When I saw the medieval deathmatch game War of the Roses in development, I wondered if it might become a complex, po-faced affair, all too concerned with the precise simulation of late medieval weapons and the intimate details of period warfare. I thought the control system might end up unwieldy. I thought the difficulty curve would be too steep.
Well, it does take its arms and armour rather seriously and its controls do take some getting used to, but they're both part of what gives this game its character - and none of it stands in the way of you having a damn good time getting (late) medieval on people's asses. And on their horses, too.
Two teams of up to 32 soldiers each go to war, donning 15th-century armour and choosing from an array of halberds, swords, axes, spears, bows and crossbows. When they meet on the field of battle, whatever steel they swing at their opponents is effective according to its flavour, where it hits and what kind of armour it makes contact with. Slashing weapons won't cut through steel breastplates, for example, but aiming for joints in the plating gets results. It doesn't take long to appreciate that this is a game of manoeuvring, timing and careful parrying - or, if you find you're bleeding to death, a lot of wild, desperate swinging.
Movement's mapped to the traditional WASD, but the mouse determines the direction and the strength of the swings that you make with your weapon. A click only begins your attack, then you must move the mouse in the direction you want to swing from, holding down the left mouse button to build up strength and releasing it when you want to strike. If you want to parry, you hold down the right mouse button and move the mouse in the direction that a blow is coming from. There's nothing to stop you holding down a mouse button to either be permanently parrying in one direction, or to have a weapon raised and ready to strike from a particular angle.
It can take a little time to realise that the movement of the mouse isn't the actual swinging of the blade and you need only the lightest of twitches to tell the game how you want to strike. The timing also requires some practice, since pulling back or raising a weapon takes at least a fraction of a second. But this is a smart control scheme which you can quickly relate to. It's not long before you're fighting surprisingly natural battles, stepping forward to swing at your foe, retreating to raise your shield, slowly circling as you wait for an opening.
Archery, too, demands diligence. Crossbows have agonising reload times, while archers can only keep a bow drawn for a few seconds before their quivering arms need rest. Projectiles travel fairly slowly and have quite the drop to them, so you aim above the heads of distant enemies and don't expect to be able to lead a moving target without a lot of practice.
It might be that I'm making all this sound rather more plodding than it really is - so I should say that while War of the Roses does reward skill, smart timing and well-placed blows, it's nevertheless quick and deadly. One or two good strikes can fell even the toughest knights, bleeding players have only seconds to bandage their injuries and archers, annoying sniping bastards that they are, turn out to be oh so malleable when met with the head of your hammer. That said, once a player is downed, they're not quite out of the fight.
Instead, they're left immobile, awaiting assistance or execution. To finish them, you'll have to walk up to their prone form and spend several seconds performing the grisly deed - and if you happen to be the injured player, you'll find yourself watching helplessly as you're brutally hacked to death. Should an ally be able to reach you first, they can revive you and return you to the battle, but if no help is at hand you can yield and respawn after a few seconds at the expense of your score.
Executions introduce an interesting dynamic. Taking several seconds out from a fight to kill or revive a downed player can be genuinely risky. It leaves you vulnerable to both nearby opponents and sharp-eyed archers, and many a would-be executioner has fallen beside those they were hoping to finish. Injured players can be either a liability for your allies or bait for the enemy.
At first, the wealth of weaponry is locked away and you'll only be able to use the default footman class, but as you start to gain experience on the battlefield you'll be able to unlock three other pre-built soldiers: the archer, the crossbowman and the heavily-armoured foot knight. These soldiers will give you a taste of the different equipment and character perks on offer so that, after a few more fights, you can begin to customise your own.
It's only here, after playing for some time, that the game gets anal and starts to flex its stats at you - but this is exactly how it should be. It's a reminder that the actions you take on the battlefield have a far greater bearing on your success than any min/maxed combination of gear. Still, if you want to spend hours poring over this arsenal, you most certainly can.
There are not only plenty of weapons, helmets and types of armour; there are different rims for shields, different blades for swords and even different kinds of wood for the shaft of your weapon. The obvious rule of thumb is that the bigger weapons are both slower and more deadly, and past a certain size they tend to be a liability in enclosed spaces. An alley fight with a halberd is like swinging a broom in a shower cubicle.
If I were going to be lazy, I'd call this Battlefield with broadswords: a mass melee, third-person online action game all about sticking people with spears or shooting them with arrows until you can afford to buy bigger spears and sharper arrows. While I suppose that's accurate, its pith ignores how original War of the Roses is. Developer Fatshark has devised a new control scheme to tackle a new kind of combat with the aim of creating a completely different experience. And by and large, it's succeeded - not least because it never takes itself too seriously.
There's something frantic, even slapstick about it. A chain of wannabe executioners collapse beside the player they're trying to kill. Petty knights steal horses from one another and ride them headlong into soldier after soldier, causing a series of metallic, atonal rings to sound out across the map. A foot knight stoically advances toward an archer who is unable to put any arrows through the knight's visor (a task comparable to firing an elastic band into a coin slot) - so the frustrated sniper draws his dagger and attacks with all the effectiveness of a man trying to prise his way into a postbox with a salad fork. A horse enters the scene, stage left, and smashes through both of them, something neither expected because they're fighting on battlements 20 feet above ground level.
Also inevitable are feuds. Players can design their own crests and coats of arms, the latter displayed prominently on chests and shields. The crests, atop helmets, can be anything from a simple plume to a gaudy, multi-coloured banner. It's not long before you find yourself chasing that jerk with the green lion on his shield again, desperate for revenge because he stole your horse after you shot him after he stabbed you after you executed him on the bank of the nearby river. "Maybe this time," you say, "I'll be able to draw a line under this whole affair." Then someone rides into you with a horse again and it's time to chase them instead.
War of the Roses has its problems, but none are too severe. Chief among them are some minor bugs: spawning in mid-air next to team-mates on battlements, bushes spontaneously growing out of the ground. I'm pretty sure the frame-rate could be improved and on rare occasions you can fall through the floor.
You're more likely to be bothered by the lack of single-player content and the restricted game modes. The once-promised campaign has met the executioner's block and the severed head offered up is mere training exercises. Sieges are also off the menu and for the moment you can only play either team deathmatch or conquest. Fatshark says it wants to add more content post-release and I certainly hope it does.
War of the Roses is modest and pared-down, then - but it offers a challenging, chaotic and sometimes comic take on multiplayer. It's an innovative game and I'd like to see it succeed, I'd like to see it grow and, quite honestly, I'd like to see it turn into an eSport.