Killing the player is easy. Games do this all the time, often by surprising them with something unexpected and lethal or by simply ramping up the difficulty and pummeling them into submission. Vermintide 2 offers a third option, taunting your four-player squads without outright destroying them: the Packmaster.
Vermintide 2 is a first-person action game where you and three other people run through levels trying to survive hordes of giant humanoid rats and other monsters. It’s set in some part of the Warhammer universe, and there’s a ton of background lore for anyone who wants it, but in reality, the particulars aren’t important. It’s a loot-based dungeon crawler where you kill lots of rats to get stronger so you can kill more rats.
As Kotaku’s Tim Rogers said when the game first came out in March, Vermintide 2 has some of the best first-person melee combat around and is a great successor to the currently languishing Left 4 Dead series. It also has a bunch of really interesting enemy types, including ones that capture players and leave them helplessly stranded rather than just cutting their lives short and moving on.
Stalking the battlefield wearing a necklace of clanking skulls, the Packmaster captures unsuspecting players by lassoing them with his “think-catcher” and dragging them off behind enemy lines. It’s creepy on a lot of different levels. First there’s the weapon, a long polearm with a barbed ring on the end of it. Then there’s the fact that a giant rat-man is wielding it. And finally there’s the fact that, as the player, you’re helpless to stop him once you’re captured. All you can do is watch waves of enemies swarm your comrades as you’re dragged away. If one of them doesn’t immediately save you, you’ll eventually end up somewhere else on the map, hanging from the pole, slowly choking to death.
It’s similar to Left 4 Dead’s Smokers, serpent-tongued zombies that can ensnare players and slowly pull them in, sapping their life and eventually killing them. It’s also similar to losing Baby Mario in Yoshi’s Island and knowing that you have to go rescue him before it’s too late. In Vermintide 2, however, the tension lasts longer. Like a Hitchcock villain, the Packmaster acts only occasionally and deliberately. He’s easy to kill, but hard to catch, making every attempted kidnapping feel easily avoidable but completely dread-inducing. A big part of Vermintide 2 is working together with teammates to take out enemies as effectively as possible, sharing potions as needed and unloading special abilities in coordinated combos. Whenever someone goes missing, all of these best-laid plans inevitably go to shit. A lot of the game’s appeal is in learning how to respond to this chaos, and while there are many different ways to create it, few are as effective as a perfectly executed Packmaster.
I’ve killed mobs of enemies in games ranging from Double Dragon to Destiny, but few of them have ever been as effective at creating a pervasive sense of dread as Vermintide 2. If it were just for the loot cycle or the thrill of bashing some rats’ heads in with a shiny new battle ax, I’m not sure I’d still be playing the game months later. Instead, it’s the horror element that comes through on each level that makes the repetition and grind still feel exhilarating. Hitchcock once tried to explain the difference between surprise and suspense as the difference between seeing a bomb go off and knowing a bomb might go off soon. This is effectively the difference between Vermintide 2’s Packmaster and most other enemies. Instead of overpowering and killing players, he incapacitates and antagonizes them.