EA SCOUT the last line of defense for buying on Steam's Early Access
by Ewan Wilson
previewed on PC
Mordheim is a city. Dark, dirty and probably overcrowded back when it was still functioning. Previously an Imperial stronghold, the medieval city turned into a grim and chaotic battleground when it was hit by a comet. Now rag-tag mercenary warbands fight over what is left. “Mordheim” is also the name of the Games Workshop tabletop game set within this crumbling fictional city. Despite poor support from the publisher, the miniatures game, which had you skirmishing amongst the rubble and alleyways of Mordheim, became somewhat of a cult classic.
Enter Mordheim: City of the Damned, a modern video game that hopes to capture the black spirit of the city and bring its tactical skirmishes to the digital age. The game follows a similar formula to the tabletop version. You choose to play a warband, of which there are currently three. The Empire, humans decked out in plate armour, flamberges and flintlock pistols; the sewer-dwelling Skaven, anthropomorphic rat assassins whose blades drip poison and plague; and the Sisters of Sigmar, a religious order who seek to cure the Chaos but are also pretty handy with big hammers.
The brick and mortar
Whilst tabletop Mordheim was represented by a handful of cheap, plastic pieces of scenery, City of the Damned looks fantastic. The gothic spires and narrow, crooked streets make for great battlefields. The Early Access version currently has four maps: Quayside, Temple and two quarters of the Merchant District. Each map has the option of being played in day or night and features several deployment positions (sewers versus docks, ambusher versus ambushed, concentrated versus scattered etc). Although three of the maps are largely chaos-strewn streets and dank alleyways, the Temple is more distinct. It’s a giant cathedral with a huge amount of verticality, making for a different kind of skirmish. It’d be something impossible to recreate on a tabletop without either years of careful crafting or a ton of money. The cinematic close-ups and interior angles are also something the digital version nails perfectly. There is a birds-eye strategic map, but it’s great to get up close and personal with your band of brothers – even if the digital camera does freak out a little sometimes.
Once you’ve chosen your gang you’ll be able to jump into battle. Mordheim is a tactical turn-based game that can easily be described as a kind of medieval Xcom. Units begin their turn with movement and combat points. Rather than being grid based, one movement point will allow you to move anywhere within a few meters of the unit’s position, meaning things feel a little more freeform. These same points can also be used to jump/climb, reload or switch weapons, disengage from combat or enter a parry or dodge stance. Moving long distances is likely to leave a unit vulnerable, so it’s tactically advisable to think at least one turn ahead. Similarly, combat points can be used to immediately hit things or to enter an ambush or “overwatch” stance in preparation for the enemy. A spare combat point will also mean a unit can counterattack when it’s not their turn. In other words, there are plenty of tactical considerations.
One of the big advantages of the game being digital is the ease with which you can grasp the fairly complex and nuanced combat system. Miniature games are famous for having lots of little, fiddly rules, but this transfers well to the City of the Damned. When a unit is able to do something specific to terrain or position, you can simply cycle through the options. There are lots of context-sensitive abilities and the computer is perfect at memorising them. A computer can also smoothly deal with things like initiative to determine who goes first, and morale; If the captain of your warband goes down and you generally sustain heavy casualties. It’s possible that your remaining forces will retreat and you’ll lose the game.
What's still missing
Focussing on a scenario that should be familiar to players of Xcom: you’ve made some tactical errors, your team is taking a pounding and your best/favourite unit has just gone down. The rest of your troops’ morale is plummeting and so it looks like you’ve no choice but to retreat and leave them behind, effectively losing them from your game. This kind of persistence - critical to both Xcom and the original tabletop Mordheim - is unfortunately missing from City of the Damned right now, though it has been promised for the final game.
The same is true for customization and a few other things. A duelling pistol looted from a corpse could then be equipped between skirmishes. Back in 1999 that meant struggling to rip a plastic arm off and super gluing on a new one, but it was a personal experience and it worked. Battlefield looting isn’t in yet, there’s no way to name your warband or individual units, and there’s no cosmetic customisation or levelling up or the gaining of new attributes. Skirmishes are their own self-contained thing right now; there are no consequences to the decisions made.
Games like Mordheim: City of the Damned are supposed to be about building up your very own warband. They’re about becoming attached to your little people and retelling their miniature stories, along with your catastrophic losses and triumphant victories. I don’t have any stories to tell yet – but what I can say is that right now the turn-based combat is enjoyable and the city of Mordheim looks great.
The game has potential, but we're not ready to jump in with both feet. If the game interests you, look, but don't touch - yet.