“Horsey charge for the win!“
There are many perks associated with being a games journalist; free travel, plentiful snack treats, lots of alcohol, random tat with game logos scribbled upon them, but the main one is being able to regularly sit down with twenty of so other individuals and just play multiplayer games in the same room. Paradox recently gave us the opportunity to do exactly that, with their third-person multiplayer-only medieval mash-up War of the Roses and despite the session barrelling on for five blissful hours we still hankered to keep playing, as we chucked expletives at each other and repeatedly ended each others’ virtual lives using crossbows, swords, spears, axes, bows and wooden lances.
It’s worth noting that I haven’t been heavily invested in a multiplayer game since Counter-Strike Source. It isn’t that Call of Duty or the recent Battlefield are bad games, it’s just they they’re built on the same principle which has governed competitive game design for awhile; point and shoot before the other guy does the same to you. Sure you can chuck in vehicles to add an additional avenue to the slaughter, but really those are just an extension of the point and shooting formula, albeit with bigger barrels and quicker traversal.
Thankfully War of the Roses is far more complex than those multiplayer juggernauts, with a focus on hand-to-hand combat with swords and shields starring in addition to the long range option of bows and arrows – we wouldn’t want the point-and-shoot folk out there to feel alienated now would we?
On the surface replacing bad ass marines with slow and clunky warriors from a fifteenth century dynasty war may sound odd, but the Lancaster versus York premise actually adds weight to the ensuing conflict. None of this is taken advantage of by the game mind you, sure the major factions are represented in name and the maps are based on certain locations, but really the setting is just a grounding for the slaughter.
War of the Roses’ combat is fast paced with a detailed melee system requiring players to charge their swing and designate a direction before they strike. All of this is determined by pressing the left mouse and holding a movement key; forward is to stab, left and right is to swipe and back is to swing downwards. The right mouse button is reserved for blocking and countering, which is again prefaced by guessing what sort of stroke an enemy will select. If you guess correctly you’ll parry and open them up for attack, guess wrong and you’ll still block the attack. Oddly this system reminded us a lot of playing Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight online, thanks to players strafing around each other blocking and countering looking for a way to make their opponent vulnerable to attack. At least that was the case for the rare one versus one battles, the vast majority of the time you and your sparring buddy will be joined by other players, both friendly and hostile, who themselves are looking to score some kills.
Watching these battles take place and being a part of them is genuinely enthralling with multiple strikes usually required to down foes, and even then enemies require an extra finishing strike to score a kill, forcing them to respawn. The thing is this final execution act, via a stab to the face, shield to the throat and other deliciously sadistic rituals take time, during which you might be attacked yourself. You’re vulnerable in this state, but this finishing act is entirely necessary as at any time one of your enemy’s buddies might come along and revive the beggar, stealing a kill from you and shifting the balance of battle into their favour with two versus one.
This system was made for griefing and it adds a lot of drama to battles with large scale skirmishes usually ending with bodies wriggling on the ground waiting to be put out of their misery, or even worse pleading for mercy simultaneously registering the kill for you and allowing them to spawn into battle as soon as the submission animation is over. Taking the cowards way out soon attracted much derision amongst the playing masses during our hands-on, as impatient ones were not only ensuring the other team got the point, but they were also denying their slayer the gratification of a blood curdling animation declaring ultimate victory – at least until they respawned.
Extrapolate this to-and-fro factor to servers with 32 or 64 players, and you get the idea of just how fluid combat situations can be. Strength in numbers often proved the overall victor, at least that’s the case when there were just melee soldiers involved. That situation of warriors coming together and sizing each other up turned into something different entirely when a few archers were thrown into the mix, sniping from afar taking down easy prey, and the same goes for when players begin to run around on horseback using long lances to mow down warriors. That last tactic soon became our favourite, as enemy clusters really didn’t see us coming. It was fantastic to hear the expletives cascade from further down the room as two tonnes worth of murder came crashing down on an unfortunate soul, interrupting a duel they thought they were winning.
No game has ever got horse-ridden combat right but Fatshark have. Horses need to build up speed before dealing out sufficient damage to enemies and running down an unsuspecting enemy not only results in an instant kill, but the lance – be it metal or wooden – usually splinters on impact littering the area with debris.
Surprisingly Fatshark hasn’t limited the ability of riders or their numbers on servers despite the promise of increased mobility and one hit kills if the attacker builds up enough speed. Lances even return in time after fracturing and horses never get tired. Even their sprint function seems a bit over powered; it only lasts so long, but recharges within a few moments unless your warrior is wearing the heaviest of the game’s armours.
Combat in War of the Roses prides itself on being immediate. Dependent on armour choices, players can be cut down in a few swipes, a couple of well placed arrows or a lance to the back of the head, but battles are still nuanced. Weapon and armour selection determines just how formidable, fast and versatile a class is and at every spawn players can choose which mould they want to go for. The system is very reminiscent of Call of Duty with a whole host of different perks which range from giving players more arrows than usual on spawn or eliminating drop off on trajectory making the ranged class even more deadly. Obviously there are perks for other combat roles, but these were the ones that stood out.
Purchasing new sets of armour, helmets, weapons and skills requires gold and the requisite level to be reached by the player, but the levelling ratio seemed more than fair to us. For those that pre-purchase the game, Fatshark are even increasing the XP and gold ratio per kill, assist and capture, rewarding players for their help developing the game. The level of detail the customisation system goes to is also really impressive, for example when you select the two-handed Bastard Sword (yes that’s a real name and yes it really is a big one), you not only select the weapon but also how the blade is shaped, the material it’s made of and other seemingly small yet significant choices. This choice means you feel an affinity with your selection and should result in you not binning the weapon so readily when it takes a while to get used to.
Add the ability to create your own coat of arms and place bizarre tokens on top of your helmet – Honey Badger anyone? – and you have a game which is ready for players to imprint their own personality on the battlefield.
All in all we played on five different maps and sampled two different game modes; the first was simply team deathmatch with both teams aiming to reach the kill limit, and the second was Conquest where teams scrambled to take ownership over key strategic points on the map before the other team, with the first to three captures winning a round. The lack of a capture the flag mode is notable, especially with the inclusion of mounted combat, but we have our fingers crossed the development team are working on that functionality as you read this…
Paradox Interactive and Fatshark have attracted some mire from their communities in the past for releasing unfinished games, but War of the Roses is the perfect example of both the publisher and the developer learning from their mistakes. Sure there were times when we fell off the map or found our character stuck on architecture, but when we take into consideration the amount of fun we had bashing other players’ skulls in, sneaking up on archers from behind or taking a charging lancer’s horse out from under him, it’s hard to punish the team too much for those buggy moments.
Whether War of the Roses will perform quite so well in less controlled circumstances remains to be seen, but with servers set to go live today as part of the pre-order initiative we have strong suspicions that this game could become a bonafide multiplayer phenomenon and in an area currently yearning for new innovative experiences that certainly cannot be a bad thing.
We’ll hold off on our review until we get a chance to play the War of the Roses properly online against players who don’t occupy the same room as us, but rest assured the signs regarding Fatshark’s latest are immensely positive.
Tags: War of the Roses
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