Mordheim: City of the Damned Review

There’s been a slew of Games Workshop games lately, where the company appears to have generously ripped open its treasure trove of tabletop licences. Many of these licenses focus on the futuristic Warhammer 40K, following the success of Dawn of War, and the last twenty years have been rather frugal for fantasy Warhammer video games. However that’s changing, and where the last game I truly loved was Dark Omen in 1998, we’ve recently been treated to the wonderful Warhammer End Times – Vermintide and Total War: Warhammer is quickly looming. Even so, I was excited to play Mordheim: City of the Damned.

A skirmish game with RPG elements, Mordheim is the only tabletop myself and a few friends still play, even if the gap between games is often several months at a time. Abandoned by Games Workshop, Mordheim has been kept alive with a series of community modifications and simplifications, that managed to vitalise and balance the game better than Games Workshop ever could. Mordheim: City of the Damned, after a long gestation period in Early Access, is the first videogame adaptation of the tabletop which shares its name.

Upon starting you’re invited to choose a warband from one of four options, each of which varies in abilities and available equipment. You choose from the conniving Skaven, the religious fundamentalists Sisters of Sigmar, ballistic human Mercenaries, and the nefarious Cult of the Possessed, before hiring individual characters to fill the ranks. Warbands are relatively small to start with, but after successfully surviving several battles, the number of characters that can be recruited increases, with later additions including more powerful heroes and eventually large, intimidating monstrosities.

Each individual character gains experience for various feats, as well as for simply surviving a skirmish, and that experience allows you to shape your warband to suit your play style. Attributes which can be levelled range from basic stats such as strength and toughness, to their ranged or close combat proficiencies, intelligence and even skills and abilities. Additionally, characters can be named or even customised in their appearance, although this appears to be limited to slight variations in colour and aesthetics.

Mordheim’s gameplay revolves around a mixture of turn based strategy and sheer luck – the latter can be modified with the aforementioned skills and abilities. Characters have a finite number of strategy and offence points to use in a turn. Strategy points are used for basic movement, climbing, defensive stances and passive actions such as reloading, whereas offence points are utilised for attacking, ambush stances or even magic.

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Those familiar with XCOM and its ilk will find the systems in place very familiar, with actions such as overwatch borrowed directly. However, unlike XCOM, Mordheim sees you control a character from the third person, and without the strictures of a movement grid. Whilst this viewpoint and play-style allows a much more intimate relationship with the excellent looking maps, it is often too easy to snag your character on bits of scenery, or realise too late that an alleyway is inexplicably impassable, or a wall cannot be navigated over.

The game’s not particularly consistent with which walls and gaps can be clambered up or leapt across, and this can turn to frustration, having spent two turns ascending a building, only to find that it has no other way out. I can’t help but feel a grid-based isometric system would have worked better.

Each game has the potential for lasting consequences. Suffering heavy damage or being taken out of action in battle, can result in random permanent injuries for your troops, whether psychological disorders and missing limbs, or simply death. The injuries are visible on your characters, and can even stack, so that losing the same limb twice will retire them from the warband completely. Treating injuries also hits you in the pocket, forcing you to allocate gold away from paying your warband’s upkeep and, oddly enough, paying for character upgrades in addition to the skill points earnt.

It feels like an attempt at balancing your warband’s overall power, but it creates a feeling of superfluous avarice on the game’s part, especially when many skills are based on risk/reward. This segues to another complaint about Mordheim: the skills are largely a sea of mediocrity and mostly serve to mildly alter percentage chances for dodging or hitting, with only a few that add something genuinely interesting.

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The singleplayer campaign mostly consists of randomly generated skirmishes and missions, as you battle through this wartorn city to try and collect wyrdstone – solidified Chaos magic which you can sell for extra gold. Your ruthless, omnipresent warband CEO will demand shipments of this valuable commodity within short time limits, and since defying them is inadvisable, it soon becomes a hurried race to fulfil these requests.

This can sometimes feel like an unfair addition of difficulty, especially if you’re struggling with injured characters who still need to heal, or if you’re unlucky enough to only find missions which yield a meagre amount of wyrdstone. Persevere and occasionally you’ll unlock a story campaign mission with greater rewards, unique objectives and a multi-faceted structure, but the singleplayer as a whole is sullied by inconsistent AI that is sometimes alarmingly effective, but otherwise woefully inept.

Online is where Mordheim really shines. Battling against another human being can elucidate some fantastic plays of strategy and planning, and ultimately leads to a more cunning use of the terrain’s labyrinthine verticality. Multiplayer games can either be consequential – allowing you to injure your opponents or pilfer their belongings – or friendly exhibition matches for those who want a more relaxed practice game. Numerous modifiers can be also applied to online matches, enabling a much higher degree of flexibility and rules, but it’s a shame that both singleplayer and multiplayer games are limited to two players, with no option to play larger scenarios.

There are also larger issues to be addressed. Mordheim is plagued with long load times. This isn’t hyperbole, and I’m not really a person who is terribly affected by load times as a whole – I grew up with a Spectrum – but Mordheim suffers from some arduous waits of over three minutes, where on more than one occasion I assumed it had crashed behind the “Don’t panic Chaos at work” loading screen. Even the most patient will wince once you realise that after 10 missions you’ve endured over half an hour of thumb twiddling and groans. It’s faster when finishing a mission, but occasionally made worse by repeated voice acting. Menus also appear to have been afflicted by the Chaos gods, feeling cluttered and unintuitive in their design.

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Most importantly, combat doesn’t feel that engaging. It quickly becomes apparent that strategy can be defeated by sheer numbers, and fights can descend into a battle of health bar attrition. Despite the viewpoint and movement systems allowing for immediate interaction with the environment, it often feels rigid and loses the relatively dynamic nature of the tabletop game – it isn’t possible to knock someone off a ledge, for example.

The limited warband variety is also disappointing, with three of the choices limited to humanoids. It misses the opportunity to use some of the more uniquely interesting fantasy options such as Undead, even if these were limited to hired swords. This lack of choice a;sp appears on the customisation side – it’s notably impossible to change the sex of individual characters, meaning the only option for creating a female warband is to choose the Sisters of Sigmar. The more options for customisation the better for a game of this sort, as losing a character you’re attached to can be devastating. In Mordheim, aside from mourning their accumulated experience or equipment, I very rarely felt this for my warband members. I even stopped naming them, which is a shame.

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