Multiplayer stab 'em up Chivalry II says it is inspired by "medieval war movies". The word "movies" is significant. Any historical theme invites complaints of inaccuracy, and the usual shield-wall pedantry. But by channeling Braveheart, Gladiator and that one scene in Anchorman, the makers of this bloodthirsty sequel are saying up-front: "No, this is the fun kind of head chopping". And they'd be right. Chivalry II is a ridiculous, over-the-top ruckus, with knights being catapulted across the field and infantry chucking trout at each other in a breathless panic. "Blood is my paint and the land is my canvas!" shouts one soldier, using the game's dedicated "battlecry" button. I couldn't agree more. This is art.
It's very straightforward. You're a medieval soldier and you're desperate to chop limbs off. Battles take place in three flavours: 64-player, 40-player, or a "free-for-all" mode (used to best effect in servers running duelling matches with their own etiquette). Team battles often see an attacking side storming across large maps to complete objectives, while defenders try to stop them. For example, one foggy map has the attackers pushing a caravan toward a distant castle. Along the way they must destroy barricades, capture a gatehouse, and storm walls. Finally, they must kill the duke, a player assigned (I think) at random, whom the defenders need to rally around in a last stand.
There are others with a more vanilla deathmatch goal, including one that takes place in a gladiatorial arena, a trap-filled toy box similar to the duelling arena of the first Chivalry. But the best battles are protracted assaults that offer chances for wild-eyed heroism and stupidity. They are full of last-minute rescues, reckless charges, bloodsoaked bottlenecks, and filthy flanks.
The combat itself is easy to grasp. There are swings, thrusts, and powerful overhead attacks. You can block for as long as your stamina meter holds up, but a swift kick will open you right up. You can also throw your weapon - but more on this particular joy later. There are more complex moves, like sneaky feints and a method of countering enemy strikes by anticipating the type of attack they'll do. It's a bit harder to pull off, but very learnable after a few fatal practice attempts.
What's most important to know is that successful hits grant initiative. In other words, if I slice your belly, it's still my "turn". Those who play fighting games know this as "frame advantage" but here it's not so complex. Basically, if you've been hit, don't try and hit back right away. Simple. You can do anything else. Dodge, block, crouch, counter, or jab. Along with the game theory trinity of block-beats-slice, kick-beats-block, and slice-beats-kick, it successfully boils fighting game rules down to its simplest principle: don't mash.
As a result, the barrier to entry is refreshingly low. I much prefer the combat here to that of Mordhau, for instance, where the sword clinking always felt hard to read. I like Mordhau but here things are much more lenient. Maybe there are more icons, maybe the clarity of the sound effects and little sparks make it feel more solid, more beginner-friendly. Or maybe it's simply that everyone seems to have a bit more health, and strikes don't demand so much precision. In Mordhau I would often swing and wonder "why did that miss?" as my head rolled 'pon a carpet of mashed gore. But in Chivalry 2 even I, the village oaf, can riposte blows from several attackers and hold them off long enough to get one or two kills. Something about this war feels friendlier, more approachable and sympathetic, like a nice grandad. Yes, I realise I am talking about decapitating people.
That means some challenge for the Mordhau elite might not be here. I already know that walking longsword and fellow RPS cadaver Matt Cox prefers Mordhau's precision and lethality. I know this because he slaughtered his way up a hill as I diligently pushed a battering ram behind him in one meaty siege of Chivalry 2. But not everybody has his rapier-edge sense. As a reformed For Honor player, I like it when a game treats you like little baby, so long as other players don't.
"As a reformed For Honor player, I like it when a game treats you like little baby, so long as other players don't."
And they really don't. One-vs-many fights are common, and part of the fun. You can hold off for a little while, blocking and countering, and I have (on rare occasion) come out on top. But mostly this is a game about tactically choosing where to brawl. Sometimes, when you lose all health, you'll get knocked down rather than die outright, and this gives teammates a chance to revive you. But more often it results in a hasty, merciless execution by enemies, who will turn into ravenous dogs as soon as they see a downed target. It's interesting to see different attitudes of downed players. Some will take last minute swings at the ankles of their executioners. Others will turn and immediately try to crawl through a thicket of team mates to safety. Some just look up in resignation, and accept the sweet embrace of the blade. Being downed is very character-revealing.
Speaking of characters, there are multiple classes to choose, but I find they don't alter the game as much as they might in a battle royale or a hero shooter. Some classes get health kits to dole out or healing horns to trumpet, firebombs to throw or spike traps to set. There are often small bonuses to damage. The Footman's sprinting attack has a bit more oomph, for instance. The Ambusher does more damage if they strike from behind.
Archers are the class that feels most distinct, and playing as one is a real scramble, since you have to be in decent range to land hits with any reliability. But many players despise archers, so posting yourself on a nearby pile of crates is like displaying a buffalo leg to a komodo dragon. Warriors rush you down as soon as they see you, they will make mad dashes even through enemy lines, they will embrace death just to know an archer has been killed. I have experienced this bullheaded charge from both perspectives and I can tell you: that's good video games.
My favourite character class, however, is the Raider, who has two primary weapons. For me that means one war axe to throw and another to charge in and wail on my foe. Throwing weapons in general is an instant spike of dopamine, so much so that I will regularly throw all my weapons, at which point I have to rummage about on the floor for a new sword, a sight that must be funny to the enemy I have missed three times, now menacingly approaching. Of course, if you fail to find a sharp bit of steel, there are other options. Maps are filled with throwable detritus. Rocks, tools, barrels, planks. You can stick your hand in a well and find a fish to lob. You can pick dung off the floor and chuck that. An enemy knight once doinked me with a roast chicken. I cannot fault his valour.
Far from being a horrific bloodbath, Chivalry II is a wholeheartedly funny game. I have beaten a man to death after he cut my arm off, while I was bleeding out. I have thrown hatchets at netted barrels and hanging lanterns to dislodge said hazards onto the heads of enemy troops. I have achieved victory by being blown sky high in an explosion.
It's not all ragdoll fun, of course. Deathmatches lack the heroic (or disastrous) moments of the objective-based battles, and some are underwhelmingly short. Some matches have been laggy. And the current system for inviting friends on PC is more broken than a splintered shield, requiring lots of restarts and failed invites to get even one or two friends in the same party. It's great to see your buddy's name highlighted across the map, and rush into a brawl to save them from the vanguards slashing at their arms. But just getting invites to function is a pain.
There can also be salty chat, as you'd expect. It's the usual team-blaming and "gg ez" that occurs in games which have not yet embraced the understanding that the human race is despicable once online and should be muted by default. There's a fully working chat wheel, with all the voicelines and callouts you'd need. Like "hold our ground!" or "follow me!" or "hahahahaha" or (importantly) "kill the archers!" Players are using these, along with that wonderful battlecry button. The developers state in the tutorial that roleplaying is important. But there's less roleplaying in chat than there are obnoxious goons telling you to push the objective even as your whole team stands knee-deep in gore on that objective. A classic PC problem.
Those complaints aside, I'm deeply into what Chivalry II offers, ie. a daft bloodbath. The moment-to-moment warring inspires many brief instances of silly movie violence. Chasing a disarmed opponent to the edge of a pit and booting him down, before being booted in yourself by the sneak who's been behind you the whole time. Chucking firebombs at your enemy's feet. Or chucking firebombs at your own feet, for that matter, in a spiteful final stand. Or leaping from a wall with an overhead axe attack but missing by two very important metres and crumpling your legs, granting your target ample time to crush your skull with his own cartoonishly appropriate weapon: a blacksmith's anvil. Chivalrous? No. Art? Well, just look at those colours.