Out, Out, Damned City: A Mordheim: City of the Damned review
When I was younger, my brother and I got into the Warhammer games. We were already huge into board games (me less, since I lost frequently and would sometimes throw away a winning strategy I didn't even know I had) and Warhammer was just a bigger and more complex board game for us to waste away the hours on. But as I never had a head for large-scale tactics, I found myself drawn to the skirmish-based small-scale cousin to the Warhammer family of games, a game called Mordheim.
When the Mordheim: City of the Damned computer game was announced, I was ecstatic. Finally, a way to bring the gang warfare of the Old World's most wretched hive to a venue where I wouldn't have to keep track of all the rules. It looked excellent, too, with a variety of warbands and races, a massive city map, and a squad-based campaign feature. I couldn't wait to load up with a few of the people I played miniatures with and have at it.
Unfortunately, City of the Damned isn't anywhere near as fun as the original product, and that's important to recognize. It tries so hard to get there, and maybe it even does in places-- the atmosphere, setting, and presentation are all fantastic-- but in the end, the mechanics are so byzantine and the gameplay choices are so confusing that it really doesn't make the end product particularly appetizing. Add to this an unfair learning curve that kind of shrugs and says "This is a difficult game and you're supposed to learn from your mistakes," and what you have is less a fun game, and more a byzantine slog for people who find Darkest Dungeon charming and too easy.
So the basics. Mordheim takes place in the city of Mordheim, a wretched pre-industrial European hive where people grew corrupt and decadent while the lands around them fell to a state of total war between the forces of Chaos, the Orks, and numerous other factions. That was, until the massive twin-tailed comet known as "Sigmar's Hammer" struck the earth in the center of the city, making it an even worse hive, a home to violent cults and sickening Chaos abominations, and a haven for treasure hunters and those seeking the valuable mineral known as Warpstone, able to release massive amounts of magical power and energy.
You play a band of these hunters from one of five factions: The Sisters of Sigmar, there to cleanse the city; the Church of the Pit, a Chaos-worshipping cult that formed around the comet's crater; human bounty hunters; the Skaven, rat-people driven above-ground by the city losing its grip on sanity; or Witch Hunters, driven to remove the supernatural influence from Mordheim and have a fun time doing so. The game is split into two sections, the "camp" screen, where you recruit and outfit your squad to take on missions, and the "mission" section, where you deploy into the city to do battle with other warbands and scavenge for goods. Each skirmish has an objective and a series of sub-objectives that you can complete if you so wish, strengthening your gang and your position in the city.
And here's where it starts to go wrong. The game is played in a style similar to Valkyria Chronicles: You move your characters around in real-time third-person viewpoint using their movement points, then place them into stances, take actions, or attack enemies if there are any in range spending action points. While there is a tutorial, a lot of it is unclear on what each action actually does, requiring you to navigate a confusing series of stats and menus to figure out how to carry out actions on your turn.
Complicating issues immensely is the lack of a minimap, forcing you to zoom out to a larger map that doesn't seem to record your place in the city whatsoever. You can see the general area of things on the map, but finding your own people and planning moves is an exercise in frustration. While this helps with the "desperate struggle" atmosphere, as a game mechanic it's just another arbitrary hindrance in the way of enjoying the game.
But in the end, it's just that there was a better way to do this. A turn-based tactical over-map way. XCOM2 showed how much fun a gang-based skirmish game where you have to scrabble and squabble and desperately fight for resources could be. With racial modifiers, multilevel terrain, and an RPG-style system of advancement, this could be the game to blow the doors off the entire tactical genre. At the very least, it'd give us one of the few interesting Warhammer Fantasy games, a thing that hasn't happened since Shadow of the Horned Rat, or maybe Blood Bowl: Chaos Edition if we wanted to get technical.
While Mordheim: City of the Damned tries very, very hard, in the end, it just falls short. It's a game with a ton of great atmosphere and ideas, but the frustrating mechanics, dense barrier of entry, and low reward for a high level of effort make this completely missable. By the end of my time in the city, I just wished I could leave these people to their squabbles, and maybe pick up Valkyria or XCOM again.
Final Score: 3/5. There is so much right about this game, and then the barrier of entry just knocks it down from perfect. It's a game I want to play, but not necessarily a game I can play.
The Reviewer received a copy of this game for review