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Mordheim: City of the Damned

Mordheim: City of the Damned

Written by Rob Larkin on 2/19/2016 for PC  
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Mordheim: City of the Damned is the latest from Games Workshop to bring its classic catalog of tabletop and miniature franchises to the digital world. The original Mordheim released in 1999 as a tabletop game. It had a good five-year run allowing players to run skirmishes with warbands (small parties of a dozen or so warriors) against rival warbands through the fictional city of Mordheim. Games Workshop started phasing it out about 10 years ago. The objective of the original was to conquer your opponent while picking up fragments of Wyrdstone when a comet struck the heart of the city. The video game today picks up the tale where it was laid down in miniatures nearly two decades ago. 

In the game, you take the helm of a warband from one of four distinct factions. You hire and equip soldiers, scout for skirmishes, and take on rival warbands and, in some cases, the city itself, in search of Wyrdstone. To maintain your campaign, you make regular deliveries to your benefactor, who is essentially financing the campaign and expects a return on investment. It's like paying taxes, in a sense.

In addition to being annihilated on the battlefield, the true end game comes when you miss four scheduled payments and your warband is shut down for good. All that experience, levels, and loot: gone. You can still take your warband out for runs in one-off exhibition matches, but the campaign is over. That's the first point in which you'll feel Mordheim peel away from tried-and-true turn-based strategy game formulas.

But digging deeper into just maintaining your warband unearths a few more tricks. All of your warriors are, essentially, mercenaries for hire. If they don't get paid, they won't fight, they won't learn new skills, and they won't even heal their wounds. That's what I call dedication to the coin: you're not even going to put a salve on that gaping axe gash until you get paid? Anyway, you fight one skirmish each day, collect your loot (or count the cost of having been looted in defeat), and then it's time to pay the piper. And by piper I mean your benefactor who demands their take for financing your operation in Mordheim to being with. Pay the man his money, then use what's left for your soldiers' wages, and any leftovers can then be stored or sold for a rainy day or for profit. That's the core gameplay loop. There are story missions thrown in as well, but the majority of playtime seems to be skirmishes. This makes sense, considering the source material is pretty much a skirmisher in its entirety. 

There is a lot to digest in the realm of managing your warband, finances, troops, and then coordinating movements in an actual battle. One aspect I appreciate a lot in Mordheim is the robust and in-depth tutorial menu that eases you into the game's mainstay. There are many games in their genre that really do throw you to the wolves (I'm looking at you, Pillars of Eternity), but Mordheim finds a fantastic middle ground. It gives you the tools to get going without holding your hand for the first hour. From the main menu, you can jump into a new campaign or check out a robust list of tutorials. While most of the warband and character-management ones are really just slideshows, there are a half dozen focused on battles that take your through scenarios, introducing tactics, and building off previous lessons with each encounter. You are greeted with text panels across the top as each new action or technique is highlighted, but then left to your own devices to follow the game's lead or go your own way. Once a lesson is done, you can leave the lesson or apply what you've learned by finishing the skirmish. It's a welcome tool, introducing new players to a rather difficult game. Even when the campaign starts in earnest, the game compensates for the limitations of the warband slideshows by easing you into your first actions of hiring your party members and prepping your hero.

Mordheim: City of the Damned, however, does crank up the difficulty. But it's not just the difficulty, its the fact that actions do have consequences. No rage quitting in this one, your actions are recorded—and matches count. As mentioned, continuous failure to meet the demands of your benefactor will shut down your whole campaign. Let a soldier fall in battle and they will either suffer an injury that requires time to heal, or they may succumb to death's cold embrace entirely. If you scrape out a living in Mordheim, you can go far—but you can fall hard as well. But with four factions with differing character sets and abilities, it's a game that encourages you to clean that bitter taste of defeat from your mouth and start again. 

But about those factions...they just weren't my cup of tea. You've got your human mercenaries from the larger empire, basically a bunch of ruffian musketeers prancing about in poofy shirts. You've got the Skaven clan of assassins, giant rat people. There's the Sisters of Sigma, a mace-wielding nunnery of religious fanatics. And the Cult of the Possessed, religious fanatics with a few screws loose (they look down for their deity, as opposed to the Sister's looking up). There are no heroes in Mordheim—well, the Sister's come close—but mostly it's just murder and profiteering. That's Mordheim for you. In Warhammer lore, it's a city so corrupted by sin that Demons freely roam the streets. They do in the game as well, and act as wildcards that can show up and wreak havoc on you or your opponent, whoever happens to be closest. 

Speaking of wreaking havoc, like many turned-based strategy games, a little luck (especially bad luck), can swing an encounter. I think Mordheim actually takes this mantra to an extreme. You have a hit-percentage counter on every attack action, so you have a pretty good idea whether you're going to land your blow or not. Except I've seen battles turn on my head when I've got two to three attacks per character, across multiple party members, with none of them landing a single hit, even though the hit-percentage chances were in the 80's and 90's. Up comes the opponent's turn, and half my party is wiped, instead of the other way around. It's a little silly, and feels more like a broken random number generator than a feature in a gaming experience. In a game balanced on the razor's edge of permadeath for characters, and an end game in running the numbers on your warband, it's pretty frustrating to see your best-laid plans go to waste due to a series of unbelievable misses with a blunt instrument.

Then throw in the fact that there are all sorts of other outcome-defining actions that boil down to a dice roll. A skirmish can be won or lost based on morale before total annihilation comes into play. Start to rout your opponent and their party's morale will drop to the point you just claim victory as they lose the will to fight. Problem is, in the midst of this, you are expected to be looting Wyrdstone and gold. But when their morale drops, the looting stops. So, a game whose primary end-game mechanic is "not being able to pay your rent," will punish you for being too good in combat by preventing you from gathering maximum loot. Instead, it "rewards" you a percentage of what was left on the battlefield at the end of the skirmish. Forget leaving with full pockets, we'll just skim off the top and hope it's enough for the taxman. What the what? By that token, the game is caught between two minds. The primary goal is to get rich or die trying. But being too good at the not-dying part earns you less.

The good news is that there is a Veteran System that allows you to carry over your primary hero and their skills into your next campaign. So, while your warband has to start from scratch, you can bring your most powerful character into the next foray. It's just another aspect that goes the extra mile to invite you back for more pain after mopping the floor with your guts. 

There is a social component to boost your gameplay options. There are online versus matches against other human opponents, and community features to find other players and game modes you might be interested in. This social aspect fits into the context of the game, unlike some others who seem to just tack on junk because everybody's doing the social media thing (looking at you, Shadowrun Chronicles: Boston Lockdown).

No use counting frames per second in a turn-based strategy game. But I will say I really enjoyed the over-the-shoulder view for character movement. It was kind of a third-person turn-based shooter strategy game. It added a layer of depth to the idea of not being able to see opponents out of view, when your perspective is really limited to an over-the-shoulder camera. The problem is, to coordinate movements between your warband and have any sort of spacial awareness on the battlefield, you need a higher perspective. That's why generals always make camp on the highest hill they can claim.

There is a top-down map mapped to the middle mouse click—but frankly, it's garbage. I frequently found icons clearly out of place on the top-down map compared to where they actually lay, such as my own soldiers. The top-down map only lays in one direction, north at the top, and it can be difficult to translate that orientation back to the over-the-shoulder view when moving back into the action. Also, the middle click is really wonky. I have to mash that button four or five times to get the map to pop. So, now I'm swapping in and out of the view to get a grip on where my character is; finding the map position isn't translating correctly to the real world, and I'm trying to sort out which narrow alleyway I am actually on and whether to run forward or back, but losing my orientation every time I pop in and out (and having to mash the middle click over and again to get there). It ends up being a frustrating, dizzying little workout. 

Other quick hits: there are a ton of customization options for your characters, from the colors of every scrap of cloth that makes their clothing to even names and bios. But it all seems like pointless customization for customizations' sake. Loading screens are long. Start up a game, and then go make yourself a cup of tea. By the time you've enjoyed that last sip, it'll finally be time for action.

Based on a classic, but bringing new features and perspectives to the table, Mordheim: City of the Damned provides a challenge, with some interesting party and game management thrown in. I am not a fan of the wonky overhead map, and sometimes feel cheated in battle, but the over-the-shoulder camera is a pleasure. The end game of trying to keep in your benefactor's good graces, regardless of the outcome of each battle, and the variety among the factions, make for a good game that invites you to have another go—even after it leaves you bloodied in some nameless alley in the City of the Damned. I also should, again, praise the tutorial system that invites the first-timer in and provides a foundation to a rewarding experience.

Rating: 8 Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.  
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...

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