Premature Evaluation: Medieval Engineers

The toothy, undulating stonework battlements is often called crenelation, crenels being the gaps (from which we get the word 'cranny') and the protrusions being called, variously, cops or merlons. It's not entirely clear where the word 'merlon' comes from - conflicting attributions give it a Latin origin meaning pitchfork and, oddly, blackbird. One suggestion is that the word for blackbird is used in this way because it suggests things perched along a wall. Bit of a stretch, I think.

Each week Marsh Davies punches a hole through the vertiginous walls of Early Access and comes back with any stories he can find and/or watches with grotesque, wet-lipped arousal as the entire structure disassembles in a shower of hot, hot physics. This week, he makes, then mounts, the battlements in Medieval Engineers, a castle construction sandbox. And then he unmakes them, too.

Once you’ve built a castle in Medieval Engineers, you can look at it, hit CTRL-C, then CTRL-V and paste a brick-for-brick duplicate of your entire complex anywhere else in the level. Including the sky – though they are not wont to stay there for very long. Castles, despite a plethora of idiomatic song titles suggesting otherwise, are very much a ground based medium, and when placed in the sky, they attempt to revert to form, with glorious physics-enabled results.

Where's the drop?

For maximum physics, I recommend dropping one castle on top of another. My PC only manages to render this collision at a speed of a frame every few seconds, but it’s worth the wait. Indeed, I’ve been waiting years: I recall cooing at a supposedly realtime explosive disassembly the better part of a decade ago, but it is only now that such detonations are escaping the ideal operating conditions of tech-demos. The half-measures of Battlefield’s pre-cooked collapses and sly model-switcheroos don’t cut it. I want fully razeable buildings that can be dynamically perforated, chunked and shattered in their entirety. Finally, Medieval Engineers delivers the smithereens we’ve been waiting for, framerates be damned.

Currently there’s not much more to Medieval Engineers than that: you can build a castle, you can build catapults, and then you can use one to smash the other (either way works when you can drop a castle from 1000 ft up). There’s no grander campaign structure in the game, and it’s not clear that this will ever be a particularly directed experience – though multiplayer and an inevitable survival mode are in the works.

It’s natural to fantasise about a future in which you could join a populous server and collectively siege a player-built, player-defended fort, smashing down towers with ballistas or undermining walls, before storming through the breach shrieking “IT’S CLOBBERIN’ TIME!” (Henry V, act III, scene ii). However, I am sceptical as to the feasibility of anything quite on the scale I desire, given the heavy toll the game exerts on even this reasonably high-end PC. Them smithereens ain’t computationally cheap. But that fantasy is coming, rest assured, if not from this game, then another a few years down the line. What Medieval Engineers offers already is a precis – a singleplayer medieval Lego set that you can smash – and that’s been more than enough to devour many hours of my life already.

Those hours have been devoted to the construction and cathartic deconstruction of Fort Titbeard, Mountain Throne Of The Marshlord, Benevolent Ruler of Some Several Acres of Otherwise Empty Sandbox, Inept Mason, Medieval Literature Nerd MA Hons. During this process I’ve learned a number of critical things, usually after the point at which they would have been critically useful:

1) I should have watched the brief tutorial video.
2) I should have disabled autosave.
3) I should have reduced the number of debris chunks to zero.

Damn those smithereens! Smithereens is an Irish word in origin, meaning small fragments, by the way. The etymology is no more exciting than this, alas. Try harder, Language. These alt-texts don't fill themselves.

You can do the last two only before loading a level (select your saved game and hit the “edit settings” button). I recommend doing so because it’s easy to accidentally delete a load-bearing block and watch as your meticulously constructed gate-arch crumples into your meticulously constructed mountain stairway, and rolls downward in a physics-enabled avalanche of pure FUCK straight through all your meticulously constructed checkpoint fortifications, all the way down to the very bloody bottom of the shit-pissing mountain. And then the game autosaves. Gnnnnnggg.

With the chunks reduced to zero, collapsing structures quickly evaporate before they can cause a cascade of misery (and you can turn them on again later, just as easily). Your level thus primed, construction can begin. Left click places the currently selected prefabricated building block, right click erases it. Toggling Z lets you place multiple blocks within the same space and J unhitches you from the rigid grid to which your blocks otherwise snap. I’m not sure it’s all that useful to do this, though, as disregarding grid-snap tends to lead to unstable structures, and I found it impossible to place non-snapping blocks so that they clipped into the ground and offered a solid foundation. Grid-snap, though a little restrictive, nonetheless permits fairly elaborate structures: the integrity of building blocks is generously modeled, allowing you to build out in gravity-defying directions. You can hit N to see the amount of weight each block is bearing, and, as you can see from the experiment below, the game really is pretty forgiving.

Zaha Hadid's later works were bold but not entirely practical.

Not that Fort Titbeard requires forgiveness, being an edifice built to exacting architectural standards that only falls down three or four times during construction. It consists of a tower rising like a strident peen (as do most towers, I suppose) from the peak of a mountain overlooking the valley. From this a tall thin wall runs along a ridgeway, connecting Proudpeen Tower to a substantial sprawl of buildings and battlements.

Day one goes slowly, as I obsessively lay the foundations and get to grips with some of the less obvious eccentricities of the build menu (all of which are addressed in the short tutorial video I haven’t watched because I’m stupid). Most vital among these things I don’t know is that some blocks conceal a selection of multiple blocks, and you can scroll through their various forms using the mouse-wheel. This makes it a lot easier to construct the corner-pieces for overhanging battlements; previously I’d tried disastrous grid-free repurposing of other block types that resulted in a number of tower-shattering mistakes.

The second day I get distracted from the castle by building a staircase to it. Initially I try manipulating the voxel landscape to create a sloping pathway to the castle gate, but I find it hard to do this smoothly and exactly; for some reason the way the voxel brush hangs in front of the camera makes it impossible to judge distance. Instead, I decide to build a very elaborate zig-zagging staircase, punctuated by fortified waystations, all the way up the mountain. The incline doesn’t really demand a zig-zag, but grid-snap, alas, does. Without gridsnap, the staircase block refuses to be embedded into the mountain side, making a more direct, diagonal ascent impossible. It looks cool, mind you – not unlike the approaches to Japanese castles, with their many switchbacks, chokepoints and defensive overlooks. And then I send an avalanche of bricks down it and fuck the entire thing up.

Look at them steps. Why are stairs referred to as a flight? Is it just an allusion to the act of elevation? Is it the same sort of flight we have in a flight of wine, or geese or arrows? Do we get it from the French via translation - 'volée d’escalier'? Or perhaps it's from the German flucht, which doesn't so much refer to flying as running away from, and is sometimes used in architecture to describe objects in alignment. Theories welcome!

Day three and, having dechunked my level settings and repaired my staircase, I’m back on the castle proper, building out the fort at the back, and adding enough rooms to house a reasonable contingent of men. Not that the castle will, because this is singleplayer. And I’m going to smash it to bits. To whit, once complete, I spend a few satisfied minutes wandering round the battlements of my creation before spawning a horde of barbarians in the valley below and setting them to reduce Fort Titbeard to ruins. The barbarian bots are very much in the prototype stage, however, and run off into the woodland, bellowing like idiots. Clearly, the task falls to me.

In this freeform mode of the game, the player can summon and instantly fire boulders, holding the right mouse button to charge up their force. I zip around the fort, knocking chunks of masonry out of its most sensitive points, obliterating its outer defences, carving the barracks in two and doing something terrible to poor Proudpeen Tower. I spawn a few barbarians in the castle courtyard, but they just run into walls yelling, so I pummel them with boulders, too. Finally, as the cries and crumbling masonry fall silent, it’s time for the drop: a cut and paste later and Fort Titbeard is being annihilated by its evil flying twin. I’ve set the number of chunks midway to 500 – I daren’t melt my computer with any more – but this is not nearly enough to render the collapse of two mighty Titbeards. Instead, the chunk limit gives the effect of the forts boiling away from the landscape; towers tumble and then evaporate. It’s strangely beautiful.

HULK SMASH! (Macbeth, act II, scene iv)

I’m not sure how many times I will be inclined to rebuild and raze Titbeard, or other castles like it. The novelty of the construction set and its physics will wear off, and it remains to be seen whether multiplayer will be able to pull off warfare on a scale to make sense of castle architecture. Of course, I haven’t yet explored the building of catapults: the game has components enough to build elaborate mechanisms and no doubt the community are already using these to create ingenious and often NSFW contraptions of the sort we have seen in similar ballista-building-game Besiege. Full-scale online siege warfare or not, the prospect of smashing Titbeard’s doors in with a giant flaming dingdong may prove to be well worth the price of entry.

Medieval Engineers is available from Steam for £15, though this price will rise as the game adds more features. I played version 0.02 on 25/02/2015.

Because I am the world's most tedious man, one of my favourite pastimes is to watch period dramas and make pointless bets with myself as to whether words or phrases are anachronistic. The pseudo-trash UK police procedural Ripper Street is particularly good for this, as it is so often laughably ahistorical, and yet frequently surprises me by (probably unwittingly) deploying a modern-sounding idiom that turns out to be perfectly ancient.

I was on the money with the suspicious use of 'scouser' for example. Scouse was in usage at the time Ripper Street is set, but as the name for a meat stew, brought to these shores by Norwegian sailors. The first instance of it referring to the people of Liverpool and surrounding areas appears to have been in 1945. But I was wrong about the exceedingly modern-sounding 'don't knock it until you've tried it' - which dates to 1892, making it exactly contemporaneous with Ripper Street.

And I was apparently a total fool to think 'mope' was a recent word - that's from the 1580s. Anyway, the reason I mention this is because I was similarly struck by the phrase 'shot to pieces', as used by one of the characters in Hilary Mantel's excellent Wolf Hall, supposedly in the 1530s, to describe the state of his liver. I couldn't find a first use for this phrase, but cannons were pretty popular back then, of course, and many of the modern usages of the word 'shoot' and its derivatives were solidified in the exact decade that Wolf Hall is set. Nonetheless, the idea of someone being shot TO BITS conjures images of machine guns and sustained fire that seems out of time.

But playing Medieval Engineers, it occurred to me that while people were unlikely to be shot to bits, the Tudors would have been more than familiar with seeing castles returned into their component parts by multiple projectiles. So, well done, Mantel. EXCEPT NOT. While you could say 'a thing is shot' in the 1530s, the meaning was such that the thing being shot would be the projectile and not the victim. The adjectival use of the word 'shot' meaning 'wounded by a bullet' or indeed the figurative use to mean 'worn out' both date to as late as the 19th century. Yeah! In your FACE, Mantel. (Although, the entire book intentionally uses a subtly modernised vernacular, so I doubt this is in any way a mistake. So, probably: in my face, Mantel. Never bet against Mantel. But do buy her books.)

32 Comments

Top comments

  1. Marsh Davies says:

    AND LO! I should not have even tentatively bet against Mantel. As RPS reader and early modern history Phd Richard Bell points out in this enlightening twitter exchange, I am wrong about "shot", though possibly not entirely wrong about the phrase "shot to pieces" as a whole: https://twitter.com/dicky_bell/status/572712888567238656
  1. Nice Save says:

    …did you add four extra screenshots just so you’d have room for all those alt-texts?

    If so, bravo.

  2. amateurviking says:

    Marsh displays Kojima-sensai levels of fascinating waffle. I approve heartily, and favour the French origin for ‘flight’ sensu stairs.

    As a result of that, I am now reminded of the obscure 80s feature length cartoon The Flight of Dragons, which of course has nothing to do with flocks or flights but does, if I recall correctly, feature the main antagonist exploding in a puff of logic. Which is not something you see every day.

    • fiftharm says:

      Oh, my. The Flight of Dragons was not a memory I expected to have conjured, but just reading the title started the theme song in my brain.

      Peter stringing together “Algebra, trigonometry, calculus!” like some sorcerous litany certainly stuck with seven-year-old me.

    • JB says:

      Thank you for this blast of nostalgia I’m now warmed by! I remember watching The Flight of Dragons while I was ill and then having to rewatch it when I was better as I wasn’t sure if it had been real or at least partially a fever dream.

      Good times.

  3. Max Planck says:

    Maybe rps could do a ‘premature evaluation’ on the mmo also made by the devs behind space/medieval engineers?
    Oh wait, that was a scam. The just sold preorders, then cancelled the project without telling anybody.
    Well, carry on with the constant advertisement you provide to these conmen then. We all know that critical questions are reserved for that fellow with the french sounding name, whom I can’t be bothered to google because I’m on the sillyphone.

    • airmikee says:

      link to minerwars.com
      “We have also decided to offer the opportunity to the people who purchased Miner Wars MMO to exchange it with a Space Engineers copy. Miner Wars MMO remains in the development plans, but still in an inactive state. In order to request for an exchange, please send us an email at support@keenswh.com and include your MinerWars.com profile username or the email address you used to create the account.”

      So silly how the definitions of ‘scam’ and ‘conmen’ have morphed to now include ‘delayed video games’. Did I say ‘silly’? I meant ‘stupid’.

      • Max Planck says:

        It was supposed to have released in 2012, now my calendar claims we are in 2015. but sure, the game is coming, they just aren’t working on it at the moment.

        Face it guy, they dropped it.

        • airmikee says:

          I’m not speaking to that claim. I was addressing your use of the words “scam” and “conmen”. Comparing a video game developer, that is trying to make good on its delay of the game, to actual conmen and scammers like Bernie Madoff and “Rachel from Cardmember Services” (google it) devalues the words ‘scam’ and ‘conmen’.

          It might be a bit sleazy or shady to delay a game for three years after taking pre-orders, but that shadiness and sleaziness kinda disappears once they begin offering another game in place of one they can’t seem to finish. But again, that kind of behavior doesn’t even approach the level of ‘scam’ or ‘conmen’. They made a mistake and they’re trying to make up for it, is that really the kind of behavior you want to call a scam? If so, please continue, the comedy value will be hilarious knowing you truly think that is the attitude a conman takes to its victims.

          • mattlambertson says:

            When the new game is completely different from the game they were taking pre orders for, no it does not take away the shadiness. Stringing people along with constantly moving targets of unfulfilled hopes is precisely what con men do. I won’t claim to know these dev’s intentions but the track record doesn’t look good, and I didn’t even know there was a previous game before Space Engineers until I read this. At some you have to just finish what you start before you move onto an idea that temporarily excites you more.

          • derbefrier says:

            “It might be a bit sleazy or shady to delay a game for three years after taking pre-orders, ”

            “Miner Wars MMO remains in the development plans, but still in an inactive state”

            I usually give devs a lot more leeway than others but thats a little more than shady. sounds like these people got robbed. Granted it may not have been done on purpose but that sentence sounds to me like they just don’t want to admit they abandoned the project and tried to give out a free game in a hope to save face. That update was going on a year ago and as far as i can tell there hasnt been any since and they have started a new game even since then. In his shoes I think scam and conman is appropriate. He didn’t get what he paid for and by the devs own admission the game isn’t even being worked on and there is no reason to believe they will start again in the future.

          • aepervius says:

            “That car you preordered ? Well it ain’t coming, we are suspending building it, but here is a motorbike for you. ”

            I am sorry, airmikee, but if you take pre order, and cannot fulfill those order, but keep the money not offering refund and give another trinket instead, then you are scamming, and i.o.w. doing something illegal in quite a few part of the world. This is not kickstarter, a pre order has a well defined meaning in sales, and is a contract. Once the project was put on ice, it should have been their responsibility and also their loss to offer a refund OR if people wish, the choice of taking space engineer.

            The way it went, I recommend against trusting that company and its lead with any money until they have a firm working version 1.0 of anything.

          • airmikee says:

            RE: aepervius

            Then take them to court and stop whining about it online.

          • airmikee says:

            You really think that a developer overpromising on a video game is anywhere near the same ballpark as Rachel from Cardmember Services that calls random people hoping one of them is gullible enough to give out their credit card info or Bernie Madoff that took $18 billion with absolutely no intention of ever paying it back?

            That’s funny. Sad, but still funny.

          • Cinek says:

            People defend scammers. Once again. Laughable.

          • Max Planck says:

            Okay, let me see if I got this straight:
            Unless your scam is on the scale of Bernie Madoff’s, it isn’t really a scam? That guy sure set a high bar for dishonesty.

            You also seem to think that warning people against dishonest companies is ‘whining’. Well, have it your way.
            I’m going to ‘whine’ about these dishonest people some more.
            There’ll be plenty of opportunities for it, rps writes an article everytime Marek Rosa cuts a fart.

      • Rindan says:

        If they had offered to refund the money, it wouldn’t be sleezy. If they had offered the choice of one or two of their other games it wouldn’t be sleezy. Offering them an complete game that no one who had just been ripped off would by is sleezy. They have the money between Space Engineers and this; just refund it to those who want the refund, free games for those who want that, and call it a day.

        If someone pre-orders a game and then you decide to cancel it, give the money back.

      • wu wei says:

        Originally, Miner Wars was supposed to contain the functionality that their MMO promised, but they were more than happy to split it out into a separate product after selling early access copies and suggest that those who bought MW for what they claimed it would feature should purchase the MMO instead. No discount, no offer of refunds. It was definitely shady.

        They seem to have followed through pretty well on Space Engineers but the whole Miner Wars experience was enough for me not to want to give them any more of my money.

    • jeriktelorian says:

      Keen really needs to just say “Miner Wars was making us no money and is failed, dead, and buried.” (They apparently released the full source code so I guess they pretty much did?). Space Engineers came out nearly a year and a half ago and has received relentless updates, additions, and bugfixes.

      You don’t need to blindly trust them, but the Miner Wars crowd makes Keen sound like a conspiracy on the level of the Gunpowder Plot.

  4. mattlambertson says:

    Not to be a degenerate console serf but if you’re interested in destructible buildings, check out the newly released coaster-destruction game Screamride from the makers of Elite Dangerous and Roller Coaster Tycoon. Apparently it has the best destruction physics yet seen in an AAA game. Hope they manage to bring some of it to PC when they release the next tycoon game, since these things are easily scalable to CPU power and I’d rather have that running of my FX4790 than whatever the hell the Xbox One’s chip is.

    • FriendlyFire says:

      NB: Frontier didn’t actually make RCT. They ported the original to the Xbox and made expansions for RCT2. They took over full time development with RCT3.

      The original RCT was an evolution upon the almighty Transport Tycoon by none other than Chris Sawyer.

      • mattlambertson says:

        Yes, sorry, I meant RCT3. The other ones were before my time and I forgot they existed *fail*

    • Cinek says:

      “Apparently it has the best destruction physics yet seen in an AAA game” – these are some very loud claims right there. From the very fact that they claim it to be an AAA game to the fact that these “best destruction physics” still look comparable if not worse than some of the PhysX games.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    My favorite bit of weird, destruction-related etymology: characters in Patrick O’Brian’s fantastic Aubrey-Maturin series (the basis for the Russell Crowe movie Master and Commander) often say that a publicly debunked scientific theory has been “thoroughly exploded.” It turns out they’re not making an allusion to gunpowder: the Latin “ex plaudit” literally means “applaud away,” as in driving a performer from the stage with boos and hisses, and was used in this sense up through the 19th century at least. The mutation from this to “destroy with a loud noise” to the modern meaning is considerably more recent.

  6. Shadowcat says:

    Best RPS image captions ever? There’s some stiff competition, but this article has to be a contender…

    • Guvornator says:

      Anyone who bothers to do them gets my undying love and devotion. So good news, Marsh, we’re going out!

      Although, Habib’s earlier works aren’t exactly practical either. Her Vitra Fire Station combines features such as loads of sharp edges (which is great for people rushing around because they’re putting out a fire) with intentionally transparent toilet cubicles (great for watching someone do a shit even though they don’t want you watching them do a shit).

  7. Marsh Davies says:

    AND LO! I should not have even tentatively bet against Mantel. As RPS reader and early modern history Phd Richard Bell points out in this enlightening twitter exchange, I am wrong about “shot”, though possibly not entirely wrong about the phrase “shot to pieces” as a whole: link to twitter.com

    • Guvornator says:

      Did you award yourself Top Comment? We’re through, Marsh! I..I thought you were the one

      • Marsh Davies says:

        Apols, all this monarchic castle building has gone to my head. But then again, does not all power ultimately derive from God, thus making my power over this comments section divinely ordained and just?

        • GOD says:

          NO.

          AND STOP USING MY NAME IN VAIN, OTHERWISE I’LL TELL YOUR MUM ABOUT YOUR INTERNET HISTORY. AND BECAUSE I’M OMNISCIENT, I MEAN ALL OF IT, INCLUDING THE STUFF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED YET…

  8. Mr Coot says:

    MD>”it’s easy to accidentally delete a load-bearing block and watch as your meticulously constructed gate-arch crumples into your meticulously constructed mountain stairway, and rolls downward in a physics-enabled avalanche of pure FUCK straight through all your meticulously constructed checkpoint fortifications, all the way down to the very bloody bottom of the shit-pissing mountain. And then the game autosaves. Gnnnnnggg”

    I’ve been grinning to myself for several days, because this is resonates with some of my most catastrophic gaming moments. I think the first sentence deserves recognition, so in case there isn’t a category in the RPS end of year awards, I’m noting my admiration here. Also: Old English, Middle English and 16th C. profanity.