By Nathan Grayson on January 22nd, 2014 at 5:00 pm.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance has kind of a silly name, but it’s one heck of an intriguing prospect. The hyper-detailed historical RPG heralds from a small army of developers who once steered the creation of Mafia and Arma, among many others. Despite coming from a relatively small team by triple-A standards, the game’s production values are through the roof, and the dev team really wants it all: Skyrim-like exploration, a Mount and Blade-style world, entirely procedural combat, and choice reactivity inspired by The Witcher. Can Warhorse pull it off? I checked out an early build of the game and talked extensively with project director Daniel Vávra to find out if they’re on the right track.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance’s elevator pitch is so simple that I’m surprised no one else has done it yet. It wants to be Skyrim without dragons, The Witcher 3 without anything remotely witchy and also in first-person. A historical playground, in other words. It wants to be what Mafia was for gangster games, but in a bigger, more accurate world and with combat so ludicrously detailed that no sword blow will ever land the same way twice. Is it madness? Is developer Warhorse biting off more pie in the sky than it can chew? I went into a brief demo session thinking so, and I’m still not entirely sure they aren’t. But boy do I ever hope they can pull it off.
The demo began by introducing the world of Kingdom Come and its main character, a blacksmith’s son whose village was burned down by the army of a warring king. The story is deeply intertwined in a real 15th century historical conflict that saw two brother-kings (presumably Sigismund and Wenceslaus) bicker over a claim to the throne of the whole damn Holy Roman Empire.
Whoooo Are You? (Slash-Cut! Bang-Boom!)
Unsurprisingly, many people suffered during this time period, with your character ending up in one of the game’s main cities as part of a refugee camp. So you start from the bottom and work your way up. When the demo began, our presenter had only the clothes on his back, but he quickly plied his trade to sharpen up a sword via a quick yet physical minigame, the effects of which were visible on the finished blade. Next, it was time for a quest, but not to save the world or Enact Vengeful Revengeance Vengefully. No, this character needed money, because losing everything you own can be kind of expensive sometimes.
During these opening moments, I observed a brief dialogue scene in which choices were presented, though Warhorse fast-forwarded through much of the (obviously incomplete) narrative. But still, the developer got its point across. Despite the historical setting, you will be a character with agency and the ability to leave your mark on a place hewn from stone and bone. You’re not playing a blank slate, though. While I didn’t get to witness, well, any of the main character’s personality, project director Daniel Vávra likened him to Geralt from The Witcher. His appearance, sex, and past are pre-determined, but his future is up to you.
“Our goal is to create a story-based historical playground,” explained Vávra. “You can’t change the history. If the king was saved, he will be saved in the game. You can’t kill him during the operation. But your personal quests and life are pretty free, and there are lots of ways to do things. So there’s a little bit of compromise of total freedom, but you get a pretty great story.”
“There won’t be quite as much reactivity as in Witcher. You can change the ending, but you cannot change the history. Every quest can be solved different ways. There will be consequences to how you approach the story.”
Big Swords, Big Words
This character’s task early on, however, was rather un-epic – though not necessarily in a bad way. Essentially, we were playing medieval detective. Somebody descended upon a settlement in the night and hamstrung all of its horses, and just like that, we had a good ye old-fashioned whodunit on our hands. In a world where horseback is the de facto method of travel (created by a developer called Warhorse, no less), that is the most serious of offenses.
After some light investigation, our intrepid… guy tracked the perpetrators – a couple of no-good bandits, as videogame bandits are rarely given the benefit of the doubt – to a nearby forest. It was, then, time to combat! What I initially saw looked like an exceedingly intricate dance of death, but there was also a fair amount of jank in between all the clanks. First-person, which had so far sucked me into the game’s gorgeous world face-first, made combat feel disjointed and disorienting. Clipping issues abounded. Impact was seriously lacking. I couldn’t really understand timing or cues, and based on how much he was getting hit, neither could our presenter.
Warhorse explained, however, that this scene was from an outdated demo, at which point they switched over to something more combat focused. Here, I began to see the potential in Kingdom Come’s proposed system. Everything connected better, whether it was blade on blade or a hammering blow to the helmet. But obviously tweaked physics and effects weren’t the only reason it began to shine. For the purposes of this demonstration, Warhorse had pulled the camera out to third-person. It made a world of difference, which makes it all the more disappointing that the developer currently has no plans to implement a functional third-person mode. It’s first-person or bust, for now at least.
But goodness gracious, the systems underpinning all of these sword shenanigans nearly turned my brain into a number-skewered pincushion. The long and short of it? Everything is procedurally generated. There are no pre-made animations.
“Combat is calculated entirely with inverse kinematics, so it’s not even animated,” boasted Vávra. “It’s all procedural. On non-flat surfaces – say, stairs or something – we don’t need to do special animations. If characters are on something or hit something, then everything is calculated. You have a move, the move has its rules and its look, and then the game calculates what happens.”
“For example, if you are next to a wall and you swing toward the wall, your sword will slide off the wall, slow down, and the impact will be less when you finally make contact with your enemy.”
You can aim at individual parts of individual limbs, too. Blows can connect in up to 18 different locations, all of which are worthy of the most anguished “ouchies!” you’ll ever hear.
“Armor can be damaged,” Vávra noted, offering an example. “So if you hit a guy in the arm again and again and again, you will damage his armor so much that you will start to deplete his health or hopefully cut off the arm. But we’re still trying to figure out if the latter is technically possible due to physics systems and our multi-layered armor.”
“But we do want to have healing to individual parts. If you get hit in the hand, you’ll have to apply bandages there. Or if you get a leg injury, you’ll probably be worse in combat. You’ll be slower and stuff. If your head is injured, you’ll have blurry vision. Those kinds of things.”
I am, however, a bit more skeptical of the basic workings of combat. Don’t expect Mount and Blade’s control scheme here, or even War of the Roses’ for that matter. The way Vávra explained it, it sounds like combat is tailored to controllers (Kingdom Come is also headed to Xbox One and PS4), and without being able to grasp a button-studded hilt myself, it came across as fairly confusing and potentially limited. While Warhorse is striving for obsessive historical accuracy in world design, battles have block-based bullet time and QTE-ish combos. And yet, despite that, Vávra claimed that Kingdom Come’s combat will make the aforementioned slashers look like amateur hour whether you’re using a gamepad or keyboard-and-mouse.
“We don’t have any crazy mouse movements or anything like that,” he admitted. “Nothing like in Die By The Sword or War of the Roses. It’s very similar to any first-person game. I mean, I played Chivalry and Mount and Blade and everything. But, for example, War of the Roses system works, but it lacks options. The trick we do is, when you’re close to an enemy, you can select by slightly moving one of the joysticks. You can select which body parts you want to attack. Then it’s just buttons, like press A to attack from the top, or press B to step, or press X to kick the guy.”
“So it’s very simple and intuitive. And then since you can select where you want to attack, you have a flood of options. And then you also have bullet time and combos, and you need to be aware of your stamina. So there’s a lot of technique to it.”
It already looks quite nice, but I’ll believe it when I play it.
War And Peace
But what if you want to forgo fighting altogether? Well then, you’re in luck. While some Kingdom Come scenarios will almost certainly result in characters coming to blows (for instance, gigantic thousand-character siege battles), nearly every quest will allow for one of three basic approaches, and one of them is almost all bark and no bite.
“There are three main types of character you can be,” said Vávra. ”You can be a fighter and assault stuff with brutal power or just threaten people [if you don't want to be violent]. You’ll have a reputation for strength, so people will know to be afraid of you. Or you can be agile and fast, like a thief or stealthy guy who solves things by killing from behind and stealing stuff. Or you can be a kind of bard/intrigue guy who’s trying to solve stuff by talking, lying, and convincing people. We’re trying very hard to make sure every quest is playable in every way.”
“It’s really non-linear and emergent in that way,” he added, noting that there’s no pre-selected character classes either. You simply get better at skills the more you use them. So a stealthy beeftank or a silver-tongued horse whisperer? Entirely possible as long as you use the right skills frequently enough.
I asked for an example of one of the game’s more elaborate quests, and Vávra unspooled like a ball of yarn stuck to a kitten’s toenail. One quest, apparently, will see us investigating the tragic murder of a young girl, and it’ll be able to resolve in all sorts of ways. Most intriguingly, we’ll be able to accuse and convict people without solving the entire mystery. Partial evidence and false accusations might even get you a reward, because how can anybody really know you’re just pulling it from beneath the plates covering your hindquarters?
Oh, right: because after a brief period of peace, the murders will start right back up again. Great job, detective. The end result? You’ll lose reputation and karma with both individuals and whichever city you’re in. But who knows? Maybe you don’t care. Maybe you just need some quick cash.
He went on to tell me of other quests – both within the main plot and on the side. There’ll be a fair amount of espionage and infiltration of the enemy king’s ranks, for instance. Sometimes you’ll be legitimately attempting to negotiate for peace, other times you’ll be playing goody two-shoes while looking for somebody to stab in the back. And then there’ll be sieges, which require both preparation and execution on a positively massive (again, we’re talking in the thousands) scale.
“Publishers were very afraid of this – that there wouldn’t be anything interesting to play [in this time period],” Vávra confessed. ”But we’ve only discussed a couple quest lines. On top of that, there’ll be a lot of more typical RPG quests, like a thieves guild and an assassin’s guild. They won’t include monsters [like in Skyrim or other fantasy games], but I’m totally not afraid that we’ll have no interesting quests.”
But just how accurate is this world going to be? Well, I’m no historian, but I was pretty darn impressed with the level of detail in the (largely outdoor) environments I saw. Glorious green forests, towering castles, rundown refugee shanty towns, and bountiful space in between. Before embarking on a quest, my presenter just rode around on his warhorse (which had its own AI, auto-pathfinding capabilities, and presumably made videogames) and took in the scenery. Even at this early stage, it was a marvel to look at.
And while I might not be a historian, one of Warhorse’s newest hires totally is. ”We’re doing a lot of research,” emphasized Vávra. ”A lot. Starting next month, we will have an employee who’s a full-time historian. He’ll give advice to everyone else.”
“Everything is prepared according to historical fact. We have reconstructions of the real cities, so we went through archives looking for maps of old castles and stuff. I think it might sound a little bit scary because it’s going to be so real that it will be boring or something. If we were doing a fantasy game, we would have to come up with the artwork and design for everything. Since we are doing something that already existed, the study of how it looked is taking us about the same amount of work as it would if we were building a sci-fi or fantasy world.”
The team is also modelling Kingdom Come’s nine kilometers of geography off real-world satellite maps, but with one major caveat: everything is a whole lot smaller. Well, most things. Cities and landmarks are still being built to perfect scale, but the gaps in between aren’t quite as, well, country-sized. Why? Because
road horsetripping across a full-sized country – for all the kooky hijinks and murder mysteries that inevitably spring up – isn’t all that fun.
“One of the reasons the world was split into three maps is because the real-world locations are too far away from each other,” Vávra explained. ”If you placed them in one map, it would be like placing Berlin and London in one map without the sea and everything.”
“The location we’re using, I was there in a car, and I was like, ‘Only three kilometers? That’s nothing.’ But then I was driving for ten minutes, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is not fun even in the car. We need to make it shorter.’ So everything is about three times smaller than the real world. The satellite maps are exactly the same, but three times smaller. But the cities are as big as they should be. So if you’re there, you can figure out the place, but it’s a little smaller.”
That said, you still won’t find some crazy new dungeon or quest every few steps. Warhorse wants the world to feel natural, not “like Disneyland,” as they put it. There will be plenty of random events – people to save, animals to hunt, etc – but expect a little more open wilderness. This world is your playground, but Warhorse still wants you to work for it. Again, it’s all in the name of authenticity, even if that means you’re frustrated or bored on occasion. Do with that information what you will. It’s one aspect of the game that Vávra and co refuse to change.
Mount And Blade III, Is That You?
So Warhorse is crafting a hyper-accurate open world, but how about its systems? Combat struck me as slightly suspect, but also riddled with as much potential as our presenter had sword wounds. Beyond that, I was hopeful for something sanbox-y, but in reality Warhorse is aiming to hit more of a balance between the likes of Mount and Blade and theme-park-ish worlds like Skyrim. So, for instance, NPCs have schedules and lives, but they aren’t really operating as part of a giant, interwoven ecosystem. Neither, however, are they the mindless dead-eyed mannequins of, say, BioShock Infinite or its on-rails ilk. Warhorse is hoping to offer the best of both worlds, for better or worse.
“Mount and Blade is very interesting but also very generic, I would say,” opined Vávra. ”The production values are adequate to the size of their team and budget. Here, everything will look much better. More animations, more situations. But we’re not trying to simulate the world as an ecosystem. The cities have some ecosystem, the world has some ecosystem, but we’re not trying to simulate it like Mount and Blade. There are dependencies between events and stuff, but you probably won’t be able to destroy merchants if you destroy a city where their supplies come from or something. It’s more low level than games like Mount and Blade.”
You can, however, kill almost anyone. A few crucial characters will be off-limits, but otherwise you’re free to go wild. Just, you know, expect consequences. What sort, you ask? On the bottom level, there are little things. Say you kill a bartender, for example. NPCs probably won’t visit that bar anymore because they know better than to stand there and pray for a frosty beverage from their longtime pal nobody. But also look forward to losing some serious karma and reputation, not to mention making things pretty difficult on yourself in the future. Really though, what else would you expect? Past, present, probably future – wanton murder isn’t exactly something people take lightly.
“We want to make it authentic and get closer to reality,” reiterated Vávra. ”If something seems a little annoying, it has purpose. We want the player to know that if they do something, it costs something. Things are not free. It’s not fun killing people. There is responsibility and consequence in everything you do.”
But Warhorse only wants so-called “annoyance” to go so far. You will, for instance, also be responsible for your character’s overall health. Eating and sleeping will be crucial, but not to a point of tedium. Instead, the goal is to add intrigue, options, and another layer of technique both in and out of combat.
“Survival is not exactly annoying, but at the same time it plays an important role,” said Vávra. ”A day in-game will take about an hour-and-a-half. You will have to sleep at least once every 48 hours or else you’ll be very, very tired. If you don’t, you’ll still be able to walk and do stuff, but your stats will be much lower than usual. It’ll be harder for you to fight. Sleep, meanwhile, gives you an advantage. You’ll get a boost. You can prolong waking time by drinking alcohol or some potions to boost you up, but there will be drawbacks. When the effect goes away, you’ll be even more tired.”
“All this is because we want to make everything connect and make sense. So combat is largely based on stamina – more so than even health. It’s the most important combat stat. If you’re in full plate armor, you can hardly be injured by anything. But it’s very heavy and you get tired quickly. And when you’re tired, you can easily be pushed down to the ground and killed by one step in the middle of the plate or something. So if two knights fight, it’s more dependant on their stamina than their health. Stamina is derived from sleep and food, so you need to eat too.”
Killing isn’t always fun? People have to eat sometimes? Everything videogames taught me is a lie.
Joining The Medieval Mafia
There’s plenty to worry about in Kingdom Come. Tons, in fact. Will the combat system be up to par? Will the writing be interesting and “mature” like Warhorse is hoping, or will it read like an eighth grader’s history report meets an eighth grader’s fan fiction? Will the world stack up to more fantastical fare like Skyrim and The Witcher, or will it land awkwardly without convenient fantasy tropes to break its fall? Will it be a new bastion of depth, or will a potential slant toward consoles neuter it of real intrigue? And what’s the deal with all this Kickstarter business? Yeah, Warhorse claims that the game’s structure practically came ready-made to break down into three separate episodes, but that’s just soothing talk for now. Of course they’d tell us what we want to hear. They want our money, lest their game never even get off the ground in the first place.
Ambition is a magnificent thing, but it also breeds skepticism – justifiably so, I think. To its credit, Kingdom Come has some serious talent tugging its reins, a gorgeous engine powering its every move, and an impressive vision gluing it all together. For a game whose final version won’t see the light of day until the end of 2015, it’s in quite an enviable place. But a lot could go wrong between now and then, even with players partially steering the course by way of feedback on Star-Citizen-esque modules.
The passion sure seems to be there, though. For games, for history, for making cool stuff. I know I’d like a medieval Mafia, and if Vávra and co get their way, I’ll be getting an offer I probably won’t want to refuse.
“Mafia was one of the first games with a big, realistic world like this,” Vávra said. “It was different. With Mafia, I wanted to create an experience of how it was to be a gangster, and right now we want to create an experience of being a knight in a medieval world. We don’t want to make a Disneyland experience. We want to be as authentic as possible.”
“After we released the trailer, we were very curious about what the reaction would be. It got a great response! It’s like with Total War and Mount and Blade. They’re historical and ‘boring’ compared to dragons, but everyone loves them. Since there’s barely anyone else who’s doing this kind of thing, it seems there’s a lot of people who would like to get something like this. So I think we can do it.”
Godspeed, you Holy Roman emperor.