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First Look: War Of The Roses

Smells So Sweet

Fatshark's medieval melee combat game War Of The Roses is a big deal for their publishers, Paradox. It's the most expensive game the company has ever made, but it is also one of the games that the creative team at the head of the company have always wanted to make. Talking to the company's CEO, Fredrik Wester, it's clear that the idea of a full-blown multiplayer combat game with swords, bows, castles, and horses, is something of an ideal project for the man at the top. He gazes off into the distance wistfully as he talks about the dynamic sword combat.

But while Wester's view of making the game is one of fulfilling a dream, for Fatshark's creative lead Mårten Stormdal is very much of the practical reality of building a melee game that will be immediately comprehensible and playable, while offering the sort of level of customisation and persistence of progression that shooters such as the recent Battlefield games have managed to exhibit.

At the Paradox summit in a castle outside of Stockholm, Stormdal showed me some of the levels that they're building for the game, and talked about the challenges they'd faced in putting the game together. I got to see some of the melee weapons in action, which are designed to work with a mouse – hold left click and move to swing quickly or heavily in a particular direction, or right click and move the mouse to parry. It's a system that I suspect, when mastered, could be extremely flexible and rewarding. “We have of course iterated times on this design,” said Stormdal, “but not that much. We knew it had to work like this, and we had of course looked at games with similar melee systems. We obviously looked at Mount & Blade, because that's the most recent of melee combat titles. We looked at games like Rune, too, if you remember that, but we felt Mount & Blade at the most solid system.” Leaping around swinging the sword made that choice feel logical, although I did wonder whether the final animation would perhaps be a little more fluid. The game is, Stormdal insists, still at a very early stage.

And should we expecting modding support down the line? “We would like to do that,” says Stormdal, “but the engine is so young. We have really only been working on it for a few years, and so doing that could be complicated.” This is, of course, Fatshark's own engine which was used for the DX11 “Stone Giant” demo, and Hamilton's great adventure. War of The Roses is a major, mature project for the company to sink its technology into. (Previous multiplayer game Lead & Gold used licenced tech.)

War Of The Roses will take place across a series of themed levels which include a huge castle area, a wood, a village, a moor, and a few other distinctly medieval-Britain sort of scenarios. Even with just me running around the castle I can see the potential that lies ahead for this game – I leap over a gap in the drawbridge, sword in hand. The experience of battle in the different areas will be “really different” according to Stormdal, and he explained that horsemen with lances might have quite a different game experience playing on the Moor, rather than playing in the castle, where they would have to consider verticality, and the practical difficulties of not being able to get their mounts up stairs.

Stormdal explained that each of the maps will scale, and the playable area will change depending on how many people appear at the start of a game. “You can define it per map,” he explains, “as well as it being a server-side setting.” The game will, of course, have its own dedicated servers, with a master server handling your character's profile, storing your unlocks and so on.

In terms of this being a game of unlocks, it works similarly to Battlefield. Players will create their profile but then have a number of distinct characters within profile. “You can have a knight, or a crossbowman, or a guy with a horse,” says Stormdal, “ and you can switch between them in a match. And you don't lock anything down, you can always tweak and switch between things.” The game will allow players to level up, too: “you will unlock weapons and armours and perks, stuff like that,” says Stormdal. He explains that it will be a universal points system, though, rather than distinct class unlock threads. “You can unlock a new sword by playing with the bow,” he explains. “That sort of flexibility was important to me. I didn't want to exclude anyone. I don't want to force you to play with the new sword to get to the next one. You can play with the bow instead.”

Of course it's the use of these bows and swords that game will be all about, but also surviving being attacked with them. Stormdal had already shown me the three different tiers of armour, going from padding, through half-plate, to full plate armour, but now I asked about the injury and health system. “There are two tiers,” he explained. “When you are alive and running around, you regenerate quite quickly, so you take a few hits, run away, and be fine again. But if you get to zero then you will be knocked down. You can be revived by a team-mate at this point, and I wanted to put that so that instead of having a death-cam, I wanted players to see what is happening, call out for help. And this also means there's a good reason for people to finish you.”

So finishing moves? “Oh, yes.”

The question that all this seems to beg, of course, is how much more powerful a long-term player will be than a veteran with some unlocks and perks. Will they be able to stomp newbies coming onto the server? “No,” claims Stormdal, “the point about this system is for players to become more specialised rather than more powerful, and all the good things have drawbacks. Something quick is weak, for example. Something slow does more damage. Trade offs for everything.”

Weapons will break, too, so your amazing sword might not necessarily last the fight, and you might have to loot fallen combatants for their weaponry. You will, of course, be given your original kit back when you die and respawn. Nevertheless it's little details like this seem to be what Stormdal is most interested in. This is a game that will, he thinks, genuinely grab people who have even the slightest interest in melee combat. It will even be (although not simulatory in any sense) very close to the historical reality of Medieval war in England. “I had to be very careful with the selection of weapons,” Stormdal explained, “someone will always notice if I got it wrong!”

There's still a lot to know about War Of The Roses, but questions about this game do not all have final answers, however, because, Stormdal explained, the game is still at an early stage of development, and the team have not yet got to a feature-locked stage. War Of The Roses is still having new things added to it, and could do for some time yet. The first footage of the game in full action, Paradox report, will appear in March at GDC. And we will certainly be looking forward to that moment.

War Of The Roses is set for release some time in late 2012, but I would be surprised if it crept on for a little longer.

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