Mordheim: City of the Damned is a tough old nut to stick a knife into. It’s a turn-based RTS-cum-RPG set in the Warhammer universe, so fans of the original tabletop shenanigans will likely get plenty out of it, while casual gamers and newcomers to the genre will probably struggle like hell.
Set in the days after a huge twin-tailed comet has decimated the titular city, four warbands have come to reap the rewards: namely Wyrdstone, or Warpstone, chunks of the comet now scattered around the streets. Human mercenaries, Skaven scavengers, the godly Sisters of Sigma and a demon-worshipping cult form your line-up of selectable crews, and each comes with their own strengths and weaknesses.
You can outfit them and level them up, choosing their skills and gear, names and appearance, but the level of connection never approaches that of, say, XCOM. Rather than suffer permadeath, wounded units must instead be medically treated or they’ll suffer permanent injury, such as partial blindness or weakened limbs, reducing their visual acuity or strength, for example.
Venturing into the city with all four warbands soon revealed that the Skaven are possibly the easiest choice for beginners, since they tend to dodge more often. Either way, the hit/miss dice rolling going on under the hood feels horribly one-sided in the early stages.
The action is presented mostly in third person, and each turn allows you to move a certain distance and then perform an action, or several, depending on how many action points you’ve accrued. You may wish to scavenge for loot, collect Wyrdstone fragments, perform attacks or set yourself in a particular stance. Ambush stance, for example, causes the unit to attack any enemy that wanders into its immediate vicinity. Dodge stance and Parry stance, in contrast, are defensive, and increase your chances of evasion.
Items you salvage or purchase between missions can increase your chances of landing hits and dodging them, but initially the combat is utterly daunting. I opened the tutorials and was shocked to see about a dozen different instructionals, either playable or watchable – but after jumping into a few I was even more confused. In the end, the best way to learn was to play. The trouble is, the learning curve is ridiculous. Rarely have I seen a more cluttered UI, or been so perplexed by a game’s systems.
Even simple things like equipping different gear are buried under a pile of messy menus, and eventually I gave up on everything and launched the campaign. I was roundly defeated again and again, not, I believe, just because I was uninitiated, but because Mordheim is deliberately designed to be stupidly challenging. I’m all for difficult games, but not when they feel unfair. I was repeatedly outmatched by the luck of the dice, and that just doesn’t sit well.
So I rage-quit, and cursed a bit, and then went back determined to succeed. I modified my tactics, moved as a group, attempted to work together. It still took four more attempts before I finally beat a map, and by then there was no elation. I just felt like I’d made it, like I’d gotten through a hard day’s work and didn’t want to face another. I pushed on, but it took a long time before things began to click. Online, against human opponents, I lasted minutes. Unfettered by the silly pathfinding that often saves your neck against the iffy AI, other players were able to put me down embarrassingly quickly.
There’s a mix of ranged and melee units to deploy, along with one Hero and one Leader, and hiring the right soldiers and learning to use them effectively are essential skills to cultivate. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by enemies, and you only need to lose a few units to be routed and fail the mission. The overall objective is to deliver a shipment of Wyrdstone to the Smuggler’s Den in the city, but continuous failures will eventually lead to game over.
The thing about Mordheim is that it’s not very fun. Missions are long, plodding affairs, and the wait for enemy turns to pass (especially when the opposition are still hidden) is a bit mind-numbing. And worse, the random number generator that controls the action is a beastly thing. Success doesn’t feel good, or didn’t for me. The whole thing just feels like a chore.
Graphically it’s a little drab, though the shattered environs have a certain grim appeal and exude that classic dark Warhammer atmosphere that combines with the character design to make Mordheim feel like an authentic part of the universe.
Mordheim: City of the Damned is difficult to recommend. It’s a port that seems almost arbitrary, as it’s clearly more suited to mouse and keyboard controls and unlikely to appeal to the more casual console gamer. It’s not accessible enough to invite newcomers, although it’s fair to say that Warhammer fans and those used to tabletop gaming will get a lot more mileage from it.
A real challenge
Steep learning curve
Can feel unfair