Mordheim: City of the Damned is not for everyone. In fact it has a very specific niche, and even if you fit snuggly into that particular small subset of the gaming community, it’s still not easy to love.
A turn-based RTS/RPG in the XCOM mould based on the cult1999 table top game of the same name, (which like the titular city Games Workshop abandoned years ago) Mordheim: City of the Damned brings gang warfare to the Warhammer universe, with players commanding a small warband on the hunt for Wyrdstone in the once great city of the Empire, which has fallen into ruin after being hit by a twin-tailed comet.
Fans of the original game are bound to enjoy it. Those with vague memories of it might as well ( I fall here but always preferred Necromunda), while casual gamers and those completely fresh to the genre will probably be turned off by it’s harsh difficulty, slow pace and myriad of complex systems.
After bringing players up to speed, Mordheim opens by giving players a choice of four warbands to play as; Mercenaries of the Empire (humans), Skaven (rat-men) , The Sisters of Sigma (nuns) and the Cult of the Possessed (mutants).
Each warband has their own innate strengths and weaknesses, which aren’t necessarily clear from the outset. Each member of your warband can be customised with you choosing their gear, skills and appearance and each levels up levels them up independently as you bring them into each new battle. Like, XCOM you can’t help but feel attached to them, and feel really bad if they unfortunately catch permadeath. Luckily this doesn’t happen very often, instead wounded units need to be treated after battle or suffer permanent injury such as losing a limb or partial blindness which in turn reduces their strength, visual acuity, or movement range.
I’d recommend giving each warband a go before deciding which one to stick with, they’re all quite well balanced, but require different strategies to be effective. Figuring out the best way forward is not always clear, and the enemy AI is incredibly unforgiving, which makes the early stages of the game feel particularly harsh.
Battles are presented in third person, with each side taking turns to move each member of their warband and then perform a certain amount of actions depending on how many action points the character you’re controlling currently has. Actions include scavenging for loot, collecting Wyrdstone fragments, performing attacks or setting yourself in a stance. Stances are defensive or offensive manouvers performed at the end of your turn to counter the enemy in some way. For example, Ambush stance causes your unit to attack any enemy that wanders too close, while Dodge stance and Parry stance, and increase your chances of avoiding enemy attacks by either ducking out the way or blocking them with a weapon.
Your warband of 4-10 characters consists of a mix of ranged and melee units, along with one Hero and one Leader. Hiring the right units and learning how to use them is essential to your success. However, in battle you don’t always know what you’ll come up against and It’s easy to become overwhelmed by enemies. Moreover, every lost unit makes your chances of winning significantly less, and it becomes incredibly easy to fail a mission, based on a few bad dice rolls.
Items, and equipment you loot from fallen enemies or buy between missions will improve your chances in combat, but initially the games systems feel almost impenetrable, and fights decidedly one sided. The best way to learn what to do is to play the game, as although there are all manner of tutorials and instructional videos that are supposed to teach you the fundamentals of the game. I found they left me even more confused. Eventually it clicks, but be prepared for a cliff like learning curve, with tons of different interconnecting systems to get your head around.
In the early stages my small band of hammer wielding nuns were defeated again and again. This was until I changed my tactics a bit and kept my band close together and covering each other that I eventually won. But even then I felt it was thanks to the luck of the draw than anything I had done particularly.
Online, I fared even worse, with more experienced human players able to take me out with ruthless efficiency in a matter of minutes.
Truth is, Mordheim simply isn’t very fun. Missions are long, ponderous affairs, and waiting for enemy units to make their move (especially when they’re still hidden) is tedious at best. While, the large – empty and mostly lifeless levels make it a bugger to find them. Then when you finally do bump into the enemy, that random number generator that controls interactions is an utter git, that might as well be rigged, and success doesn’t bring any sense of elation. It just feels like a never-ending slog.
I will admit that it does look the part though and captures Warhammer’s grim-dark vibe perfectly, with the ruined, grubby streets looking like you could probably catch something life threatening from breathing in the air. While the authentic looking character designs look like models from the original Mordheim table top game brought to life.
Mordheim: City of the Damned is hard to recommend to all but the most ardent fans of original table top game. Even still, it’s a game that I feel is probably best played on PC, with its busy UI and myriad of menus more suited to mouse and keyboard controls than a pad.
To newcomers and casual RTS players (like myself) it’s almost inaccessible, but Warhammer fans (with a lot of patience) and those that previously played the tabletop version will find a fairly accurate recreation of the cult game and a complex, lengthy and highly demanding turn based RPG/RTS with plenty to offer.