As much as I was looking forward to making a “Mordheim: City Of The Damned Boring” joke (and as much as I initially felt it was appropriate), perseverance and no small amount of effort on my part have eventually scraped away much of the grimy surface to reveal a good game. Besides, I got to make the joke anyway.
Mordheim is a Games Workshop license. This means that it’s a videogame adaptation of a tabletop experience and, boy, have the developers ever worked hard to make this clear. For one thing, it’s an extremely stat-heavy experience with more than a sprinkle of luck. This is a tactical turn-based battleground game where, if you want to have your team at their best, you need to embrace all the variables with both arms and give them a big ol’ hug. What’s perhaps most striking (and immensely frustrating) about the experience is that, even when playing against AI, you need to wait for each opponent’s character to finish taking their turn before the game can progress; even if you don’t even have visibility of said character (which is at least half the time).
The game gleefully describes itself as “a hardcore experience”, which it is. If any of your warriors fall in battle, the consequences aren’t apparent until the end of the match. Permadeath is possible (though rare), particularly painful if/when it happens to a character you’ve buffed up through untold hours of battles and grinding. Sometimes, your fallen soldier/rat-thing/whatever will suffer no ill effects at all from being knocked out, which is always a relief. Usually, though, there will be some sort of injury. The details are sometimes unimportant, ultimately meaning little more than the need to pay for treatment and wait for a few in-game days (you manually progress them one at a time after each battle) to pass until they can fight again.
Other times, there will be permanent injuries. Characters can – and will – lose limbs. True to its tabletop roots, in-depth and slightly bizarre limits (yet also buffs) will apply. Lose an arm, for example, and you’ll understandably lose the ability to dual wield, and to use two-handed weapons. You’ll also be unable to climb. However, your character’s ability to dodge attacks jumps 20% (apparently due to an increase in the ability to balance, rather than the simple fact that there’s now less of them to hit).
It’s a rather off-putting game to begin with, most definitely for those not already in love with the world of Games Workshop. The tutorials are absolutely terrible, achieving the grimly impressive feat of being slower paced and harder to understand than the main game. Mordheim does itself no favours with its graphics, either. The dull and washed-out palette conspires with the unremarkable (and too often repeated) character models to give the impression of a reasonable PS2 game. On top of that, the console versions were released long after the PC one, yet still don’t include the already-released DLC. Cheeky!
Importantly however, actual gameplay – once you get your head round it (which will be more thanks to experience than the tutorials) – isn’t bad at all. Your ‘Warband’ initially consists of just a few warriors, but you slowly unlock new character slots as you progress. This is very much a game where people will stand toe-to-toe and politely take turns in whacking each other over the head with an axe/casting a spell/running away/etc. During each character’s turn, though, you have more freedom of action than most games of this type afford you. You can move as in a real-time game (within the limits of the agility points) and you can even backtrack, to an extent, if you decide that you don’t want to be where you’ve moved to. When not directly engaged in combat you can adopt a defensive stance of some kind, adopt an “ambush” stance where you rush with your pointy thing of choice at any enemy that wanders too close before your next turn, or simply end your turn and continue.
Explaining all the game’s systems in full would take up half the website, but one thing you need to understand is that the game is constantly rolling proverbial dice in the background (just as players would roll literal ones while playing a tabletop game). There’s always an element of chance at play, but not quite so strongly as it may first appear. Your chances of landing (or dodging/parrying) a hit depend on several factors including (but not limited to) weapon used, your character’s stats, the enemy character’s stats, and any buffs/debuffs in play. Attacking and defending is always a gamble, and having a good understanding of the odds is the key to success.
It’s not all about virtual murder. Central to the scrappily told story is ‘wyrdstone’, which you gather on the battlefield (and lose if any carrying character/s are knocked out and you don’t loot it back). Selling it is the quickest way to build your finances up (for payment, treatment, equipment, and more), but the race you choose has a ‘patron’ who occasionally demands a certain weight to be delivered to them. Fail to honour too many deliveries, and your campaign is over. Gathering a decent quantity of wyrdstone is a battle in itself, and your patron won’t pay nearly so much as other factions.
At times, its stubborn adherence to the importance of statistics and the invisible calculations of chance are unintentionally amusing. More than once, I’ve battled against enemies with at least one arrow stuck in their head – on one occasion, with the shaft right through the middle of their head – and/or even directly in the eye. They’ve been utterly unfazed by this though, because the stats say they’re still fighting fit. Another time, the brave leader of my warband fell to the ground while trying to climb over an eight foot wall three times in a row, suffering cumulative damage exceeding that dealt by a brutal sword blow. Swings and roundabouts, eh?
What’s the bottom line? An unforgiving turn-based game aiming for a specific niche, with many dozens of hours of play for those who break through its unwelcoming shell.
Thanks to Luke Kemp for the review and thanks to Xbox for the review code!