Monday, September 24, 2012

Hands-On Preview: War of the Roses

There's plenty of games out there that let you wield melee weapons in combat. Everyone loves knifing people in Call of Duty and Battlefield, and lots of games have trademark melee weapons -- the crowbar in Half-Life, for instance, or the wrench in BioShock. Heck, even Gears of War has a chainsaw on the end of the Lancer.

If you think about it, though, melee weapons really aren't any different from shooting someone with a gun: the only difference is their effective range and usually their ability to kill with a single blow. Admittedly, there are some exceptions: Skyrim forces you to hack and slash through creatures and even the lowly headcrabs in Half-Life 2 require a good beating before falling before your crowbar. Still, the weapons are fairly simplistic in their execution: point and click, resulting in damage being dealt so long as you're close enough to hit.

War of the Roses dismisses the notion that melee weapons are simple and mundane and asks -- nay, demands -- that you make intelligent decisions when wading into combat. This ain't no point-and-click hack-'n'-slasher, mate! This is medieval combat at its finest!

Anything I Should Know First? 

First things first: how many of you have heard of Mount & Blade? Probably about half of the people reading, and that's only because I know all of you and have probably talked about it at some point in the past. Regardless, Mount & Blade is where I have to start this explanation: you see, about four years ago, this Turkish company named TaleWorlds released Mount & Blade. It was published by Paradox Interactive, a company known for their historical strategy games, and quickly became a cult classic that eventually earned two sequels (Warband, the game I am most familiar with, as well as With Fire and Sword).

The premise of Mount & Blade is very interesting; essentially, you are a warrior trying to eke out an existence for yourself. Your primary objective when you start the game is to recruit villagers from nearby towns and eventually train them to be stronger soldiers, riding around defeating bandits and the like. However, the game is not scripted and you are left to create your own story. Will you ally yourself with a single faction and try to conquer a rival nation? Will you seek glory in tournaments and attempt to win the hand of a fair maiden? Will you sell your services as a mercenary, fighting for whomever offers the most coin? Or perhaps will you merely wander the hills, defeating bandits and helping villagers as some sort of Robin Hood?

Now, while the premise of War of the Roses is completely different (for starters, WotR is a solely multiplayer game, while Mount & Blade is largely played singleplayer), the combat is practically identical. Mount & Blade has a very singular combat system; when you have a melee weapon drawn, as you usually do in medieval settings, the way you attack is by choosing a direction for each swing. You do this by clicking the mouse and quickly moving it in the direction you want to swing from. Say you want to do a powerful overhead strike: you would click the mouse and quickly move it upwards, releasing it after the swing has been prepped. Blocking works the same way, only you right-click instead.

Of course, it's a bit harder to block an arrow to the throat, but that's a bit beside the point...
This system creates a great deal of strategy as you have to be mindful of where your blows will land; enemies will try to block your attacks, so you have to try to find a way past their guard to hit them. And this is the system that War of the Roses uses.

Anything Else?

A quick word about Fatshark, the developers: they released another multiplayer game not too long ago called Lead and Gold. It was a Team Fortress 2-esque shooter, featuring numerous classes to choose from, only it was based in a Wild West setting. Lead and Gold didn't do too well in the market, though many people who have played it claim that it is a very underappreciated game.

Of course, Fatshark now has a chance to redeem themselves with War of the Roses, a game that has been incredibly hyped and already has a devoted fanbase in the people who play Mount & Blade.

Also, some of the more perceptive readers will notice that the developers for Mount & Blade and War of the Roses are different: TaleWorlds is behind the former, while Fatshark is developing the latter, yet the combat system behind both games is nearly identical. This is possible because both companies are published by Paradox Interactive, so that connection suggests that TaleWorld's M&B combat system was most likely shared between the developers.

What Do We Know?

War of the Roses bases itself in actual history: in the mid-1400s, two English houses began warring over who had the rightful claim to the throne. The two houses, Lancaster and York, fought numerous battles in the name of their respective claimants; eventually, Henry Tudor of the Lancastrians defeated the last York claimant and united the two houses, creating the Tudor house which reigned over England for over a century. The conflict was known as the War of the Roses, hence the name of the game.

The basic premise for the gameplay is that you are a soldier in one of the two warring factions, pitted against each other in a battle to support your respective houses. Each time you head into battle, you are facing off against the other faction in an attempt to best them in completing objectives, whether that is capturing a town or simply killing as many enemies as possible. And that's about it, really: there isn't much in the way of plot in this game because, as mentioned above, War of the Roses is an entirely multiplayer exercise.

I was actually in the beta for War of the Roses, so I have some hands-on experience with the game and, from what I've seen, it looks to be comparable to the multiplayer in Call of Duty. There is a class system where you can customize the perks, weapons and armour you take into combat, there is a leveling system that unlocks better gear as your progress, and each of the game modes are typical multiplayer fare -- things like Team Deathmatch, Assault (where one team attempts to capture points while the other defends) and Conquest (where both teams battle to control a number of capture points). Really, given the proven success that Call of Duty and Halo: Reach achieved with this system, War of the Roses has a fairly formulaic approach to multiplayer.

Where WotR shines is the character of each battle. Now, I'm not talking about the individual players; I mean the personality that each engagement has on its own. Unlike Call of Duty, where a quick impersonal burst from your assault rifle can drop an enemy player very quickly, War of the Roses forces you into a face-to-face, life-or-death exchange with another soldier. There are very few ways to kill an enemy quickly; most of the time you are forced to spend upwards of twenty seconds fighting a single enemy before a victor is decided. That may not seem like much but, compared to games like Call of Duty where a typical battle against an enemy lasts little more than five seconds, it makes a world of difference.

The combat system, as explained above, is what makes the game equally challenging and rewarding. Because you are so close to your adversary, you have to pick your blows, trying to find a chink in their defense all while not allowing any to be found in your own. It's a far cry more intense than your average FPS multiplayer match and tends to end with you feeling satisfied, no matter the outcome. Even if you die, you fall knowing that made your enemy earn the right to defeat you and you respect him a bit more for it.

There a couple of other features that enhance the game: for one, you can opt to wield a ranged weapon (bow and arrow or crossbow) instead of a large melee weapon. Even these weapons are difficult to use effectively, however, and landing a killing shot with either takes a bit of concentration and equal parts skill and luck. I managed to land a headshot with a crossbow from 92 yards away -- an accomplishment that I was very proud of -- but only after having launched half a dozen bolts at my target.

The other feature worth mentioning is the executions. When you are downed in combat, you aren't instantly killed: instead, you fall to the ground, wounded, and can look around. If an ally comes along, they can spend a few seconds reviving you, allowing you to continue fighting. If an enemy finds you, however, they can spend the same amount of time to execute you; you are forced to watch, first-person, as the enemy flips you over and finishes you off, either with a sword to the chest or a dagger to the face. This forces you to respawn from a controlled point on the map. 

Organizing a charge against an enemy position can yield great results, and looks suitably badass to boot.
The executions are just another example of how personal this game can be, and how you end up respecting your enemies, even if you don't particularly like them. It's a wonderful step forward for multiplayer gaming from the anonymous pick-up games that Call of Duty offers, even if it follows the same formula.

And I Care Why?

Many people are hardcore Mount & Blade fans and, while this is not officially associated with that series, it is definitely similar enough that it will tide that fanbase over until M&B2 is released next year. Otherwise, War of the Roses offers a multiplayer experience like no other. 

At least until Chivalry: Medieval Combat is released. Chivalry is another multiplayer medieval combat game, this time focused on delivering the experience from a first-person perspective, and it appears as if WotR and Chivalry will eventually be battling over the same playerbase. I will need to research Chivalry a bit more to speak intelligently about it but, from what I understand, it looks as promising as War of the Roses. It's certainly interesting that such similar concepts are being released nearly simultaneously; yet I digress.

What Should I Do Now That I Know?

War of the Roses is scheduled for release on October 2nd, is a PC-only title, and can be purchased on Steam or through any other digital retailer. If you preordered the game through Steam earlier this month you received access to the beta but it has since ended. Sorry!

If you purchase the game on Steam, however, and already own a copy of Mount & Blade (any of the three), you receive an additional 20% off the full price. It's certainly something to consider if you are interested in picking up WotR, especially because M&B is such a great game on its own.

Last Remarks?

It's very refreshing to see a multiplayer game that gives more character and less anonymity to the proceedings. Being someone who has long grown tired of Call of Duty and the need for instant gratification, I am extremely happy to see a multiplayer experience that allows players to take their time -- rewarding them for their efforts -- even in the heat of battle. 

Admittedly, part of me wishes that War of the Roses featured a singleplayer mode similar to Mount & Blade, but we can't always get what we want!

When War of the Roses is officially released, I am planning to record some sessions of me playing to post here on Loading Checkpoint; if and when that happens, our beloved readers will be the first to see! So stay tuned: though October may be a busy month, there will be many exciting things happening here!

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