When I play a big multiplayer combat game, I like to stop fighting and look around. I judge a lot of games on what I see at those moments, seeing how the battle feels when I’m not a part of it: In Battlefield, it’s thrilling to see jets gracefully curving through the air as tanks blast them from below; In Team Fortress 2, ubered Heavies leading a charge as the enemy hastily rework their defenses makes me happy. During a lull in my hands-on of War of the Roses, I took stock: to my right, through grasses and the trees, I watched a knight stand up, yanking his sword up out of the face of an unseen body on the ground. The effort it took to wrench metal from skull was beautifully transparent from the animation. Behind him, a galloping horse dropped in that heavy way horses do, crashing to the ground and out of sight in seconds, spilling its lance-wielding rider. A lot of intimate battles formed as the slow, deliberate combat locked people together.
War of the Roses is third-person medieval multiplayer combat game from the developers of the underloved Western multiplayer game, Lead and Gold. It’s set in England during the bloody battle between the Yorks and the Lancasters. Even the producer describes it by saying “take Modern Warfare or Battlefield and then throw it back 700 or 800 years”, which is an a unworthy, general description for something that really treads more of its own ground than you’d expect. The similarities, multiplayer, 64-person servers, character customisation, don’t tell real story of War of the Roses.
It took me a while to figure out what that story is: this is the multiplayer game where you’ll take time over every encounter. No weapon feels outright deadly, apart from a lance from horseback and that’s a massively difficult thing to do, so no-one just drops without having put up a fight. Every death at my hands took work, and I never gave up my own ground easily when overwhelmed. Everything takes time: aiming a longbow, priming a crossbow, loading a gun, swinging a sword. You have to be sure that you’re about to make a meaningful impact, because trying again means hopping through the same hoops.
So it breeds a personal rivalry, even in huge multiplayer melees: if someone is that focused to take the time to load knock an arrow, to aim, to wait for the two little circles to rotate to the highest strength… well you have to respond. One fight I’d selected a Man at Arms, so I had a spear. I ran into a two-on-one fight, swinging so the tip of my staff was striking (if you hit with the wood it doesn’t do anything): as my team-mate backed up, keeping out of reach of the attackers, he led one into my spear point before pushing back into their cosy little melee. I danced around him, aiming strikes as and when he left an opening. We were a little clot of angry stabs and slices, in a world of our own. He died just as I landed a killing blow on one of the pair of assaulters. I backed up, trying to keep out of range of the other’s sword, but couldn’t get a good retort and fell to a slicing, angled blow to the neck. When you have the time, you can stand over your opponent and execute him. I watched from first-person as he flipped his sword over to prepare jam it into my eyeballs: I watched the point waver and he fell forwards. I survived: one of our archers had shot him before he could finish me off, and another closer player revived me.
Because I was part of a press pack battle, no-one on the server had a signifying name: if I’d know who had bested me I’d have spent the rest of the game seeking revenge. Handily that notion is supported with the wide customisation offered off the battlefield: apparently mimicking the vanity of the knights of the time, who were exceedingly vain, there’s an entirely customisable suit of armour and weapon set for you to smith. Beginning with the choice of fighting style, you can then modify things like the thickness of the armour, what goes on the armour’s flairy headpiece (one knight of ye olde tymes had a clocktower), the choice of main weapon, the wood and metal on that weapon, what sort of edge it has, it’s balance. It’s both aesthetically driven and tactically important: do you want a visor on your helmet? Sure it might look cool and protect you from arrows, but it also dims your vision a lot. With careful scrutiny, you should have rough idea of a combatant’s strengths. Even back then, the armour was coloured to show what side the knights were fighting on.
This is all modified on the battlefield: like Mount and Blade, you define your angle of attack with a swipe of the mouse, but War of the Roses has a deeper system in place. Just after you’ve angled your attack, a meter appears that lets you judge the strength before you swing: It’s a system that makes slashing away without thought less effective than feeling the pulse of the fight and acting accordingly. Like I mentioned before, firing the longbow requires the timing to bring together two rotating markers: hold it too long and you’ll lose power and accuracy. Do it from the back of a horse and you might we well be on a roller-coaster. I managed to hop up on one as a longbowman and died shortly after. Switching to a cavalry unit wasn’t much more effective, as controlling the speed and direction of the horse while keeping a bobbing lance steadied is a little too involved, but I did provide another with the joy of sniping another rider off his horse. It’s quite the humiliation to land on the ground and watch another person hopping on your equine ride and seeing them slash down into your supporting team mates, but sort of worth it to feel like boss on top of a horse while toting a giant splinter.
There’s a lot of tuning needed for War of the Roses, but in the rough state I played it in it convinced me that there’s room beside Battlefield and Modern Warfare for a historical combat melee game. In fact, the slow-pace and the effect it has on the combat, I’d argue that it’s needed. It adds skill and back into the perk and unlocked dominated genre, and the thud of arrows, the clop of horses, and the clash of metal
BONUS! It turns out Total Biscuit was at the same preview event and recorded some of the combat.