The development army of War Of The Roses is about to sally for from the castle of commercial release. Dan went hands on with it, versus the assembled might of the British press. Here's how he fared.
Dear though they are unto us, Paradox Interactive has a wonderful way of taking pre-release games out the back and quietly finishing them with a hatchet, before pushing their corpses into the river. They’re happy to admit that they’ve started killing games in development a lot more in the last year - and have been totally open about their strained relationship with the Magna Mundi team.
Hence we shouldn’t be disappointed or surprised when the great promise of that War of the Roses cinematic trailer I first wrote about oh-so-long ago won’t be entirely fulfilled. There is no story here. You don’t get to strangle the Princes in the Tower or bury Richard III in the car park. There is no campaign. This is purely multiplayer.
Despite that absence, you won’t miss it. As, first, there is a single-player section, called Battlegrounds - it’s much like Team Fortress’ bot modes, used for training players in all the many and varied weapons of the time, and for introducing the maps to you. And you will need training, because being good in the War of the Roses is skilful - but you either learn fast or die a lot. Perhaps both.
You get four pre-crafted starting classes to play around with, which unlock gradually: a middle-armoured footman with sword and shield unlocks first, and is definitely the Soldier of WOTR; they’re shouldn’t be doing the vast majority of damage, but they should tank it for everyone else, and they’re the class that dominated our play sessions, as they’re absolute sods to get past. Next you get a longbowman, for rapid fire and agility, and the much slower-firing, tougher crossbowman, for penetrating armour. Finally, you get a foot knight, a damage dealer who should win any slashing fights - and who comes with a large poleaxe, for taking down other armoured types.
As you play you level up and win gold - mainly by performing kills and executions, meaning players often gamble in combat with pursuing injured enemies and executing enemies already lying on the ground. (I’ve seen several battles lost because an effective unit of troops were split up by the distractions of easy pickings, getting picked off while the oh-so-slow execution animations played out.) You unlock new kit and perks by spending gold and levelling up - and you get enough from each session to make crafting custom classes something you can do from the very beginning of the game, though it takes a long time before they get the power of the starting classes.
So, after just a few sessions of footman hordes charging each other, I’d already unlocked a custom class, and equipped him with some nice kit - but it would take a lot more sessions to give him as many skills as the starting four classes, who come with ten perks to start with. Despite that, I could already see how playing with those starting classes shapes what you want to do with your custom heroes. I wanted an Agincourt-style longbowman, so I gave him a Longbowman perk and a Eagle Eyed perk, allowing him to reload longbows faster and zoom in on enemies. He was substantially weaker than the starting archer, but as long as I hid him, he became an effective sniper. You’re only allowed two perks from each of the five categories, and there’s up to ten perks in each category, so you can come up with all sorts of daft combinations.
On top of that, as we’ve explained earlier, in War of the Roses a helmet isn’t just a helmet and a bow isn’t just a bow. You’ll have a Hunting Bow or Longbow, that you’ve customised to have different arrow heads and shafts (selectable before each mission from a large array) and different construction. A sword will have a different build, pommel, edge, grip and style of fighting. Your helmets can have all sorts of extra attachments - as well as ridiculous crests to make you stand out on the battlefield. I spaffed a tremendous amount of gold early in the game to give my archer a heavy helmet, with a great fan crest on it that was much bigger than his head - then realised that this didn’t exactly segue with my desire to make him a stealthy-stealthy sniper. Cue many humiliating stabbings from vengeful pin-cushioned footmen who could see my giant brightly-coloured head across an entire map.
So you can see that there’s just a huge array of kit which mainly makes minor differences - but it’s obvious this game, like Team Fortress, is about finding that subtly-different load-out that works for you; it’s also like Planetside, in that higher level characters aren’t that more powerful than the starting classes, but more flexible. A foot knight might have high survivability with his armour - but he’s going to go down to a lighter-armoured footman if he doesn’t have a way of getting past his enemy’s shield, so he might carry a bastard sword for soft targets, a double-headed hammer for bashing armour and a fast ballock (yes, that is named after male genitalia) knife, to keep every eventuality covered.
You need that variety of weapons because the combat can be surprisingly skilful, even in the midst of a melee. With a crowd of just ten men bashing away at each other and friendly fire definitely on, every blow and shot should be taken with greater care. Footmen advance with their shields, archers strain as they wait for the perfect shot, crossbowmen reload frantically (there’s a nice active reload system for them)...
...And knights lower their lances, spur their steeds and run down the peasantry.
One roving knight, well ridden with a well-aimed lance, is a match for a group of footmen, especially at this stage where the beta players are still learning the game. Yet one good archer can take down a knight’s horse, and one good footknight (with his visor closed) can be indomitable against a group of archers. The more powerful weapons have a certain finesse to them. I died more than once as a footknight when dagger-wielding archers got inside the range of my poleaxe, which has a tiny (but hugely damaging) killing zone at its end; lances are handled similarly. Given that every melee weapon can be swung in four ways (left, right, overhead, and to stab), and given that the game warns you of incoming blows early enough to parry them, combat can often be about attrition and numbers.
What isn’t great, at the start, is working out how close you are to karking it. There’s blood spatter on the screen and your soldier definitely seems battered, but it’s only when the ‘bleeding out’ warning appears that you start to panic. Up until that point, you feel like you can win any melee, unless you’re totally outnumbered. So many times playing the game, I’ve seen a single soldier beat the odds, through luck or skill, and take down tougher enemies or multiple opponents, by parrying intelligently rather than just slashing away. You really can’t let your guard down and you can’t get over-confident - yet you do.
But when you start bleeding, you know you have to kill all your immediate enemies in ten seconds or run, otherwise you’ll just topple over. As every class takes a while to start moving at speed (more so if they’re wearing heavy armour pieces) running is rarely an option, unless you’re in a group. It’s better to survive as long as you can, in the hope of the (metaphorical and literal) cavalry arriving, but bleeding stops that. So during our play sessions, I gradually saw a shift from small one-on-one melees or archery duels, to everyone piling into one massed fight, with footmen and knights at the front, archers and crossbowmen at the back, and the rare knights charging up when the melee was underway.
Under these circumstances, executions and bleed-outs only tended to happen when the whole of our force was defeated (and, as players can form squads and spawn on their squad leaders, wipes became rarer), or when players got isolated. This in turn meant there was much more time for reviving fallen allies, and bandaging yourself or others on the run, as the lines of battle moved and your teammates covered for you.
The seven maps available at the moment provide significantly difference theatres for stabby-stabby executions and maybe even some combat; the jousting field is obviously better for cavalry than the narrow lanes of a medieval town, but almost every other class works on any of the maps.
I played with twenty people in Team Deathmatch, and it felt like a nasty Medieval skirmish - with the maximum 64 players and Conquest mode (which we didn’t get to try), the battlefield might as well be carpeted in the dying. This is delightfully grim simulation of a pointlessly bloody part of English history; if Paradox ride down the minor bugs, this is going to be a multiplayer storm.
War Of The Roses is released on October 2nd.