Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Mordheim: City of the Damned Review!

                Mordheim: City of the Damned was originally a spinoff to the popular tabletop game Warhammer Fantasy. It was designed to cater the needs of Necromundia and Warhammer Fantasy fans and somehow it didn't manage to do either. Mordheim wasn't received well by the fans and while it was and still is played, the game doesn't show the best of this universe. Nevertheless, in the light of recent events with the massive overhaul brought by the Age of Sigmar, games like Mordheim which are based in the classic world might be looked at from a more positive perspective.
                Rogue's Factor Mordheim: City of the Damned is a video game adaption to the tabletop game that comes as part of the huge wave of Games Workshop licenses that has been spread to various game developers. This is a title that managed to come out from the now dangerous process that is known as Steam Early Access with the support of the fans and a listening ear from the developer.
                After the crash of the twin tailed comet in Mordheim, the city has become a battlefield for the warbands that have come from across the world to acquire the valuable Wyrdstone fragments. Fierce battles take place all over the city as the warbands risk their lives for glory and riches.
                The game starts with the player picking from one of the four unique warbands available. What follows is a number of screens filled with a ton of information which for those that skipped on the tutorials might be hard to comprehend at first. Mordheim is one of those games that has you carefully watching over a huge number of stats, abilities and items for each of the characters recruited into your warband. It’s a tedious process for a beginner, but gets much smoother when getting the hold of the game. Customizing your characters is the second step. When the starting money was spent and the characters are equipped and ready for combat you can switch to the city’s map and look over the available missions.
For Sigmar!! (But not his Age!)

                Your warband can attempt only one mission per in-game day and while this seems restrictive, the time is an important mechanic behind the singleplayer component. Your presence in the city of Mordheim is made possible through a certain benefactor, which is a faction that demands something in return from you. As the city is full of valuable Wyrdstone fragments from the comet that crashed nearby, your benefactors as well as the other factions want to get their hands on these magical stones. So how does time fit into this? No matter if you fail or succeed a mission, a day must pass until another mission can be attempted. Doing missions is the only way to get Wyrdstone and the faction behind your sponsorship is not very patient when waiting for a shipment of the precious stones. A time limit is set for each shipment to your main faction, failing to reach the deadline will result in a game over state. When this happens you won’t be able to use that warband into singleplayer missions, but you will still be able to play online against other players.
Finding the balance between the mission’s difficulty, the shipment’s deadlines, the characters’ medical needs and so many other factors is crucial if you want to advance further into this game and this won’t be an easy task.
Easy missions have priority!
It's time to pay the debts.

                Mordheim starts slow, mostly because the beginning is so hard that it takes at least one failed warband and a good guide to better understand the game. Passing the threshold from extremely hard to streamlined victories is the best and most challenging part of the game, but even past that point your warband is never truly safe. The grinding style gameplay goes through (probably) endless randomly generated missions that have you facing a skimpy AI which more often than not fails to take advantage of the map's layout. This can set you in a false state of comfort and security which should never be the case with Mordheim. When you expect it the least the AI can strike with brilliant and unpredictable ambushes which are so much different than the day to day mindless fights. In a moment like this, heroes can fall, lose limbs or carry wounds that will affect them for the rest of their combat lives. The lucky ones get away with a scratch or a mild amnesia of the nightmare that they went through. But this just another day with another battle, the dead will be forgotten, the injured will heal their wounds and the healthy ones are getting ready for the next day, the next battle. 
Like Skaven aren't stupid enough!

                For the most part Mordheim is a cycle of skirmish battles scaled to the player's warband that can end through tactical mistakes and miscalculations. The campaign serves as a narrative distraction from the randomly generated battles. Its story is forgettable and probably few players will pay attention to it but the objectives are slightly different than the usual "kill the enemy warband" which is the never changing main goal in skirmishes. The campaign gives a meaning to your actions outside of collecting Wyrdstone fragments, but it’s hardly the focus point of this game.
                Mordheim is the make your own story kind of game and the bulk content stands in the random skirmish battles. Tales can be told about the bravery, greediness and foolishness that happen in the grayish green streets of the city. It’s not an ideal way of presenting this world, but in all fairness Warhammer has always been more about war and less about lore, which for all intents and purposes has been somewhat stuck for years. So accusing the game of lacking a properly written story with a good presentation feels a little unjust (but still doable). On the other hand, considering that most of the game is about battles, in many regards this key aspect of the game severely lacks in quality.
The usual fanatics!

                Right of the bat the game feels cheap. Its tendency of repeating every aspect of itself leaves almost no unique elements to set things apart.
The warbands are at the center of the game, being yours or enemies, their existence is what drives the game’s action forward. But despite their importance there are little elements that can differentiate them. The stats and abilities customization is the only factor that matters, but the concept behind how each unit works tends to repeat from one unique warband to another. There’s little to no appearance customization and each unit of the same type looks like the clone of the previous one. But these are probably complaints for AAA spoiled gamers. The quality really starts to hurt when it comes to the AI and the character’s behavior.
I'm getting tired of this face.

                The enemy warbands don’t have any kind of personality. No special builds, tactics or behaviors are to be expected from them. No team filled with ranged units barricaded in a building and ready to shoot at everything that moves to take you by surprise and drop a few of your units before you even know what happened. They look and play the same with the only surprises coming from the AI waking up from time to time.
Fighting enemy warbands means nothing more than fighting AIs in random skirmishes that keep repeating as much as the procedurally generated landscape. It can get tedious and the only thing that counters the maddening feeling of doing the same thing over and over again is the thrill that comes from the game’s hardcore design.

                Fighting means business in Mordheim and this can’t happen without skilled warriors. Losing an important member that has been with the warband since the beginning growing into a fully fledged warrior can be frustrating. This is the ever present danger that serves as the best tool against monotony keeping the adrenaline level above the average for each mission. The starting difficulty and the permanent chance of being defeated are pushing the game over the hardcore edge that will filter the players trying their luck in the damned city after just a few hours of gameplay. Mordheim is brutal to such degree that you can lose the work of 20 hours in a matter of seconds because of poor decisions. The warbands might not have personalities and the AI doesn't always deliver, but when it does it gets seriously dangerous and underestimating can send you to create a new warband.
                Part of the thrilling experience is the tactical combat turn based combat which looks a bit different from the usual XCOM wannabe games, but plays in part the same. Mordheim combat has you looking at your units from a 3rd person position and moving them with the standard WASD controls that come with any action game. But don’t get fooled, this is no action game. The presentation might be different, but the end result is the same, a game where tactics, careful planning and taking using each unit’s strengths are the decisive factors.
                Each battle starts with a deployment phase, which can be done by the game or manually completed by the player. The deployment plays an important role into the evolution of a battle. Depending on the scenario the units won’t always be deployed close to one another forcing the player into making tactical decisions that if done wrong could cost the life of one or more units jeopardizing the entire mission. The deployment is tricky, mostly because of what I’ve mentioned before and partly because of the control. In order to partially implement a controller support the developers seem to have forgotten to implement the mouse cursor wherever is needed. The deployment phase is a victim of this matter having no mouse support forcing those using mouse and keyboard to slowly go through each deployment point until they reach the desired one.
Automatic deployment makes things so much easier.

                The deployment is followed by a city exploration phase and the actual battle. It is advised to scout first with a faster unit as the maps visual keep repeating but their layout does not. The procedural generation feature does a good job at changing the shape of the battlefield with each new battle, providing chock points for ambushes and a lot of room for tactical maneuvers. Because of the unexpected created by the randomized maps it is safer to move as a group while trying to a more advantageous position or scavenging for loot.
                If the initial phases are played right the enemy won’t manage to ambush your warband and their engage on you should have a minimal to no impact (unless the Sisters of Sigmar get some crazy hits going). The fate of the fight is dictated by good decision making and by using each specialized character and their abilities to your advantage. Surprise tactics can still come in play even when most of the units are trapped into combat. Disengaging from a fight and attacking a stronger enemy unit from behind forcing it into morale checks can change the tide. The battle ends when one of the warbands is exterminated or fails the moral checks running away in shame.
Power through numbers!
Imagine that a comet hit her in the head.

                Battles are followed by a report providing information on the experience gained, the stolen loot, the acquired Wyrdstones and much more. Each battle dictates the progress of your warband. The Wyrdstones can be sent into shipments to pay the debts to the benefactor faction or to other factions to get in good with them. Increasing the reputation with each faction grants progressive bonuses, including stronger items and better units. The scavenged items can rarely be used as most of the factions use specific types of weapons, but these items can be sold and with the gold gained new units can be hired or new items can be bought from the vendor.
                The material goods sustain a warband, but most of its combat capabilities come from the experience gained by each unit after a fight. Leveling grants attribute and skill points which can be spent on improving each unit's stats through simple points allocation or paid training specializing them for certain roles. The paid training offers new passive and active abilities that make a notable difference during battles. Each different unit in a warband plays a different role and knowing what that means and customizing these units accordingly will increase their combat value.
The combat value can and will be affected by wounds which vary a lot in severity from scratches to severed limbs. The wounds are assigned based on the damage sustained during a fight, but units that are knocked out during battles have a higher risking of being severely wounded and can even die after combat.
                The process of the battles and their implications go past the battlefield itself and the players should always take this into account. The mechanism of maintaining and using a warband is complex and even when having the hold of it the randomness that comes with this type of games can unexpectedly change things. So, always be prepared for the worst.
The tanky leader.
Charging is the way to go!

                Mordheim has some interesting features and good mechanics behind it. But for every good feature there is at least one that doesn't work so well constantly reminding of the low production value.
                The main problem comes from the shortness of content which the developers tried but didn’t succeed in hiding. It starts with having four out of the six warbands available in the core tabletop game and continues with a lot of content that is striking through similarity.
                The maps are procedurally generated, yet, more often than not they look alike. For a game using the technology of randomizing its visual assets, Mordheim has a really small number of unique visual assets to work with. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. In a game where customization of the characters is key there is little to no customization when it comes to these characters visuals. Every type of unit looks the same as every type of armor and weapon looks the same and while looting something new and powerful could be exciting, part of that excitement dies when the new hammer looks like the older hammer. In an era when games sell cosmetic items in exchange for real money, there's little cosmetic about Mordheim City of the Damned and that's a turnoff more than some would care to admit. This game is the reimagining of a tabletop game that is not only known for its tactical gameplay but also for the ability of the players to customize the look of their units to their liking, conditioned by their painting skills.
Sadly they all look the same...

                The graphics are what one should expect from a game with a limited budget. The texture quality could and should be higher than this, but the artistic direction is spot on recreating the architectural grandeur of a city from the Warhammer universe even if it is in ruins. The green grayish pallet with a little brown here and there might be upsetting for some, but this is how many envision this bleak universe and I found it in ton with the lore and extremely atmospheric. There are no reflections, no enhanced lighting or extremely detailed shadows, which might be alright for an isometric camera, but a 3rd person game could use all of these. The animation don't help either, they are stiff and mechanical, lacking the fluidity that could make the combat moments more visually entertaining.
                The graphics might not be up to the PC standards of today, but the visuals are appealing and I don’t see them as a turnoff as this wasn’t the main focus of the game anyway.
One of the rarer structures in the randomized streets of Mordheim.
That clueless face is justified!

                What really bothers me it’s another spring off coming from the low production value: the sound design. The music is ok and the sound effects are decent even if they lack variety, but everything kind of stop here. I was expecting voice acted warbands taunting each other with units invoking their gods and commenting on the actions. It would have been befitting for this type of game, but sadly as many other elements of Mordheim, this was only partially explored.

                Drawing a line after everything I've said above and this game wouldn't come out too good and that isn’t exactly accurate. Behind the wall of shortcomings resides a tactical and thrilling gameplay so addictive that it kept me hooked for hours, even after my dragged on failed attempt with my first warband. As an enthusiast of Warhammer 40k, I've never fully realized how much I enjoy the Fantasy setting and Mordheim helped me see this.
                For all the hours I've put into this game I’m still not sure if I can recommend it. Its price tag is getting dangerously close to that of AAA titles, but without the high production value that comes with this type of game. Mordheim is visibly crippled by its lack of production value at every step. It’s clunky, lacking unique content and in desperate need of an AI that can keep up. Overcoming all these issues can be hard. In return it can easily offer dozens of hours of challenging battles, tactical ingenuity and detailed characters development. Factoring in the multiplayer which provides the most intense experience and the replay value that comes with this type of games and there is already a lot of value in Mordheim: City of the Damned.
                For the fans of the tabletop games it is great to see a new game in their favorite universe. The fans of tactical turn based games will find it as a good distraction until XCOM 2 comes out. And for the rest of the players it is probably safer to wait for a sale. As for me, it’s an enjoyable game with extremely high potential delivered in a tin crackling shell that constantly undermines Mordheim's best qualities.

(This article is based on a press copy of the game provided by the developer.)

+ Great setting
+ Complex character development
+ Tactical combat
+ Addictive
+ Unforgiving
+ Atmospheric
+ Stays true to the universe and lore
+ The multiple campaigns add up to the replay value 

- Average production value
- Mouse support isn’t fully implemented
- The battle UI is hard to navigate and has some issues
- Lacks visual variety
- Long loading screens
- AI can be awkwardly dumb
- Various bugs



  1. Replies
    1. You disagree with what specifically? Because I didn't say Mordheim is a bad game.

  2. in that it cant be recommended. Nor do i think its poor design, or execution. I like the art styling, yes a few things coulda had a bit of polish but fact is i wish there were more games like this, that more people supported them than stupid Final Fantasy or Skyrim so they dont die in obscurity. There hasnt been a turnbase arena battle game like this since Gladius on ogxbox and that had a 92/100 on metacritic and this out performs, out details, and outplays that in everyway. Even XCOM2 was getting 92 and 93/100 and this is in every way as good if not better, the combat for a turnbase is superb, well balanced, brutal. Its its own Mordheim sim and there needs be more like this, the game mechanics, and execution is mint. Over these hyped up affairs like Skyrim (anything Beseda really theyre been cashing in on reskin same engine, models and lame AI for years) Final Fantasy, Fallout etc for years its crud. The battle mechanics are true to the tabletop true turnbase RPG experience. Better than Divinity or Wasteland or Sword Coast Legend and better than Dragon Age franchise. As an ex D&D, Star Wars and James Bond table top RPG gamer, this is true bliss. I hope they stick around for a follow up with a bit more cash for polish but as is i cant put it down its brilliant)

  3. I don't care about metacritic. It's a pretty bad system for rating games in today's gaming industry.

    Mordheim lacks in many aspects and not only because of the license limitation. The level design is not varied enough. The RNG could be extreme. The graphics, animations and general polishing of the game aren't at a high quality. But more importantly, I wrote this review after the game was released and there were more problems back then than there are today.

    You are comparing the combat system of a dedicated combat game with fully fledged RPGs which are, for the most part, focused on story, choices & consequences, character progression and other features, features that Mordheim barely has or lacks completely.

    I try to write reviews as objective as possible. I like the Warhammer universe and I liked Mordheim as a video game, but I can't overlook problems just because of that. My job is to point these problems and help the readers take informed decision when buying a game and maybe open a few eyes to the artistic and imperfect aspects of video games. I'm open to criticism as long as it is grounded in argument not for subjective reasons.