Publisher: Paradox Interactive
It's easy to jump to conclusions when you first hear that Paradox Interactive are publishing a game based on the War Of The Roses. Your mind's eye will instantly conjure up images of sprawling overworld maps, supply lines, advisers and menus galore, the standard offerings you'd expect from the grand strategy veterans.
What you might not expect, however, is that War Of The Roses has more in common with Battlefield 3 than Crusader Kings or Mount & Blade.
The brutal civil war between the Yorkists and Lancastrians plays host to 64-player battle royales as footmen clash in ferocious third-person melee combat, mounted knights lead devastating charges and bowmen rain arrows down onto enemy positions. It's a glorious organised chaos; axes clatter on shields and armour, crossbow bolts glance off your pauldrons or bite deep into flesh and pollaxe-wielding peasants unseat arrogant horsemen to be picked apart by the rabble. Downed players scream for mercy as they lay prostrate in the churned mud, begging their enemy not to shatter their necks with their shield or drive a dagger through their helmet's eye slits. And yet, beneath the insanity, only the truly skilful can hope to survive.
If you crave a skill-based experience and want to play something different from the usual glut of holiday season shooters, War Of The Roses could well become your favourite competitive multiplayer game of 2012.
I didn't reference Battlefield 3 on a whim, since War Of The Roses is based on a solid foundation. Upon choosing a side - the House of York or Lancaster - you'll enter into big team deathmatches or domination/conquest gametypes, both of which are immediately familiar and engaging. You already know what do do (kill a certain number of opponents or secure and hold positions), but the fifteenth century setting means that you'll need to approach the battle in a completely different mindset.
The War Of The Roses is an interesting time to set a game and was carefully chosen for a reason. The concepts of chivalry and fair play had all but died out, not to mention the custom of ransoming knights, leading to one of the most bloodthirsty and indiscriminate campaigns in military history. Instead of guns, you'll wield a dizzying array melee weapons from swords and maces to double-sided pollaxes, glaives and spears.
Holding down the attack button and swinging the mouse allows you to choose the power and angle of your swing, which needs to be delivered with perfect timing since your foes can block with shields, turn your blade aside with their own or charge you down. Swinging blindly will result in a swift and humilating defeat, as will foolish lone wolf shenanigans, putting the focus firmly on player skill and knowing when to press the attack, hide behind your shield or counter with a riposte. Many weapons, such as the versatile pollaxe, have both a blunt and sharpened side, both of which are useful in specific situations and cater for advanced players willing to trade ease of use for a longer reach and multiple combat options.
When downed, players end up out of action and can be revived by team mates... if an enemy doesn't get to them first. Downed combatants can be dispatched with a gruesome execution watched from a first person perspective by the impotent victim, driving home the ferocity and brutal nature of the protracted conflict.
An exceptionally detailed hit detection system sets War Of The Roses apart from practically any other melee combat game on the market. Only the sharp edges or points of each weapon will deal damage if they connect (don't expect to kill someone with the shaft of a spear, for example), and these edges will realistically glance off a shield or armour plate if struck at the wrong angle. Blows can also be interrupted by someone else's blade or the scenery in tight quarters, meaning that you'll have to judge the perfect distance and angle of each attack. Again, this makes for a uniquely skill-based experience that encourages precision and perfection; something that gamers have been increasingly clamouring for after years of noob-tubing.
Most online shooter servers run calculations and update the client-side action at approximately fifteen frames per second, with algorithms essentially guesstimating what happens in the intervening miliseconds (yes, sorry, I am simplifying this slightly). If you've ever emptied an entire magazine into someone's back only to watch them turn around and one-shot you, you'll know that this can sometimes profoundly backfire, since the server sometimes guesses wrong. There's no margin for error in a game predicated on melee combat, and to address this, War Of The Roses runs at 60FPS behind the scenes. You'll never feel that you've been cheated out of a kill, putting the blame for any mistimed or mis-directed attacks squarely on your shoulders.
Ranged weapons, such as crossbows and longbows, are also available to punish enemies from a distance. In skilled hands they can be absolutely devastating, but they've also been balanced appropriately and come with their own set of drawbacks. Arrows or bolts hit hard when they find flesh, but will glance or bounce off heavy armour, ensuring that you'll need to pick the perfect shot before being charged down by well equipped foes - or worse, targeted by opposing archers. Longbowmen will need to contend with significant arrow drop-off at medium range, while crossbowmen have to laboriously load their weapons before each shot. Ranged weaponry could have completely unbalanced a melee-centric game, but here, they provide a viable alternative rather than a magic bullet.
Mounted combat also charts a course between game-swinging power and appropriate vulnerability. Though it's incredibly satisfying to eviscerate fleeing foes at lance-point, you'll need an exceptional degree of accuracy to drive your tiny point into an enemy and manoeuvre your horse in tight spaces. A poorly executed charge leaves horsemen wide open for opponents to unseat them or slit their mount from neck to tail with a lateral swipe, while archers will find you an irresistible target.
The net result is that War Of The Roses manages to find a balance between brutal, even miserable, authenticity and ridiculous fun. Though it's not a pretty game by any means, showcasing some stiff animations and middling texture work, battles are visceral and utterly barmy when 64 players enter the fray. Each kill is truly earned, leading to an intense feeling of satisfaction every time you stand over a downed foe begging for mercy - and receive only an intimate dagger thrust.
The core action is solid, with a steep learning curve slightly mitigated by some botmatch tutorials and well-designed starting classes. As with most successful multiplayer games, however, your intitial choice of combat options are just a tip of a monolithic iceberg. Executing enemies, dealing damage, reviving friends and completing objectives rewards you with money and experience levels to spend in one of the most comprehensive customisation suites out there.
Once you unlock custom classes after a couple of hours, you'll be free to equip your avatar with a dizzying array of upgradeable weapons, mounts, armour and perks. Melee weapons can be forged from different types of steel, assembled with different hilts and wielded with unique fighting styles, all of which confer meaningful gameplay benefits and makes them useful for specific situations. Ranged weapons can be outfitted with multiple ammo types and assembled with different components that affect range, reload speed and armour penetration. Perks can improve almost every aspect of your character and specialised with modifiers to further tailor your gameplay experience.
You're even free to design your own coat of arms out of numerous design elements, which is a neat touch.
That said, all of this menu-based customisation can be a little cumbersome. You can only equip certain weapons and mounts if you choose a corresponding perk, which can be difficult to do in the limited time between rounds. Worse, the UI rarely allows you to go back to a previous screen without hitting the escape key, which I assume is an acceptable oversight from a small team whose put the focus squarely on delivering a solid gameplay experience.
I'm also not entirely convinced that there's enough to unlock at this stage. Sure, there's a lot of specialisation within each particular weapon, but you'll be able to buy everything you need within about five or six hours, forcing you to spend your money on stuff that doesn't complement your play style. As an example, there's only one two-handed sword and pollaxe - once you've bought it, there's no impetus to buy another. It's important that players are continually being rewarded with new and exciting things to unlock, to keep them levelling, and I feel that there's plenty of scope for more (even inferior) versions of each weapon. More purchaseable cosmetic features, such as armour finishes or even emblem design elements, wouldn't go amiss.
Thankfully Fatshark aren't planning to sit on their laurels, and intend to bring plenty of new content to the experience post-launch. Massive siege battles are on the cards, as are a greater selection of maps and mounted archers (one they've sorted out what could be an outrageous balance issue). Frankly, these additions can't come soon enough, because you'll soon start to replay the same levels. War Of The Roses currently feels like a solid foundation for something truly epic, and we have high hopes for what promises to be an evolving multiplayer experience with serious legs.
The team has also been busy tweaking the balance for weapon damage and prices, which was definitely a cause for concern when I got to grips with it at an intimate early review event. Equipping a massive Scottish Claymore and forging it with Toledo steel essentially granted me a lightsaber that absolutely ruined anyone at ridiculous range. After continually beating down the lead designer with this medieval weapon of mass destruction, he vowed to restore balance without sacrificing power. Now it's still incredibly powerful but significantly harder to wield effectively without split-second timing and skill. You can thank/flame me later.
Since this review is going live before the full October 2nd release date (early access is now open, mind), I don't know how smooth the launch will be. Paradox Interactive, much as we love them, aren't famed for the smoothest and silkiest of releases, but the netcode appears to be solid and capable of withstanding the onrushing horde. Fingers crossed, because this is potentially one of the biggest multiplayer sleeper hits of recent years.
- Chaotic yet skilful combat for up to 64 players
- Impeccable hit detection and edge modelling rewards skill and experience
- Versatile customisation and addictive progression
- Needs more modes, levels and unlockable weapons/customisation options
- Uninspiring visuals, some stiff animations
- Steep learning curve despite a few concessions to accessibility
The Short Version: War Of The Roses is a viable alternative or accompaniment to this year's FPS offerings, a gloriously chaotic 64-player experience predicated on pure skill and brutal swordplay. If you're looking for a fresh, exciting, and emphatically skill-based multiplayer arena, you'll find a new home on the fifteenth century battlefield.