Review: Mordheim-City of the Damned

By Alex Connolly 02 Dec 2015 0

Wenzel is such a bastard.

Slow, stilted, gummy, statistically overwrought; the list goes on. I could decry Mordheim: City of the Damned for being all that and more. And yet, here I am with placatory gesture, finding it one of the more fascinating strategies to hit the market in 2015. An ambitious curiosity that fuses the mechanical superfluities of cult smash Valkyria Chronicles with the clockwork innards of the tabletop source material, Mordheim is a thorny, fastidious sandbox of grimdark squadding. Not for all, but all for some.

Full disclosure in my Mordheim virginity. I had known it was akin to its 40K counterpart Necromunda, insofar as the two were detailed concentrations of their respective tabletop families. Window-shopping these specialist games, I was fascinated by their storefront dioramas as the miniatures themselves. Upstairs, downstairs, ladies' chambers; they inferred a game of scaling and running and double-backing, looting and ambushing through dense urban layers. Many years later, I'm investigating Rogue Factor's take on Mordheim and finding their vision of massaging a tactical turn-based strategy into a limber skin rather entrancing.

Comet, Mordheim, destruction, loot, wyrdstone, warbands. The justification for four factions to be on the hunt in the fallen city can be broken down into the aforementioned lexicon. No great story runs below the surface, just an impetus to hire and guide Imperial, Skaven, Sisters of Sigmar or Cultist troops through a variety of missions and maps, salvaging and slaying for gold and glory.

Could someone light a torch?

Each campaign mission is spread across the city, the locations of its salvageable goods and secrets scattered by procedural generation. Each discrete locale is detailed, layered and does those dioramas I ogled as a lad a decent service. Gloomy ambience purveys as it should, the environment shrouded in semi-darkness or cloaked in cloying fog. Much like the other Games Workshop heavy hitter in Fatshark Games' Vermintide, Rogue Factor haven't delivered a game that feels visually malnourished. The dreary baroque of each place makes every run one of leery trepidation. Every corner or craggy ruin giving pause.

The character models themselves are detailed and well animated, beyond a few chronically comatose expressions on the part of the human factions. Visual customisation is more engrossing than expected; particulars of garb and colour selection channeled the mixing and matching of the tabletop pewter. Beyond curating individual flare, the real meat and potatoes is in selecting skills and attributes. Mordheim might give off the aura of a light, flighty arcade strategy hybrid, but it's a thick, dense affair of stat-grokking and number-crunching.

When you buy a hat like this you get a free bowl of soup. Looks good on you, though.

At first glance, Mordheim looks like some sort of action-platformer; a gothic hack-and-slash. Forgoing isometric obviousness and a free-roaming camera to spin and zoom and pan, the developers choice to enact direct movement control and anchor the camera directly to characters. It's a bit Full Spectrum Warrior, a touch Bladestorm or Kessen, but in place of simply roaming thither and yon, players are shackled to point-driven movement radii. Markers bloom behind characters as you WASD them about and exhaust their movement cache. Beyond that real-time interaction, it's all turn and initiative-based.

The most basic tactical wrinkle comes in form of proactive or reactive stances. If movement points remain at the end of a turn, and that character isn't directly engaged in combat, they can be set to ambush proximal enemies as they lurk into visibility, racing to them and locking them down or -- in the case of ranged classes -- loose a preemptive projectile. This can be mitigated by the use of perception, an auric radar of sorts that seeks out traps, salvage and those skulking nearby. If set to dodge or parry, the latter of which is weapon-dependent, a character's proficiency to escape or counter enemy attacks trigger if engaged. Surface-level tactics like this make the early game one of cunning and luring. Using clusters of wyrdstone as bait, the gamble to lie in wait or make off with glittering prizes can have exciting, violent outcomes.

Pictured: Violent outcome.

The combat itself, broken into melee and ranged, is where things slow down. At first, I wasn't completely sold. It felt clunky and drawn-out. But the more I played and the more skills and proficiencies applied, the finer the fidelity of engagement became. Those grueling, laborious low-level character clashes - blunt and inelegant - became displays of counters and repostes, stuns and tactical disengagements. Active and passive skills break the laboriousness of early game combat, such as debuffs and area-of-effect spells. Characters activate based on initiative, which can be flexed using a delay option. If a particular beat-down requires a double-team, it might be prudent to push one of your soldiers back along the turn line to get help wail on a specific enemy in succession.

Once characters are sufficiently leveled through completing missions, and are able to sport probability percentages beyond Blind Freddie, the need to bum-rush enemy opponents with the whole gang lessens. This frees up teams to scour the map more effectively and haul back trinkets, arms and wyrdstone. Multiple objectives, both primary and secondary, mean that thumping your adversary into a rout is only one way to pull off a mission. It's perhaps the least lucrative, and given the ever-looming requirement to pay your patron factions in wyrdstone, combat is certainly only one part of the sortie.

How's about a little fire, scarecrow?

These patron factions offer up bonuses on squad development, making their required tithe ample impetus to wring as much out of each mission as possible. Combat injuries often require a day or two's rest, which eats away at the deadline for wyrdstone shipment and the coin it offers in return. Your troops don't work for free, either. Managing their wages, tending wounds and continuing to equip and upgrade means there's a strict, if simplistic, managerial element to consider. Every run will have its cost, and there's a good chance troops will be permanently wounded or -- worse -- killed. As delivery of wyrdstone is completed, big cash injections make hiring further mercenaries less cost-prohibitive, as well as the act of buying new gear less of a fiscal burn.

Taking your roguish mob online works in skirmish mode works in the same way as the single player campaign, and nets all the experience and gear you can manage for use elsewhere. Sustained injuries and deaths also carry over, which makes every action breathlessly tense. Given the length of matches and intricacies of combat, it's hard to say what the take-up or legs of Mordheim's multiplayer will look like in a few months, but with a friend aboard, there's enough in the game's online component to make it as enjoyable as it is lucrative.

Should have named him Sterling Mallory Archer.

Where Mordheim stumbles depends on whether a player finds the direct control necessary, enjoyable or a navigational hindrance. Acclimatisation to stalking the streets, structures and catacombs of the city takes some time, and it isn't the freeform act many would expect. The map screen allows players to drop markers, showing up as translucent spires in the main interface. These become crucial for orienting your character, but given the lack of any sort of isometric map options, fail to deliver any sort of use inside multi-story buildings or layered environments. A point of interest or wyrdstone deposit might appear atop a building on the map, but you'll find yourself ambling up and down stairs, burning off movement points, in a bid to locate the damn item. It's not particularly egregious, and does convey a tabletop-esque abstraction of foraging, but given the clunky movement controls in tighter areas, it calls into question the choice of direct control.

Despite this particular misgiving, I find the direct movement element refreshing. This could have been another isometric strategy game, and perhaps richer for it, but the intimacy afforded by the close-quarters method of control speaks to the minute physicality of Mordheim. Driving my chittering Skaven mob about felt good, creeping them up to corners and feeling the sickening dread of suddenly triggering an enemy ambush is something the detached omnipotence of traditional, mouse-driven gaming has trouble conveying. Mordheim, if anything, is about ground-level marauding and is best served with your feet in a squad's collective boots.

So yes. Mordheim: City of the Damned is slow, with painstakingly-modeled combat to the points of being persnickety. It's stilted and gummy, fiddly in navigation and purposefully obtuse in hinting at item location. Hell, Mordheim has more numbers being flung about per turn than the United Nations Statistics Division receives in a week.

But to be honest, as my warband scurries off into the bastard burroughs of Mordheim's bountiful decrepitude once more, I don't think I'd have it any other way.





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