We presume bloodshed was common during the medieval periods, life comically harsh and cheap. While it wasn’t all serfdom and starvation, certain periods stand out due to their inherent violence, the inability of any one power group to wrest control and dominate the land. One such period can be found in the late fifteenth century with the Wars of the Roses, a series of pivotal battles for the crown of England between two cadet branches of the House of Plantagenet. So called because the heraldic symbols of the houses of Lancaster and York were a red and white rose respectively, the War of the Roses represented a period where if you were anyone you had no choice but to choose a side. Honour, duplicity, conviction and might all played their parts in the Wars, ultimately creating a period which is ripe for exploration and entertainment.
Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine any other period of English medieval history upon which it would be more appropriate to base an online multiplayer medieval battle game. Developers Fatshark (of Lead and Gold fame) clearly know their historical stuff, and this spills into the wider game much further than simply the setting. Picture War of the Roses as a mixture of Team Fortress 2’s DeGroot Keep and Mount and Blade and you will begin to get a flavour for the concept of the game although you won’t have done it nearly enough justice. Essentially War of the Roses rolls up competitive multiplayer battles with compelling melee warfare - instead of giving you guns and grenades you are instead armed with swords, axes, halberds and all sorts of other goodies useful for pummelling up close, all in battles of up to sixty-four people. It’s shocking that no one has managed this before, but the change in weaponry, scenery and control system breathes new life into the classic genre otherwise known as killing strangers online.
The thing is, this is so much more than simple charges and weapon spam. There aren’t people rolling around trying to shotgun one another in the head or aiming for sneaky insta-kills. Instead the melee combat with War of the Roses is far more nuanced, an advanced version of that seen within Mount and Blade if you will. When attacking with a melee weapon you can do so in one of four directions – overhead swing, thrust and a left or right swipe. Each of these has a corresponding parry, meaning reading your opponent is essential to successful warfare. Each swing or thrust is controlled by moving the mouse and left clicking; laborious wrist movement soon becomes a practiced flick as you quickly zone into the control system, with parries controlled in essentially the same way but by using the right mouse button. A parry not only protects you from your opponent’s attack, but renders them unable to parry themselves for a short amount of time, hopefully allowing you a window of opportunity. It’s a holistic system that rewards experience and skill, with each incremental gain in either having a noticeable effect on your own performance.
It’s not all about the melee though as ranged combat plays as large a role in the proceedings as you would expect for a game set in this timeframe. Choosing to play as either an archer or a crossbowman unlocks a whole new feel to the battlefields. Archers have a limited number of arrows, and when firing they can only keep their bow pulled at full draw for a few scant seconds. Crossbowmen can prove extremely deadly with the right amount of accuracy, but the painful reloading time ensures that you will have to play much more of a sniper than support role (although there is an active reload mini-game that can be utilised to speed this up). Both types of projectiles are affected by various amounts of drop once they have fired, ensuring that missile spam is far less effective than considered and skilful shooting. It’s a bit withdrawn from reality to present the archers and their ilk of the time period as single target hunters, but their implementation in game is well balanced.
Returning to the recurring theme of skill, it’s abundantly clear that this is a game that not only expects you to know what you are doing (and to be able to do it) but demands it. Unlike most other games with melee elements the hit boxes within War of the Roses are miniscule with each weapon requiring practice and more practice to actually be able to hit with it; too close and you’ll ping off your enemy with your weapon’s haft, too far away and you’ll swing around in thin air. Not only do you actually need to hit with your weapon however, but you also need to hit somewhere on your enemy that you can actually damage. If you swing with a one hander that smacks a plate breastplate you will, unsurprisingly, cause no damage. A thrust with the same sword that hits an armour chink or, even better, a face, will cause some of the most satisfactory damage you have wreaked in any game.
Talking about faces, the game provides a fairly innovative method of dealing with the medieval practice of dressing yourself up like a tin can robot. Options abound for defensive headgear, which is great given the number of archers attempting to head shot you at any particular point. Players are free to dress themselves up in anything up to and including a full frogmouth helm – however, if you do pick a helmet option that looks like it would give your character an obscured view, then in game you will get an obscured view. This can be quite restrictive when it comes to some of the full plate options, although helmets that have a visor have an option to flip the visor up thus giving you a full view again. While you probably don’t want to spend your entire time within War of the Roses looking at a couple of letterboxes worth of view these helms do give a new dimension to combat, protecting your face from those errant archers and thrusting swordsmen alike. The restricted view adds to the exhilaration of melee, with both combatants circling wildly whenever they lose direct view of their opponent. It doesn’t make you immune to damage however as your armour still retains weak spots, and skilful players will always seem like they can open you up and spill your blood with no effort at all.
However, even after you have been upsided in the head with a mace the game isn’t necessarily over. First of all instead of being knocked down you could just be cut open so badly that you have started bleeding all over the place. In this case you have ten seconds in which to swing wildly and hopefully incapacitate your attacker and then bandage yourself back up to a healthy status. The bleeding mechanic means that most duels reach a stage where at least one player needs to move out of their considered manoeuvring and into all out attack, thus ensuring you don’t get stuck in never ending circling jousts. Secondly, unless you are dealt critical damage to a spongy part when you are defeated you will collapse to the ground in a knocked out state. After ten seconds you can yield and then respawn, but until then you are at the mercy of your enemies or teammates. Your team can assist you back to your feet and bring you back into the fight, whereas your enemies can engage in a brutal five second execution which you are forced to watch in first person from your prone position. The viciousness of these deaths are perfectly in keeping with the overall feeling of the game, the death sequences so much more meaningful than those found in most shooters. Again, a common multiplayer theme has been taken and just made better by the fact that it is being performed in a medieval setting. Fantastic stuff.
However, to get to the stage where you are the one dominating takes time, and unfortunately you are given virtually no handholding when you first begin this journey. The four default classes the game provides exist at various stages between ‘useless’ and ‘nearly useless’, with the single-player training mode proving itself particularly anaemic and of virtually no assistance. Your first battles are likely to be frustrating affairs that leave you squeaking with rage as you waft ineffectively at thin air whilst everyone you meet cuts you up as if you were made of butter. The action gets a little easier once you unlock the Footknight, but really you need to keep with it until you have enough to unlock a custom class and some gear. It only takes a couple of hours, but those hours do nothing to showcase the real joy of War of the Roses and it’s a real worry that players may well be lost to the game forever at this most nascent of stages.
The thing is, even with this painful learning process, War of the Roses is utterly addictive. Until you learn how to swing your sword the majority of your efforts will be in vain, but that one connection will feel so sweet you will be compelled to continue along the learning process. And that first time you manage to smash that bastard in the plate armour who has been murdering you for games right in the face for ninety direct damage? That will be one of your greatest gaming moments of 2012 I guaran-damn-tee.
Away from the battle mechanics the previously mentioned custom classes provide you with somewhat of a micromanagement timesink. Individually most items and perks are cheap enough, allowing you to build a fairly rough and ready chap by around the time you hit level ten, but most of the items available for purchase have hidden depths for you to explore. Armour comes in a range of unlockable colours and designs but the system really shines when it comes to the weaponry. Hafts, forging style, fighting stance and other options are available, allowing you to tinker each custom slot into something as close to individual as online gaming can get. Combined with your (entirely decorative) personal crest, War of the Roses provides you with the opportunity to spend as much time playing outside of the battle as in.
With this much variation in place it should come as no surprise that there are several concerns surrounding the question of balance within the game. Flavour of the moment complaints seem to focus mainly on the ubiquity of plate wearers wielding two handed weapons as well as on the ability of certain weapons to be spammed, thus removing the need to use them skilfully. Various other quibbles exist with certain hit boxes appearing a little larger than expected, or slashing damage from certain swords over-damaging on plate, but otherwise the game seems well rounded. Of course, in any one-on-one situation you could find yourself facing a load-out which by design can dominate yours, but as War of the Roses is intended to be played as a team game that’s not really an issue that impacts the wider meta-game. Indeed, as the majority of players both skill and level up most of them tend to drift away from plate armour and two handed weapons and back towards medium armour with a shield and more advanced one-handers. War of the Roses hasn’t been out long enough to determine what the load-out of choice will be for a fully mature game, but the size of the battles combined with four custom load out slots should ensure that you can find a set-up that can work with whatever enemies you are given.
It’s a shame then that with this great set of mechanics as a base that Fatshark have given us only two modes to play with. Of these two the ‘Conquest’ mode is generally more compelling than the simplistic ‘Team Deathmatch’, especially if you are playing solo on the public servers. While the map rotations give you enough battlegrounds to fight over for now, the longer term future of the game will depend on whether new modes and maps can be trickled down to players on a semi-regular basis. It’s pleasing to see therefore that a permanent support team has already been announced for War of the Roses and while no additional details are available on the feature pipeline it can only be hoped that this support can deliver additional content soon to help the game remain as fresh as it feels now.
In essence then, War of the Roses is a piece of sheer genius encapsulated in what feels like an incomplete shell. The core mechanics and gameplay will make you sing with joy, but the fact the game shipped with half as much supporting content as it should have will sully the experience somewhat. Recycled concepts are made to feel fresh in their new setting, and the masculine cry of ‘Killstreak!’ as you hit your first multikill not only doesn’t feel out of place but just makes you wish that every medieval re-enactment had a commentator following the stronger competitors. If you have any interest in competitive online play or swinging virtual swords around then you owe it to yourself to buy War of the Roses now. The first few hours will be painful, but the feeling of achievement will be all the sweeter once you have cracked the nut of skill.