Mordheim: City of the Damned is a 3D tactical RPG with the best features from Valkyria Chronicles and XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but a style and tone all it’s own.
Based on the Mordheim setting in the Warhammer tabletop games, Mordheim is a bleak but rich and nuanced world of distinct factions with interesting motivations and personalities. That being said, this game is janky as hell. It has a distinct lack of refinement in some rather important areas that really damage an otherwise stellar game. How much damage? Let’s find out.
The first thing you notice when you pick one of four warbands is the somewhat overwhelming options and menus. They’ve walled off some of it to trickle down for later levels and to highlight the bare minimum you have to accomplish, but that minimum is just enough to get your troops slaughtered and you humiliated. The learning curve only goes up from there.
Expect to come back to this screen a lot.
I’m a high functioning Dark Souls addict who runs a weekly Dungeons and Dragons campaign and I only kind of know what my soldier’s stats do, or even the minute differences between some of the starter troops. There’s a stat for Weapon Skill that increases your chance to hit. There’s also the stat for Accuracy that lowers the enemy’s dodge chance. I have no idea which is better for my particular rat dude.
For that matter, there’s not a lot of difference between my rat dude minions. The stat variations are minor and the weapon loadouts are irrelevant since (early game) weapons are cheap and they have a pretty wide proficiency, which leads us to one of their biggest strengths. With all this ridiculous complexity there is a ridiculous amount of customization. Want to give your spindly cultist mage a greatsword and heavy armor? Go for it! Want to give every soldier in your company a different hat? Sweet! Want to name your army after your friends and color coordinate them like power rangers? Now we’re talking! Troop types have things they are better suited for. Some can use magic, some can use ranged weapons, but everybody can do something less than obvious if you’re willing to mess around and experiment. You may not want to get too attached to your special snowflakes however, because this game is a meatgrinder roughly as cruel as XCOM.
Combat has the more fluid and naturalistic movement of Valkyria Chronicles. Distance is measured in spheres rather than square grids. The over the shoulder camera also lends a bit of much needed naturalism to this very technical game. There are separate points for movement and combat with some skills, like disengage, which uses both.
Where the game starts starts to branch off is that ranged weapons are at best a secondary option, so most of your tactics involve choke points and creating football-esque defensive lines. The other unique part (also probably the most well done part), is morale. I have never had a fight (outside of story missions) go down to the last man. Every casualty drops morale, with the deaths of leaders and champions as well as the unit’s supply wagon dropping it more so until the unit starts making morale roles. If the unit fails they route and automatically lose. This system really does a great job of giving the player smart and varied options in combat as opposed to just “kill all the things.” Getting an early advantage by blitzing the enemy and watching them scurry off with their tails between their legs before a real fight starts is immensely gratifying. On the other hand some of the tensest moments in the game are when both sides are low on morale and slugging it out, and you aren’t sure who’ll break first.
From here on the game starts to feel like an exaggerated XCOM. Firstly, there’s the matter of upkeep. The whole purpose of these armies is to acquire and prevent your rivals from acquiring Wyrdstone, a meteoric mineral that looks and behaves almost exactly like the Tiberium from Command & Conquer. You are expected to deliver regular shipments of Wyrdstone to your superiors while equiping and paying your soldiers a daily wage out of your own pocket. It is quite possible to never lose a battle and fail the whole game through foolish purchases or rookie mistakes. Even when you win, you rarely get more than a sense of treading water. And if you lose? Well…
It’s actually not that easy for a character to die, but in a way that’s worse. Sometimes a defeated soldier will come back unharmed. Usually they come back with crippling injuries and no equipment. In a cruel twist, it’s often you who has to decide your comrade’s fate. An injured soldier has to have their medical treatment payed for and then spend several precious days healing. Even then, they may never get back to the state they were in. On the other hand even the cheapest henchman can become invaluable with experience and proper equipment. A leader or hero unit that’s been with you from the beginning can be a downright unacceptable loss; Partially because all of your successful missions depended on them, but there’s a real emotional investment just from the fact you can name dress and spend a lot of time with these guys. Also the one armed guys look badass.
The actual gameplay of Mordheim is an absolute joy if you’re into some good old-fashioned tactics and masochism. In fact, the biggest flaw has nothing to do with the gameplay itself. It’s the load times. They’re abusive, intolerable and the worst I’ve seen in a modern game. How long are they? I never officially clocked it but it is long enough for me to get up, make a sandwich, sit down, get back up because I forgot my drink, sit back down, tab out and check my e-mail, watch a Youtube video, tab back in, wonder if the game malfunctioned, then finish my sandwich. I put up with that. Every. Single. Mission. Also, the multiplayer may as well not be there. I’ve read Steam reviews saying it’s a blast but I haven’t had a single connection work all the way to gameplay. Probably just as well with the load times.
Mordheim: City of the Damned is a brilliant and brutal strategy game that seems to be doing everything in it’s power to convince me that it isn’t worth the trouble. It is… for a Steam sale anyway, or at the very least after for a few more patches come out. It may have officially left the beta but make no mistake, this game is not finished. If you’re into some hardcore strategy, however this is probably the best turn based strategy game that’s going to come out between the release of Disgaea 5 and XCOM 2, just find yourself a good book between load times.