I’ve always had a soft spot for any games based on the many Games Workshop properties. From way back with Space Crusade on the Commodore Amiga, Shadow of the Horned Rat on the PlayStation to the more recent releases of, Blood Bowl and the Dawn of War series on the 360 and PC respectively. Having also grown up playing most of their tabletop games, I’ve always hoped, when I do come across a video game adaption, that they would be an accurate recreation of that game and not a watered down, more accessible experience. That’s not to say those experiences are inherently bad. I still say 2011’s Space Marine from THQ is an amazing brawler. Knee deep in the lore and the atmosphere of the Warhammer 40k universe, but it never satiated my desire for a digital recreation of commanding squads and battalions of units. However, now we have Mordheim, a game set in Games Workshops fantasy ‘Warhammer’ universe and first impressions show a game which could be just as rich and detailed as its tabletop counterpart.
Mordheim City of the Damned is a video game adaption of the tabletop skirmish game of the same name. Set in the fantasy city of Mordheim, a once prosperous town of wealth and decadence, is now devastated by the impact of a twin tailed comet. The comet, which was full of a mineral called Wyrdstone, has been scattered all over the city and is considered a valuable commodity and has attracted warbands from all corners of the Warhammer universe to setup camp in the city to gain control of the remaining neighbourhoods and plunder this new found wealth. That’s where you come in, as leader of a newly found warband, tasked with recruiting new members, outfitting them with the best wargear you can afford and finding as much of this Wyrdstone as possible whilst fighting off other competing warbands.
Mordheim can easily be split up into two parts, the turn based strategy skirmish game, and the management side of your warband, both of which are fully fledged and an incredible amount of depth to be found in both. The turn based strategy game is where you will spent the bulk of your time in Mordheim, with the management side taking front and centre between missions into the city.
The Turn based strategy element is where you and your warband complete missions, progress through the game and earn rewards. Played over a series of turns, you and your opponents take turns to move and perform actions with each of your mercenaries before repeating the process on the next turn. Each turn, each of the player’s mercenaries has a pool of action points which are used to get through a mission. From simple actions like moving or engaging in combat, to ‘holding’ onto action points to interrupt opposing players or to defend themselves from attacking enemies. Moving from ‘A’ to ‘B’ is simple enough, but when your gang members try to do anything other than simply walking, the game rolls a virtual dice to determine whether that action was successful. From climbing obstacles, fighting enemies or casting a spell. Their chance of success is determined by your mercenaries stats and this virtual dice rolled against them. Failure, depending on the action being performed can result in nothing happening to your mercenary suffering a bad injury. So careful planning and being fully aware of each of your mercenary’s capabilities are key to navigating the levels and winning fights.
Fights easily become very tactical affairs. The more you play, the more familiar you get with the capabilities of the warbands in the game. You start to know what enemy types are vulnerable to what attacks, who to gang up on and what skills you have within your team of mercenaries which are better suited to attacking specific enemies. Mercenaries have a sphere of influence around them that friendly or enemy soldiers cannot pass through, so careful planning can have you locking down areas of the map and setting up cunning ambushes that can become incredibly satisfying to pull off. However, that dreaded virtual dice roll, mentioned above, can easily work against you. Odds that seemed well in your favour can easily swing in the opposite direction thanks to a couple of bad dice rolls. Situations where you are easily out manning the other team can, frustratingly, quickly turn against you thanks to that random element. It’s hard to not feel cheated by it when odds are you should have come out on top. But such is the nature of relying on a random chance system.
The maps you visit in Mordheim are almost all procedurally generated, meaning the chances of fighting over the same areas more than once are really quite low. However, the range of assets used in the creation of these maps isn’t huge, and while the layouts will be different, buildings and obstacles will start to become very familiar to you. The game suffers from very long loads times and this could be as a result of the procedurally generated nature of the levels, or it could just down to poor optimisation. Hopefully it’s addressed in a future patch as it can be quite annoying. Sometimes the maps themselves can become an adversary in themselves with obstacles that your soldiers have to scale and sometimes injure themselves on, to hidden traps that can put an end to any sneaky flank attacks you might have had planned.
Also, the graphics of Mordheim isn’t one of the games strong points. The pallet could be considered quite drab and the world can feel devoid of colour. It has the effect of giving the world a desolate and bleak aesthetic and whether intentional or by accident, it’s unavoidably disappointing. Thankfully, the style at least matches the look and feel of Games Workshop’s original designs, so those familiar with the franchise will feel ‘at home’ with the familiar designs and may start off on a better foot than those who are new to the world of Mordheim, if only at the beginning of the game.
When you aren’t engaged in squad level tactics, you are knee deep in stats. Managing your warbands expenses, your solders stats and skills, healing their injuries, buying upgraded weapons and armour or recruiting new mercenaries into your warband. There is alot to consider here and could almost be considered a game in of itself as you will easily find yourself losing potentially hours on this side of the game alone. This is PC level, hardcore management that you very seldom see in console titles these days and I’m glad it wasn’t watered down for the console audience. It isn’t an area of the game you can really ignore either, so if stats and deep squad management is something you normally shy away from then this won’t be the game for you.
Each individual mercenary has reams of stats, representing elements such as how well they fight, dodge, move, how well they see, how well they react to new threats or how well they can cope when they see their side are taking a beating. All of which can improve as they survive encounters and gaining experience or even new skills. Equally, the same stats can be reduced as they take and accumulate injuries over the course of your campaign. From niggling injuries which could cause them to have to skip a fight to losing a limb which can have serious penalties on their ability to fight. Even death is a possibility. Wounds eventually become badges of honour as you recount the epic battle they won while suffering the injury. Everything of note they do is recorded and soon a mercenary’s history is there to see. From the moment they joined your warband, seeing their victories; witnessing their growth and seeing them struggle as they cope with the injuries from the life they have with your warband.
The game makes it very easy to become heavily invested in your warbands progress and growth. Each victory strengthens the group as a whole, each loss and injury suffered stings you more deeply that it should. You start to unconsciously favour those who bring success to your warband by rewarding them with more expensive weapons and armour then, customising their look to make them stand out from the other rank and file in your band. The new recruits inevitably get the hand me down weapons and regulated to padding out gaps in your warband until you see evidence they are worth investing in. To top it off, you can rename each solider and completely alter their physical appearance, adjusting their clothes and colour schemes to further make your war band unique. This was a very important element of the tabletop game and I’m glad it survived the transition to the game. Even more so that it survived the port to the console.
There is a multiplayer mode which players can indulge in. Pitting your levelled up warband against other players. Unfortunately this can result in heavily unbalanced matches if you are match made against a player who’s warband is of a higher level than yours. Equally you could be matchmade against another player who has little investment in their motley crew than you do. These unbalances will only serve to lock newer players out of this multiplayer mode, restricting it only to those who have spent the time investing in their warband.
The level of investment required by this game cannot be underestimated. Campaigns can be long battles of attrition. Managing your warband is essential for its long term success and cannot be ignored by those in favour of skipping to the tactical element. Alot of your time will be spent examining stats and planning skill trees for your troops. Browsing the merchant’s wares and looking for better equipment to make your mercenaries more potent and survivable. When you do finally hit the streets of Mordheim, combat scenarios can be slow and the risk of losing a favoured mercenary high. All the above can easily be considered too high a price some gamers would be willing to invest in. But the rewards of so much investment can easily be seen in the growth of your warband and the stories that come from their development. But the game asks for alot of time investment before they begin to really see these rewards. It’s the unfortunate problem with this level of depth; it can inevitably weight it down. The barrier to entry becomes so great that it can and will feel impenetrable to some gamers. Having to invest this amount of time before you begin to see any real rewards will put some gamers off. But equally, there are gamers who do seek this kind of challenge and relish the long term investment.
We don’t normally see these kind of strategic/management games on the console space without some sort of compromise to make them more accessible. The decision to keep the strategic and management depth was a brave one, but one I genuinely hope pays off. Hopefully, this game can find its audience on the consoles or I fear we won’t see this level of strategic depth again for a long time.