My first foray into the blood-soaked battlegrounds of Chivalry: Medieval Warfare is not one that will be sung by bards, or even drunks staggering out of a tavern at three in the morning. The first commercial game from Torn Banner Studios is one based off a Half-Life 2 mod called "Age of Chivalry" and was recently given life thanks to a very successful Kickstarter. It's a game in which I have died a thousand deaths, but it will be my first battle which remains at the forefront of my mind, if not anyone else's.
Having not played "Age of Chivalry," I was at a loss when I joined my first match. It was a wet night and I found myself in dingy fortress surrounded by a forest. All around me I could hear screaming and shouting as well as the ringing of metal on metal, a sign my allies and foes had locked swords, maces, spears, or one of the many other weapons which make up the arsenal of this online first-person slasher/stabber. Despite this, I couldn't see anybody.
I was startled when arrows flew out of the darkness, narrowly missing my head and thudding into a wooden shed in front of me. I hit the ground immediately and crept to cover -- a couple of trees and some thick foliage near the edge of a cliff. I remained there for a few seconds to make sure I wasn't being followed, then peaked out over the battle. Quite far away, I could see my comrades locked in deadly duels, but right below me I spotted a fellow coward, far from the conflict. I leaped from above, bringing down my halberd in a savage arc, and my foe's head said farewell to his body. I was so elated at getting my first kill that I roared a battle cry and a curse at my enemies. Two seconds later, I had no less than three arrows in my body and I was dead. Archers are bastards.
Chivalry: Medieval Warfare (PC)
Developers: Torn Banner Studios
Publisher: Torn Banner Studios
Releases: October 16, 2012
I've been playing the Chivalry beta for over a week now, as some of you may well have been doing if you pledged cash during the Kickstarter, and there's still quite a few kinks to be worked out before the launch later this month. The core gameplay, however, is very solid and offers up something extremely different from the norm -- even if it bears a superficial similarity to another approaching multiplayer medieval title.
Steve Piggott, Chivalry's lead designer, was on hand to explain some of the title's finer points. If you've played "Age of Chivalry" before, you'll note some changes. "As far as differences go, first one is the engine switch -- we're now running on a full UE3 engine license -- and this really helped us fix a lot of the networking and hit detection issues that were present in Age of Chivalry." I confess to being surprised at how good the game looked; environments are realistic, character models are animated well enough so that they don't look absurd running around waving swords, and it's deliciously gory.
The impressive hit detection and physicality of most battles bring duels to life. Players have a health bar, but it usually only takes one or two hits to end up an ex-knight, so blocking and fancy footwork are paramount. While attacks occur at the press of a button, the whole body plays a role in actually breaking through an enemy's defenses.
Twisting into the attack or sidestepping can mean the difference between slicing your foe open, or getting knocked back as you land a blow on his shield -- leaving you open to a counter attack. Blocking is tricky, especially without a shield, and requires almost pinpoint accuracy in some cases. It's worth mastering, though -- a successful block can often create a valuable opportunity for a kill.
Torn Banner has also really managed to capture the cacophony and dreadful din of battle. Players can let loose a battle cry that can take the form of a taunt, a roar, even an oath, and by far the most enjoyable moments of any battle for me involve running at the enemy, my allies by my side, all of us shouting and screaming like utter loons. On the other side of things is the dreadful shrieking of fallen men, the gurgling as blood pours from their throat, and the howls as their flesh bakes in a fire. The ferocity of the combat is emphasized in all the game's sights and sounds, not just in the swordplay.
Steve continued, "Second, we brought in quite a few new team members who have a lot more experience and allow us to push the quality of the game much higher. In addition you have a lot more combat options available to you now: you can fake attacks, combo strikes together by flowing naturally from one into the other, perform kicks and shield bases, plant passive shields, dodge, sprint attack, follow arrows through the air and a lot more. The arsenal is also massive now so you can wield 3-4 times as many weapons as were available in 'AoC.'" The sheer number of options available -- even for each individual class -- is a bit overwhelming.
Often duels do just boil down to a couple of guys in tin cans hitting each other as quickly as possible, but when two equally matched players who know what they're doing get in a scrap, it's more like a complicated dance. I'm still pretty terrible at this point, but my recent experiments with the archer have made me appreciate the smarter approach to combat. When foes get into melee range, as they so often do, I can't just rush in without thinking. I have to stay light on my toes, wait for an opening, and hopefully get a few quick stabs in his flank before he can chop my head off; or perhaps feint right, run left, and if I'm lucky, get behind him to put my dagger between his shoulders.
At the start of a match, players can select their class and weapon loadout. All classes are available from the get go and offer a variety of weapons and playstyles: There's the heavily armored Knight, the ferocious Vanguard, the quick and versatile Man-at-Arms, and finally, the nimble Archer. Each of them seemed fairly well balanced, however there are certainly loadouts within those classes which appear to be more successful and even, dare I say it, a tad overpowered. Even though players start with a healthy amount of weapons, more can be unlocked by earning kills in the weapon's category which gives a good sense of progression.
I quickly learned to be just as concerned by my fellow teammates as I was by enemy players, as friendly fire (which is often actually fire) is very much part and parcel of the experience. This doesn't just increase the risk of fighting shoulder to shoulder with your comrades, it makes it more difficult for players to just gang up on someone -- that's not to say it can't be done, of course. Dealing with those who might want to use this system to grief their own team is left up to community votes and eventually server admins.
There are five modes including Free For All and Team Deathmatch, but it seems that Team Objective is the most popular at this point of the beta. Between three to five maps exist per mode, and in the case of Team Objective, each contains rather different goals, though they are all centered around a lot of the same themes such as burning, murdering, and besieging.
The two factions, Agatha and the Masons, have different objectives in each case with the Agathian Knights being a little bit more noble, and the Mason Order being rather villainous. Players sometimes to get access to more dramatic weaponry depending on the goal, from boiling oil to pour on besiegers to catapults and fire. Defending oneself from an onslaught of enemy attacks, all the while trying to dodge rocks falling from the sky and fire spreading on the ground is a bit of a thrill, I must admit.
Players must always be aware of their surroundings, as Steve points out. "There are plenty of environmental hazards in the various maps. In the Arena, there is a pit of death in the middle and spikes all around the edges that you can kick players into. In other maps, you can kick people off cliffs into the ocean, force players into burning buildings, and even destroy some structures with catapults killing those inside."
For those of you with a competitive streak, there will be a persistent leaderboard, and currently each match has one which gives players ranks for bragging rights. Once the game's launched, a Duel Mode is going to be added -- Steve suspects that the leaderboard for this mode will be hotly contested. Considering the skill-based gameplay, I can see why.
Steve and the rest of the folks at Torn Banner Studios are focused on final tweaks to the game and getting community feedback from the beta testers. Chivalry: Medieval Warfare will launch for PC on October 16. Now if you don't mind, I have a king to slay and a town to put to the sword.