions divided into two acts (four scenarios each). The missions take place on premade maps that are identical for all factions, but their objectives and specifics vary. The regular skirmish rules are also thrown out the window – the enemy no longer has a morale meter, you can’t win by killing everyone, and killing everyone is usually impossible due to reinforcements appearing after x turns. Certain “dramatis personae” that aren’t seen in normal skirmishes appear in these missions as well – the player is always reinforced by his sponsor’s representative in Mordheim (a superpowered unit that has to be kept alive), while the enemy may have access to various strange beasts (or the representatives of other races’ sponsors).
These story missions are a very mixed bag. On the one hand, they are a necessary break from skirmishes, can be really rough, often require you to re-adjust your regular tactics and put you against straight up unfair odds or super units. However, and this is a very big however, while some of them are fun, others are dreadful, if not even downright abysmal. That is mostly because their objectives boil down to “gather x [items] around the map, bring them to y [locations] and finally return them in your cart”, which translates into so much mind-numbingly boring running back and forth that I even wonder whether the designers cared to play these scenarios from start to finish on normal terms, outside of some developer mode running on x10 speed and IDDQD. Another favourite of mine is the Manor of Count Wossname, Skaven edition, where you come across a megadaemonette of Slaanesh that respawns instantly each time she’s killed. She has, if I recall correctly, 700 hp (compared to a normal “beefy” high-level character’s 300) and needs to be killed once to unlock the secret of her immortality – 5 tainted warpstones all around the map. Gather them, and only then will you be able to kill her for good. Of course, running around the mansion to complete the fetch quest is not particularly fun when there’s an unkillable boss monster following you everywhere. If you don’t have a meatshield and don’t luck out on parry/dodge rolls to keep her occupied, you’re going to have a very bad time indeed.
Also, some of those story mission concepts and objectives are so nebulous that you’ll often have to repeat them just because something was badly explained, or because yet another “deliver this lever to a lock on the other side of the map” obstacle had found you with your pants down. Fortunately, it is easy to “lose” those missions with no actual losses (if you ragequit normally, all your warriors are counted as if they were KO’d) – you just have to suicide your dramatis personae and get booted back to mission selection. I like to call this “the tactical retreat”.
Nevertheless, ultimately, even with all the horrible fetch quest objectives, I’d say that the story missions are still worth having, if only because they break the flow of skirmishes and put you against unknown threats. In fact, it’s a bit of a shame there aren’t just a few more of them, because by the time you finish act 2, your warband is still probably not going to reach max level, and if you want to do that out of your obligation to completionism, you’ll need to grind skirmishes until desired effect is achieved.
This leaves the multiplayer element of Mordheim. For a game like this, I find it to be rather underwhelming. You can only engage other players in single skirmishes, nothing else, although you can tailor the scenario as much as you wish. You can impose some extra rules (like different rout thresholds), define the premise and side objectives, the maptile, the roaming creatures, basically everything. Setting everything to random is a possibility as well. There are also two modes for skirmishes: “friendly” exhibition matches where nothing is lost or gained, or “competitive” conquest games that work like regular missions.
What I feel is missing the most from Mordheim’s multiplayer is a Blood Bowl-like league framework, in which you could compete with a number of your friends’ warbands across a series of matches with custom rules and restrictions. In fact, its absence is simply puzzling to me, as I believe the game would be much more popular if it had that.
Before I close this chapter on general gameplay, I want to address the last thing, whose omission so far you’ve certainly found suspicious. That is the AI and its general influence on difficulty. Well, while I wouldn’t call the AI braindead, it is considerably schizophrenic for sure. Sometimes it will act logically, swarm your important warriors, flank and use vantage points. But other times, it will run into a wall, continue running in place and end turn. Or it will run past your dudes, stand in the middle of them and end turn. It also gets massively confused when you attack one of its units with two of yours, and it’ll often refrain from finishing off a near-dead warrior in order to focus the full-health meatshield or spread blows around with no sense at all. It also never, ever disengages its units to seek better targets, as made evident by the description of the megadaemonette mission above. But by far the most hilarious is its use of impressives. Since big guys are much larger than normal units, the aforementioned running into walls is ten times as true, and that’s without even mentioning how it tends to get stuck at every step. Impressives in the hands of the AI are simply a liability, and one that is very easy to exploit as well.
The AI also uses all four warbands in clearly different ways and with varying mastery levels. A basic breakdown is that it’s better with suicidal rusher factions (Skaven, Chaos) and worse with those reliant on slower advance and positioning (Mercs, Sisters – you won’t believe the kind of absurd decisions it can take when playing Sisters). This consideration also serves as a good rule of thumb when it comes to assessing the potential difficulty of a mission.
Damn the Machine
The AI discussion lets us cross over swimmingly into the general tech section. Please fasten your seatbelts ‘cuz it ain’t gon’ be pretty.
To start out with what works, I really have to commend Mordheim’s general style and art direction. While the graphics engine itself isn’t spectacular, the way Rogue Factor have reconstructed a chaos-ridden Warhammer Fantasy city is amazing. The mix of the ruined gothic architecture, grimdarkness and mutated warp-stuff glued onto everything is as faithful to the source material as you can get. When you find a gargantuan flesh blob raised by a sorcerer in the middle of a daemon-infested library, you know you are dealing with people who know their Warhammer. The same goes for character models, and, well, literally everything art-wise. The intro to the game is very stylish too, with sufficiently cheesy voice acting over monochrome storyboards. The narrator also reads out the short skirmish briefings – campaign missions, on the other hand, are read out by the dramatis personae. They are all sufficiently cheesy as well.
But this is where the list of things that work ends. From a technical standpoint, Mordheim is a huge, pulsating, warp-corrupted mess.
In terms of stability, there are two things of note. One is that the game leaks memory left and right. You can start a mission with perfectly fine performance, but after 15 minutes it may slow down to an unbearable stutter, and this is true even for some skirmishes. I suspect it might be the result of everything in the game being depicted as those swirly mists that eat up so much GPU power. Points of interest, warp effects, map markers, idols, everything is swirly and hogging resources. Mordheim is also fairly unstable, and I was getting relatively frequent crashes when I played – fortunately, getting back into action is seamless and without problems. What also annoys me greatly is that the game is not fit for non-widescreen monitors, which you may have gathered already from the squeezed up menu screens (at least it doesn’t matter during actual combat mode, only in the menus).
Moving on, I have some very serious doubts regarding Mordheim’s RNG. I usually don’t tend to complain about weird rolls, but this game’s dice roller is completely crazy. Sometimes it feels like it’s hard-coded to produce series of successes/failures no matter what, and I’m not even joking. One time, I had seven failed 90%-chance spellcasts in a row, followed by the enemy succeeding on three 5% magic resistances. I also often get absurd streaks of failed 95% melee hit chances, and, like I said, the most striking in this is how it’s always streaks of failures. Not singular ones, but streaks.
Finally, what is perhaps the biggest offender is Mordheim’s interface. The game is a PC exclusive, so why in the name of God does it have a UI that is so very consolised? Why do characters move using 3rd person WSAD, like in some action game, instead of just using overhead point and click? Why do I have to cycle through all actions manually instead of being able to just pick one with a single hotkey? WHY can’t I deploy my warriors in the set-up phase using drag and drop/point and click, instead of constantly pressing A and D to make them land in the right spot (seriously, the set-up phase is almost carcinogenic)? WHY can’t I speed up animations in single player? WHY am I expected to wrestle with the controls and the bad display of EVERYTHING for the majority of the first hours? WHY does the map overview suck so badly? WHY don’t characters that you are currently in control of have their melee engagement rings displayed around them?
Nevertheless, despite ending the previous chapters on rather negative notes, my overall opinion of Mordheim is completely different. I think the fact that I currently have 80 hours of the game clocked on Steam, and that I’ve been playing it all the time for the entire last month, is enough of an indicator how much fun I’ve had with it. In those 80 hours, I’ve only managed to get one warband to max rank (Skaven, took me a whopping 60 hours in total) and take another one half-way through its campaign.
Simply put, Mordheim is just a solid game of squad tactics. If you’re a sucker for the genre and for the world of Warhammer, you should get it immediately. But even if Warhammer is unknown to you, The City of the Damned offers loads of content and plenty of good, old-fashioned fun. You just have to make sure to turn a blind eye on its remarkably bad technical side.
To be honest, I have no idea how many of the things I’ve praised or lambasted in this article can be traced to the original tabletop, and which are the work of Rogue Factor. But whatever the case may be, as a debut loaded with expectations from an unknown studio, Mordheim is proof enough that the lads have talent. I wouldn’t mind them delivering a PC adaptation of Necromunda in the future.
Mordheim: City of the Damned is available on Steam.