Damn good or damned for failure?
Mordheim: City of the Damned is a tactical turn based role play game developed by Rogue Factor, based on Games Workshop’s classic tabletop game Mordheim which, in turn, is a spin off from the Warhammer franchise. Just to make that lineage clear from the outset. Now; before I start, let me explain: I have never played Warhammer. Not one tabletop game ever, in fact. Not that I don’t appreciate the effort and dedication fans put into to it – games of this kind require attention and a high level of tactical thought, comparable to a game of chess.
Mordheim in its videogame translation is no exception. The combat tutorials do their best to prepare you for what lays ahead, setting the scene and making the point that you are not just here for the ride. You need to earn it. Completion of the tutorials is highly recommended before diving into the campaign. That said, while the tutorials do their best to explain, it’s only done via screenshots and annotations outside of the combat system. Given its complexity, Mordheim really needed a more intuitive and immersive tutorial. Without that option I managed to muddle through, though I expect tabletop veterans will pick it up more quickly.
Upon starting the campaign, a message greets (or warns) of Mordheim’s hardcore nature. Every decision is permanent and consequences are irreversible, with failure punished by a game over state. As for your motivation, a background story describes a fight across Mordheim for no real reason other than that’s the way it’s always been. Loading screen text fleshes out the story; it’s far too small to read but is thankfully narrated verbatim. Not that this makes it more interesting though, and once the game has loaded you might be likely to skip to the action.
You take control of small teams of warriors known as Warbands, chosen from one of four factions. Each class within those factions works in similar ways: movement and attack is almost identical across all classes, and only the perks of each class set them apart. Approach the perks with caution, as they appear to be almost random to a Warhammer novice, and their effects are just as unpredictable. Their use is perhaps not worthwhile considering until you are able to understand the complex numbers game.
Each campaign mission plays the same way. Taking control of a Warband, the aim is to fight opposing warriors to gain control over parts of the city and search for materials to upgrade your warrior for future battles. Lose however, and you lose your materials to the enemy. There are a plethora of options to improve your team with upgrades, recruitment and a better choice of equipment upon winning or just surviving. As mentioned earlier, everything that happens in game is permanent and defeat is more painful that a mere loss of pride. Expect to lose warriors permanently if they die in battle, which is all the more painful after pouring hours of experience and upgrades into them (evoking thoughts of XCOM).
The permanent consequences of your actions define your strategy; every move you make brings genuine risk. However the result is unsatisfying and the combat frustrating. On the cusp of a carefully planned victory, an hour deep into a mission, the opposing AI can sometimes seem too prone to fortune. Seeing them dodging a decisive move off the back of a chance counter happens too often for comfort. Quickly, AI is able to flank your warriors and you realise defeat is inevitable.
Upon a failed mission you are returned to your home hub to undo the mess. Some warriors will be lost forever, some will be fine after treatment and a period of rest, and some will just want to be paid coins gained from victory or found during each battle. Sadly this part ends up feeling like a poor man’s game of Sims without the fun, as it’s too finicky and at no point do you grow an affinity with your warriors: all feel replaceable.
Each mission feels and works the same. After being placed on the map, you are tasked to search for Wyrdestone to collect in pursuit of satisfying a shipment order. Opponents naturally proliferate around loot points rather than bringing the fight to your units, so the onus is on you to find a hole in the defence. It’s unforgiving, with limited moves and range restrictions before the enemy takes their turn. Fighting on two fronts – finding Wyrdestone and defeating enemy units – often feels stretching. The level of challenge is sadly not matched by variety, with all missions (whether randomly generated or part of the campaign) felt driven by repetition.
Despite the amount of information available and the strategic element of placing your Warband for battle, combat is poor. Once engaged with an enemy, the only option is to press A for either attack, flee or end on a stance ready for a random chance to dodge. On pressing A and then again to confirm your move, the action automatically plays out on screen, and so the cycle continues. Disappointingly, instead of embracing the combat system you find yourself going through the motions and spamming the A button as there doesn’t appear to be anything else you can do to change the outcome.
If things don’t appear to be going your way there is the option to ‘flee’, giving your opponent a free attack before running away. Not that it’s worth doing: you do not run far and the enemy simply follows before continuing their attack. It’s all a bit pointless. The game feels like it’s playing on the roll of a dice, clearly keeping in touch with its tabletop inspiration. Aside from the campaign, Skirmish mode offers up some respite with straightforward battles against the AI or online with other players. Sadly I’m unable to say how this plays out due to lack of other players and not being able to find a game. Against the AI however, it seemed like a way of fine tuning your Warband without the permanent results of death or failure.
Graphically the game is reasonably good. The setting is dark and gloomy, and characters, viewed in third person, equally so. However I would expect better; the character models are all very samey with little to differentiate between your warriors. The same could be said of the city: everything looks the same, and there is nothing to really indicate where you are which makes navigation more of a guessing game.
It’s clear Mordheim was designed for PC due to the large amount of written text across all game modes. Even playing on a 40” HD television with good eyesight the text was too small to read and there is just too much of it for console gaming. There aren’t an awful lot of sounds to talk about either. No soundtrack to listen to as the game plays out, no real conversation other than a few grunts from taking a swing or receiving damage. Just the sound of eeriness and emptiness, fitting of the scene, but not inspiring by any stretch. I couldn’t go through this review without mentioning the lengthy loading screens, which are confusing given that Mordheim isn’t really pushing any boundaries.
Being based on a tabletop game, I understand the choice of a turn-based RPG by the developers. You get the feeling they are trying to extend their popular war game onto television sets with turn based strategy gameplay, the same as you would playing the tabletop version. Fans may appreciate what Rogue Factor have done, providing a new way to embrace the world they know with the ability to create their own Warband, before nurturing them into something you can call your own.
The slow pace is reminiscent of its inspiration and the game feels authentic throughout, but many gamers will find the pace tedious while waiting for the enemy to make its move, or becoming frustrated due to the lack of moves allowed before your turn is over. Combine that with the daunting on screen information and the result is an uninviting game. Much more could have been done to make it more accessible on home consoles. Mordheim is a game requiring patience and understanding. Unpalatable for casual players, but fans of the tabletop game willing to put in the time will find a game of huge depth with a nod to its roots.
Mordheim: City of the Damned was provided to us by Bastion PR via a download code for Xbox One.