Developed by Rogue Factor. Published by Focus Home Interactive. Released on November 20 2015. Available on PC. Review code provided by publisher.
Mordheim: City of the Damned is a video game in the Warhammer Fantasy universe, based off a 1999 tabletop game that was later discontinued. But this adaptation maintains many aspects of the source material.
While the powerful human Empire was in civil war, the city of Mordheim became a center of moral degeneracy, corruption, and sin. This cultural rebellion grows out of control. Daemons walk the streets. Meanwhile, a comet approaches, one said to foretell the coming of a golden age for the Empire. Instead, the comet crashes into Mordheim and kills thousands and thousands of people.
The comet impact results in the appearance of Wyrdstone. A green magical stone coveted by various black market groups, cults, and sinister wizards. Not to mention an army of secret rat-men, who use it to power their technology. They all fund bands of mercenaries to retrieve Wyrdstone from the ruins of Mordheim. Four factions battle it out for control. There’s human mercenaries, Skaven (secretive rat-men), Sisters of Sigmar (an order of female priests), and the Cult of the Possessed (Chaos-worshipping, daemon-touched humans).
Those who played 2009’s Blood Bowl or the recent Blood Bowl 2 (also based on a Games Workshop board game) will find Mordheim: City of the Damned‘s structure familiar.
The main gameplay is organizing a warband of mercenaries and battling against enemy teams in turn-based skirmishes throughout the city. You can have as few as four people in your crew and ten at the most. Every expedition helps your squad gain stat points and experience, which gives them better odds at survival in future battles. Every expedition is also a risk, as injuries and curses can stick with your troops forever.
The battles themselves are split between story based missions and randomized skirmishes. Skirmishes are the majority of play, and are about navigating a random map to hunt down your enemy’s team and killing them off. You don’t always have to eliminate your enemy’s entire squad, just enough to make them retreat. The same goes for you, and sometimes you’ll desperately hope your remaining troops give up the fight to live another day. Skirmishes have secondary objectives as well – gathering a certain percentage of the map’s wyrdstone, killing certain enemy squad members and taking a trophy, or stealing the enemy squad’s idol while trying to protect your own.
As your troops take their turns, you snap into a third person view of the soldier, moving about the map and taking your attacks. It’s risky combat. Every swing of your sword has an often high chance of missing. It requires thinking a few steps ahead, then accounting for the inevitable mishaps.
Environmental traps litter the battlefield, making movement across the map an enemy in itself. More than once noxious poison traps scattered around the battlefield managed to surprise me. Climbing and jumping off of ledges has its own risk, as characters can fall down and take damage from failing their check.
Playable maps for skirmish matches in Mordheim take place among the maze-like ruins of the city. It’s easy to get turned around, as many of the buildings look alike or blend their models together. This is challenging if you want to navigate a member of your squad as backup if you get into a conflict. Luckily, the map feature helps tremendously in navigating around. The maps are procedurally generated, randomizing the overall layout. The maps use the same building formats, so you can memorize what kinds of particular structures are available.
By contrast, the story missions use fixed maps with unusual objects, keeping the gameplay interesting by breaking up the sometimes repetitive skirmish goals. Each mission has its own map and unique story goal. In the earliest story missions, you gather powder keg bombs to blow up Skaven controlled sewer tunnels. The baron of the human mercenaries faction wants control of the area to improve wyrdstone shipment potential. Standing in the way is a horde of enemies to navigate your team around or through.
Beyond the tactical play, there’s the overarching strategic layer. You have to pay your warriors between every mission or they refuse to fight. They charge you an upkeep fee of a set amount of gold as compensation for fighting for you. If any of of your squad gets an injury in battle (the enemy team’s attacks drain their health completely), they sustain lasting damage. Broken jaws, head trauma, or a nervous twitch are some of the smaller wounds. On a heightened level, your squad can have their arms and legs cut off. The rarest, most severe penalty for loss is having a squad member die from their injuries.
This permanency ads emotional impact to your relationship with your squad. My own team, the “Bloody Fists” mercenaries, ran into some trouble during the second story mission of act 1. The mission was simple – go into a church and fill up some vials with holy water. We weren’t prepared for the Cult of the Possessed infestation inside the church. The squad leader, Ottmar Von Mirellasohn, lost an arm after he fought off several Cult of the Possessed reinforcements stationed in the higher floors. When I saw the look on my leader character’s face after the battle, he seemed disappointed in me. The presence of consequences for failure makes every battlefield move beg for careful planning.
Strategizing your soldiers is possible through the great weapon options. You can go head-on with the standard swords and axes kind of approach. Thinking bigger and using halberds or great axes comes at a penalty for their size. The damage they deal is worth the trade-off though, I had all of my henchmen hauling two-handed weapons around most of the time. Killing from afar is also possible with a range of bows and firearms. The blunderbuss gun packs a huge punch in terms of damage, but carries the risk of harming your allies too. A pair of shiny dueling pistols can really give your hero characters the offensive edge. Amulets and helmets help ward off magic spells and absorb damage. Chest plates in light and heavy varieties help out with that as well. That list, I must note, is the kinds of options available to human mercenaries – the other factions have their own unique sets of weapons.
There’s some variety to the weapons beyond their basic forms. Some items have rare colored variants with better stats and rune slots for enchanting. An in-game item shop presents rotating weapon and armor options to you, but the rarer things are only found as loot or rewards from completing missions. The wyrdstones you gather are sold off to black market factions who grant gold and favors in return for repeat shipments. Occasionally, you get a request demand for a certain amount of wyrdstone from your patron. If you don’t deliver it in a certain timeframe, it’s game over.
As you begin to develop those basic tools of war, abilities, spells, and other character types begin to unlock. You gain skill points to spend on those and other abilities for your crew, investing money to train them with new powers. The spells and abilities feel balanced and are all suited for situational advantages. Your squad member’s abilities can be active or passive. An active ability, for example, would be a skill that taunts your enemy. Making your foes distracted and easier to hit. A passive ability would increase your magic or melee resistances, or the “underdog” ability that increases critical hit chance when surrounded by two or more enemies.
Mordheim‘s multiplayer uses the singleplayer skirmish rules. This can be a good or bad thing. It’s a positive because the gameplay experience is fun – online and offline deliver the same brutality. But online play has its flaws beyond simple connectivity concerns. The main issue is the possibility of going up against an overpowered team, ruining a lot of the fun – the game isn’t perfectly balanced. The devs added restriction options to help circumvent the imbalances and abuses, but it’s still something to keep in mind.
For all its strengths, the game lacks on polish. The biggest complaint I had playing Mordheim? The long load times. Every time I started a new skirmish match it took a good couple of minutes of waiting until the map finally loaded. If the game was very graphics intensive, I would understand why this was happening, but none of the animations, textures, or rendering really justify it. This may be something that gets ironed out in future patches, as the developers optimize load times and procedural generation, but for now it’s a major annoyance.
Don’t let the difficulty of Mordheim: City of the Damned throw you off. The initial experience looks punishing, but a few rounds of skirmish matches will help you understand the mechanics. From there, you’ll bond with your squad through the trials, triumphs, and failures you experience together. Mordheim: City of the Damned isn’t about winning or losing, it’s about making the best of the bloody journey.
Bottom Line: A solid tactical game centered around survival of the fittest and eking out every advantage..
Recommendation: Warhammer Fantasy fans will enjoy it for sure, X-COM enthusiasts will find the squad based tactics familiar, and maybe even those who like Valkyria Chronicles will find something to love.[rating=4.0]