Frostpunk

Frostpunk is one of those hard to classify games similar in a way to Papers, Please (And yes, that is a tall accolade). The best way to describe it is as a story driven city building crisis management game and even this description does little to do it justice. Suffice to say it is quite an interesting game which flew under the radar for me.

The game itself comes from 11 bit studios, whose other notable title is This War of Mine and the two games share a similar theme of survival in inhuman conditions and choice. While This War of Mine mainly dealt with the survival of a few individuals holed up in a bombed out building in a war torn city, Frostpunk story is a tad bigger and more apocalyptic.

You play as the captain of an expedition in an alternate, steampunkish 19th century, sent north to locate an experimental generator as the entire world descends into a hellish ice age. The temperatures keep plummeting and most of the world has succumbed to the cold, becoming a bleak, snowy wasteland. Upon discovering the generator, you must marshal your band of survivors to build a shelter from the growing cold and save whatever is left of humanity in the face of mounting challenges.

Stated in the opening paragraph, the game is a city building\crisis management game. You start with a set population and must feed it, keep it warm, housed and healthy. The cold is a constant enemy to battle out as it can take its toll, thus heat management is a major aspect of the game. There are various resources you can harvest and mine, from coal (needed to stoke the generator and keep the city warm), wood and metal (common construction materials), steam cores (needed for advanced machinery) raw food and rations. Of course materials are scarce and research is needed to unlock advanced buildings which allow you to access deposits.

Scavenging and scouting are also a vital part of the game and important to the story. Early on you can research and build a beacon which allows you to send out search parties. These expeditions can travel outside the city and find survivors to bolster your city, materials for buildings and advance the overall plot. The game itself allows you to pick and choose where to send the expeditions and unlocks more locations as the story progresses. Each location will often have a journal entry besides materials and survivors, further fleshing the world of the game and adding to the backstory.

Story driven should be emphasized. The game has a story line, with the story advancing by certain triggers\time stamps. This means that certain events will always occur, giving less replay value but allowing players to learn from failures and better plan in their next playthrough. The story itself is unique to each scenario, and each varies in length, goals and emphasized mechanics. Of course, each is full of challenges and hardships.

Challenge is the operative word. Besides managing resources, the player must keep an eye on two gouges; Discontent and Hope. Should hope fall too low, the people would lose faith in their survival. High discontent will cause bloodshed, insubordination and an uprising. Managing these two gouges is hard considering various events and laws the player has to navigate on a daily basis. Keeping discontent low and hope high seems obvious, but when the survival of the city depends on people working 16 hour shifts and sometimes double ones just to keep the coal mines running to feed the generator, and you too would be facing an exhausted and disgruntled workforce.

Morality is the main theme of the game. Each choice you make either in the overarching story or in the daily events is important. Would you enact more draconian laws to keep people working and content or would you turn to faith to soothe the fears of the population and be tempted to slide into a theocratic state? Would the shortage of workers make you enact laws forcing children to work, risking their lives in mines and factories, or would you keep them safe in shelters as the coal piles dwindle? And always, there is the growing cold… The game often forces you to ask just how much of humanity are you willing to sacrifice just to keep the city going for another day.

The game’s aesthetics reinforce this theme. The landscape is almost an unbroken snowy terrain. What isn’t white is either frozen blue, brown or industrial grey. The only bright colors are those of the generator’s flames. The art direction itself is reminiscent of  This War of Mine and tends to look closer to a graphic novel than realistic. The graphics themselves are quite beautiful, the city looks alive and the buildings and people are very detailed. A major theme of most buildings is just how roughshod and cobbled together they look.

The sound design is great. The sounds of the wind howling and water freezing and thawing are a constant companion. The soundtrack itself is filled with haunting orchestral pieces, many employing the violin to great effect. It is one of the few games in which I didn’t feel the need to play my own music or have a podcast\tv show\movie playing in the background. A true compliment you can be certain of that.

That said, there are some drawbacks. While the game eliminates the most tedious aspect of city management for me – the plateauing (when the player has enough income to build whatever he or she likes and is left with the task of just improving\maintaining the city), it may hamper the enjoyment of others who do like it. The city building itself is quite constricted due to the setting, which can also turn off players of the genre. The story beats themselves are set in stone and don’t vary, meaning there is little replay value once you beat a scenario. As for choices, while the game aims for the players to make “Moral Choices” it more often fails in my opinion. The only times I really felt like making a moral choice was when I was forced to by a lack of resources rather than anything else the game presented me with. Once you gain sufficient experience with the game its also easy to plan accordingly and negate this entire aspect which seems like a failure of game design.

All told the game is an intriguing take on the city building genre. Has interesting lore and good world building. Presents the player with difficulty and challenge while telling a compelling story of survival in the harshest of environments. Scenarios have their unique takes and never overstay their welcome. That said, has little replay value and is very constricted in its nature. Not to mention falters when it comes to its “Morality” aspect.

8/10 would recommend.

Warhammer: Vermintide 2

In the last few years Warhammer Fantasy (Not to be confused with its offshoot Warhammer 40,000) has seen a revival on the computer. Vermintide, Mordheim: City of the Damned and Total War Warhammer have served to bring the tabletop game back from the dead (Let’s not talk of Age of Sigmar) and introduce it to a wider audience.

However, I profess that of the three, Vermintide was the only game I didn’t play. Part of it stemmed from my dislike of horde based games. Though I have played both Left 4 Dead 2 and Payday 2 (As well as a brief stint of Killing Floor 2) they never had a lasting appeal for me. This might be due to the reason you need a good group of friends to maintain interest in them and that the constant grind (i.e. replaying levels over and over again) quickly erodes what little joy there is in these games. Thus when I received a free copy from a friend, I didn’t really have much in the way of expectations.

I was proven wrong on so many levels. Vermintide 2 is one of the best games I’ve played in recent years and that is not an accolade I give lightly. The game clears the first hurdle (Lack of interest) by actually having a story and characters. You play as a member of a small strike force captured by the Skaven as they attempt to activate the Skittergate, a bizarre contraption that should it work, would allow the Skaven allies, the Rotbloods, to mount a full scale attack of the Empire from inside as well as summon daemons and other nasty creatures from the Warp. It is up to your strike force to escape and work to sabotage the gate in a series of missions, each contributing in a way to the overarching goal.

Some readers would of course be confused by the terms used, but the game does a good enough job of informing the casual player of the stakes while giving more informed players a taste of the rich lore. The characters themselves do a good enough job of expositing in their banter, fleshing them further via their interactions. This is the second selling point for me as there is a character progression and skill tree, as well as weapon customization allowing for deeper gameplay not to mention actual personality. Kerillian, my favorite character, can be summed up as a murderous psychopath bitch who spends most of the game demeaning the other characters and reminding them of her exalted status of being an Asrai (Wood Elf).

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Characters earn XP by completing missions and collecting items in levels. Each level adds more damage and health to the character (Represented as power). Every 5 levels a character earns a talent point which is used to unlock skills or ‘Talents’. The point allocation can be changed in the lobby, allowing players to change and tweak their characters before every mission, thus giving more flexibility. Added to it, every 7 levels a character unlocks a different class with different talent trees and unique abilities. This allows party members to try or fill different roles if needed without sacrificing their character progression.

The game has 3 major roles, coined on reddit as Tank\Striker\Ranger. Tanks are, as the name implies, able to soak damage and draw aggression. Strikers do a fair deal of damage in close combat and deal a lot of damage to bosses as well as help clear hordes. Rangers play as long range support, dispatching dangerous enemies from afar and helping allies. Though each character starts by fulfilling a certain role, as said before, they can change class and transition roles, thanks in part to weapon customization and talent points.

When I wrote weapon customization, I truly meant it. There is a wide variety of weapons available to each character, both with unique looks and a wide range of properties. Weapons themselves are given at the end of a level via loot boxes (I’ll address them further down the review) and differ in power and rarity. The more rare an item, the more secondary properties it has, thus making it more powerful in combat. The amount of weapon types is quite impressive, each with their own animations and qualities. From fast attack weapons like swords and daggers, to more powerful axes and maces and even slow but highly damaging halberds. For range you have the assortment of shortbows and longbows, crossbows, pistols, rifles and even experimental revolvers. Each has its own pros and cons such as the longbow’s armor piercing property but long wind time or the sword and dagger combination that can cleave through enemies fast but easily glances off armored foes.

Added to the game is a deep crafting system. As the player progresses in levels and gains more powerful weapons, old equipment can be salvaged to its basic components and used to augment current weapons or craft new ones. With rarer items producing better parts that can even be used to re-roll the properties of other weapons, thus making them far more beneficial. This mitigates the RNG factor of the game somewhat as well as allow players to keep their inventory less cluttered. It also gives further purpose to level grinding, as the extra loot can all be smelted into salvage materials to make better weapons.

It seems in the current gaming landscape loot boxes are inescapable but thankfully Vermintide 2 handles them well. These loot boxes are always dropped at the end of a level and upon gaining a level. They will always drop level appropriate weapons and trinkets that can be used by the current character. There is no option to buy in-game currency to spend on them. Even better, these loot boxes can be augmented by exploring the level and gathering tomes and grimoires which also give small XP boosts. However this adds some further challenge as tomes take the place of healing items and grimoires take the slot of potions and have the added effect of lowering overall party health by a third per grimoire (Thankfully there are only 2 per level). This gives level exploration a boost as well as allow a well coordinated party to gain better loot.

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This all works to make level grinding more tolerable as each re-play can be used to explore for more secrets, get more loot for the smelter and quickly level up other characters. One can play the game solo on lower difficulties as the bots are competent enough and are able to respond to different situations adequately. However on higher difficulties they can easily get swept by the hordes and more on one occasion their programming left me dismayed, thus tarnishing some of the single player experience.

Gameplay wise it is a horde based game. You start the level and make your way to your objective fighting regular enemies and hordes that spawn from time to time. The look and behavior of different enemies does well to shake things up. You have the genre staples such as the slow lumbering but hard hitting enemies, fast berserkers that quickly drain your health, armored enemies that take a lot of hits and sneaky ones that attack from behind. All told the fact you fight both Skaven and Norscan raiders gives all enemies unique looks and behaviors that make every fight challenging but satisfying. The focus itself is mostly melee, with very few enemies employing ranged weapons and overall is very satisfying. You can feel the impact of the weapon as it cleaves through a wall of fur and teeth.

Boss characters are also diverse, with Spawns of Chaos flailing around, grabbing player characters and munching on them to recover health, Stormfiends with warp flamethrowers and heavy armor and Bile Trolls with vicious clubs, acid spit and natural health regeneration. Last (And pretty least) is the Ratogre which is the most vanilla enemy there is, simply an oversized rat which is fast and hard hitting but has little else going for it. The boss encounters can happen anywhere in a level though some missions will always have specific encounters in them. It is not unusual to have 2 boss encounters in a level (Especially after you used up all your health potions after surviving a particularly vicious horde wave and are trying to catch your breath).

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Level design is really good, there is enough freedom as to not feel oppressed by the linearity of the levels and there is good variety in visuals. You will go through ruined cities, sewers (Sadly it seems mandatory in EVERY videogame to have a sewer level), woodlands, mines, farmlands and so forth. I rarely got lost in a level and always knew where to go next. Whats more, the art team has really done its research and you get beautiful vistas from seemingly pastoral farmlands with seas of wheat, to ruined, dilapidated cities struck by disaster to ivy grown ruins. Every location is both beautiful and memorable.

Graphics wise the game is beautiful. It is stunning to view, especially the backgrounds and sky boxes. I caught myself more than once just staring at the landscape before rudely stabbed in the back by a dirty Skaven. Am not the biggest judge of graphics but the game looks good even on the low settings I run it with due to the age of my gaming rig. I’d imagine on higher graphics it is breathtaking. It really made me wish the team would make a Skyrim style game of Warhammer Fantasy, since they certainly have the skills in the arts department at least.

Difficulty is varied, with higher difficulty levels granting better loot but in return beefing up enemy health and damage. The lowest difficulty can be breezed through with bots alone but has a power cap on loot, incentivizing playing on higher difficulty. Difficulty levels also determine the amount and availability of health items and ammunition, ramping up the challenge on all fronts. The top two difficulty levels also add friendly fire to the equation, which at that point seem just plain mean. Difficulty can be further customized by deeds, a loot box drop item that imposes certain restrictions on a level in return for guaranteed better loot (Like no health potions at all, all mobs turned into armored enemies and so forth). It really ramps up difficulty with these special rules, adding to replayability.

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Of course, no game is perfect (Except Stardew Valley and I am willing to stab anyone who disagrees with me!) and Vermintide 2 has its fair share of faults. As mentioned before, the companion AI really lets you down on higher difficulty levels and has a tendency to break in certain situations. Even on lower difficulty levels the game has a nasty tendency to swamp higher level characters with almost impossible enemy combinations. The exploration aspect often forces the player into jumping puzzles that don’t suit the engine well, making them often frustrating. Last point are the loot boxes themselves. I just dislike RNG loot drops in general and had my fair share of disappointments hoping for better gear and receiving nothing valuable (Yeah, I know, but still!).

In summary, Warhammer: Vermintide 2 is a fun, horde based game with good story, characters and mechanics. It is enjoyable both alone and in a group and really brings the Warhammer experience to life. Score wise I’d have to give 2 separate scores to the game (Single and Multiplayer scores).

Singleplayer – 7/10

Multiplayer – 9/10