Reviews

Mordheim: City of the Damned Review – Oh Look, Kryptonite!

mordheim

Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Rogue Factor
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Death is a relatively common thing with the world of Mordheim; losing a few generic henchmen in your first dozen hours is to be quite likely, as is having to concede defeat to an enemy that simply was too powerful to combat. It’s not a forgiving game, the bleak grey landscape reflecting the fact, and really who would expect it to be considering it’s based on an old Warhammer tabletop game. Chances are you will restart the game a couple of times with a new warband as you get to grips with everything. There’s always the sense that you’re floundering all the time, barely scraping by as your soldiers come home missing limbs or even eyes and you attempt to gather together enough coin to keep your warband paid. Much like XCOM: Enemy Within, though, eventually you begin to decipher its vast collection of stats and sometimes hard to dissect mechanics, and then after a little bit more time you start to become good. Maybe even great.  Patience is rewarded with victory and increased skill. Stupidity is awarded with death and defeat. Oh, and frustrated embarrassment. Eventually, though, Mordheim reveals itself to be easier than first thought, its difficulty coming more through a sense of unfairness in the boosts AI get and an RNG (random number generation) system which delivers some horrible runs of luck that may just leave you cursing whatever God happens to be in the vicinity.

Story is kept minimal in Mordheim, probably because you’re far too focused on keeping your motley warband of misfits alive and those Wyrdstone shipments going out. You take control of one of the four factions that must delve into the ruined city of Mordheim, a truly bleak environment that was hit by a comet which killed the inhabitants and also deposited a strange glowing green stone around the streets, the very material you now seek; Wyrdstone. It’s this new stone that attracts warbands to the city, each looking to make a quick buck by grabbing the Kryptonite and shipping it out for profit, all while risking not only physical harm from opposing forces but also from the Wyrdstone itself which can warp whomever holds it. It’s this goal that forms the basis of the campaign;  you must successfully gather a certain amount of Wyrdstone and send it your faction boss within a certain timeframe, with excess Wyrdstone being sellable to other sources for more coin. Failure to deliver means no chunk of gold to pay the bills and purchase new equipment, while repeated failure can result in your troops getting hurt by the faction boss and eventual cancellation of the contract, which is to say defeat. There’s some narrative delivered throughout the game in story missions, but its minimal stuff that isn’t going to win any awards. No, the focus is on managing your warband and fighting the enemy over the course of the campaign.

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Each one of your ten strong warband (you actually begin with four, but that number increases) can be individually decked out with weapons and armor as well as new skills as they level up, letting you guide your melee fighters, magic users and ranged units in specific ways depending on your chosen strategy. It’s a slow game as the opening hours don’t present a lot of abilities to utilize in combat and specializing soldiers doesn’t feel like its making much difference out in the field, but as you progress a lot more options finally start to open up and those points spent in specific areas begin to feel worth it. New skills are expensive, too, so you need to seriously consider where to spend the coin, although on the flip side this does make you loathe to invest in lowly henchmen since they tend to last a lot less than your leader or hero units.  Every character has a barrage of detailed stats that can be read through to get a better idea of how the should be built up, be it perhaps increasing their leadership for better morale checks or bumping up the chance of hitting critical strikes. Maybe you actually need to focus on parrying incoming blows with sword and shield, or just bump up strength, endow them with strong morale and give them all huge axes so that they can wade in and soak up the damage against formidable odds. The group is composed of a leader, a few heroes and a pile of  henchmen, but later on you also gain access to so-called ”impressives,” creatures that boast incredible size. These behemoths have a chance to strike fear into enemies, playing with the morale system that frequently makes its presence known, but unlike regular units they can’t clamber around the environment and can’t fit into certain areas of the sprawling maps which offer a lot of room to plan ambushes and maneuver troops.

Unusually for a turn-based game there’s no overhead view that provides a constant bird’s-eye view except for when bringing up the strategic map for a better look at the situation, rather characters are moved using WASD and a traditional third-person camera angle that firmly places emphasis on line of sight and spotting enemies, because once a foe moves out of your vision he/she/it can no longer be tracked. It actually works really well because it makes you feel more like a commander with his boots on the ground, which is appropriate given the theme.. How far a character can move and the actions they can take during a turn is based on their Strategy Points and their Offense Points, with one point of movement being used up every time you pass the pale blue circular line emblazoned on the ground. Interestingly you can revoke your movement by walking back the way you came, which means the system can be abused to quickly scout a large chunk of the map before making your final move. To engage an enemy in combat you just sidle up to the red circle that envelopes them, at which point the chance of actually hitting them with an attack is displayed. However, Mordheim’s percentage chances of doing anything are rather flimsy as they don’t seem take into account enemy stats and other information, thus a 70% to strike an enemy may actually be much lower by time the enemy’s dodge or parry is taken into account.

Aside from standard attacks units can be set into Ambush mode to get the jump on people by launching a free attack on any enemy that comes into range, can Charge into battle (which cancels out Ambush) and enter Dodge or Parry stances. At first options are quite limited, meaning battles don’t get more complicated that running in and whaling on the enemy while trying to keep a numbers advantage. Eventually, though, more options become available, and strangely the game goes backward; rather than starting easier and becoming increasingly difficult, it’s the first six hours that prove the hardest to work through, and then from there things become easier to deal with, aside from some harsh spikes in difficulty. You’re also free to build up your warband by doing regular missions before attempting story missions, so it’s possible to enter them with a crew far beyond that of the enemy. This is probably why story missions have the frustrating habit of using infinitely respawning enemies to combat your possibly overpowering band of characters.

In an attempt to not be overly unforgiving toward its players warband members can’t outright die during combat, rather they’re put into a downed state and will leave the battlefield at the end of the turn. Once combat is over the game decides exactly what happens to them, with perma-death being a possibility, albeit a rare one in my experience. More likely is that your character will come out unscathed or with some minor injuries that require treatment at the cost of some gold and a few days of rest. There’s also the chance of a character being maimed, perhaps losing an eye or even an entire limb, naturally weakening them in combat and thus making you wonder if it’s perhaps worth firing them in order to get some new blood into the group, or if their experience and skills outweigh the wound.

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What does let the combat down quite a bit is the AI, which exhibits as much intelligence as your average member f Parliament after a hearty night of drinking and the promise of a pie. The standard enemy tactic is to simply charge straight ahead and swarm the victim as soon as they set sight upon a soldier, although in fairness swarming is the default tactic within Mordheim since a failed All Alone check can provide a massive advantage to the attackers. To compensate for stupidity the AI are granted a series of bonuses to their stats that can make battles feel annoying because it quickly becomes clear that they can output more damage than you or have much higher chances of dodging attacks. It’s artificial difficulty, rather than being genuinely challenging through having to fight smart foes. The worst of these is how the enemy always seem to have a Charge range that’s just slightly longer than your Ambush range, letting them cancel it out and run in for an attack unless you hide your soldier. At least the stat bonuses can be balanced out by the fact that the enemy can be outmaneuvered and forced into chokepoints with relative ease. Only a few times did I see the AI do anything that resembled good battle tactics, like positioning an archer atop a tall building overlooking a raging battle.

The goal of most missions is to either outright defeat the enemy warband in combat by smacking them all into the ground with extreme prejudice or rout them, which is to say beat the crap out of them to the point where they fail a morale check and scamper for the hills like wimps, which is the way most battles typically end. The morale system actually comes into play frequently throughout the game, such as when a character is outnumbered in combat and needs to make an All Alone check or when approaching a massive beast that can inspire fear with its mere presence. Mixing it up are different basic mission setups that dictate where warbands will start, be it grouped around their cart or scattered around then environment, obviously forcing you to change your plans depending on the situation. You may find your leader stuck on his own or the warband split into several groups scattered far and wide, making regrouping the primary goal before the enemy can strike. Likewise the enemy may also be scattered around the level and you might have the advantage of starting with your group together.  Wyrdstone might be also scattered around the environment or even collected together in a small area in the middle of the map, making it worth considering a rush for the centre.  There’s also the chance for ambush events where one warband can gain a ridiculous advantage over the other, so ridiculous, in fact, that’s it’s clearly in need of rebalancing. Finally very basic secondary objectives like gathering up a certain amount of Wyrdstone or grabbing a certain enemy’s dogtag don’t seem worth completing at first glance, but Mordheim is a game that likes you to struggle for resources. The bonus XP provided by completing secondary objectives is quite large, so it’s usually worth taking the extra risk, especially when grabbing extra Wyrdstone because while achieving victory lets you automatically hoover up some of it from the battlefield automatically the amount is only ever just about enough to fulfil shipments, with no surplus in case of a few defeats or to ship off to a different faction for extra coin.

There are a lot of other issues that need to talked about before we bring this to a close,  like how ranged characters currently seem to be almost entirely useless as they rarely hit the target and do small amounts of damage when they do, or how when deploying troops at the start of a scenario you can use the tactical view to see the various deployment  spots but can’t actually deploy them there by clicking, instead you have to bounce awkwardly from potential position to potential position in  third-person using A and D. Y’know, because that makes sense. The user interface frequently feels like it was designed to be as clumsy as possible, hiding bits of information all over the place so that finding the relevant stats or even figuring out what’s what is a chore. As a prime example the only two methods of choosing which stance or ability you want to use is to either cycle through them all using Q and E, or tap the spacebar to bring up a nested menu that seems designed with consoles in mind, which is odd because Mordheim hasn’t been announced a coming to console. At least, not yet. When you enter charge range it doesn’t automatically tell you, so you have eyeball the distance and then cycle through abilities to see if it can actually be used. There are loads of other random stuff, too, such as how the Chaos faction feature mutations that can suddenly ruin your hard work by doing things like an archer suddenly growing a third arm that makes him unable to use a bow.

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The biggest gripe I have with the game is its truly awful RNG system, which is essentially the game rolling dice in the background to determine whether things like an attack are successful or not. The first couple of times that the enemy went on insane streaks of luck I simply pushed aside as being just that – luck, but the more it happened the more I realised that the RNG system seems prone to delivering streaks of successes that weigh heavily in the enemy’s favour. There’s only so many times you can surround an enemy with four units and have them all miss and miss and miss and miss as the opponent dodges each attack while successfully hitting all of his own strikes before anger begins to become a real problem. Happily the developers are already promising a new system in the forthcoming update. Still, right now it can be a real pain in the ass.

Multiplayer is included so you can take your warband and challenge other people, bypassing that lackluster by replacing it with lackluster human intelligence, instead. I jest, I jest. It’s mediocre at best. Online matches are determined by your warband’s overall rating, so theoretically your soldiers should never been completely outmatched, but of course actual player skill isn’t so balanced. Right now the multiplayer servers seem a little quiet, but hopefully that’ll change.

Graphically the game delivers on its artistic style, staying true to its source material with the bleak, washed out environments and occasional splash of color. This is a dark world, the city of Mordheim nothing more than a shattered wreck of a city that has an oppressive, claustrophobic feeling that nicely captures the sensation that an enemy really is waiting to ambush you around every corner, usually because they are. The drab visuals do nothing to hide the otherwise boring level design, though, or the poor textures that adorn walls and characters alike. Every arena looks pretty much the same with no distinctive landmarks or anything cool to make them stick in your mind. It’s also disappointing to see just two character models for henchman and very limited customisation choices so that most of your warband will look the same until you can equip them with different weapons and armor, and even then there’s not enough variation in equipment. Stiff animations that don’t do anything to sell the brutality of combat and entirely mediocre sound design are the final disappointments in Mordheim’s entirely sub-par presentation.

It is pretty damn enjoyable, though. Although the user interface frequently left me questioning the sanity of whomever designed it and the infuriating streaks of iffy RNG left me hurting because enemies suddenly became impossible to hit, I kept going back for a bit more punishment. It scratches that strategy itch that I’ve got quite nicely.

Rough around the edges Mordheim is nevertheless an enjoyable turn-based strategy game that simply needs some polishing and rebalancing to unlock its own potential, indicating that it left Early Access without really being finished just yet. Of course I can’t review what a game might be sometime in the future after some updates, and thus for now Mordheim is simply a good tactical game that is perhaps best for the die-hard genre fans and only worth it for other folk when it comes on sale, unless some of those sharp edges can be sanded down. Get to it, developers.

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