It is safe to say that in the world of competitive online multiplayer games, this generation has fallen into a pattern. Between first-person shooters, third-person shooters, fighters, and racing games, there seems to be little room for variety among this revolving list of multiplayer genres. This is why a title like War of the Roses deserves some attention for creating a new way for gamers to slaughter each other, even if it is drawing inspiration from an historic war where flesh and blood was spilled for real. While publisher Paradox have earned a reputation with the Mount & Blade series, which depicted the ugliness (and jankiness) of mediaeval combat on PC, they’re hoping to take mounted and bladed multiplayer combat to the next level with developer Fatshark’s War of the Roses.
The setting for this entry is taken prominently from the 14th Century feud between Houses Lancaster and York, who both served the royal House of Plantagent but soon waged war against one another for the throne of England. If any of this sounds familiar for Game of Thrones fans, let me remind you this historic feud was indeed the main source of inspiration for George R. R. Martin’s epic novels-turned-HBO series. For anyone worried about possible hints over the eventual outcome of Martin’s fantasy-infused interpretation, rest assured that the game itself merely uses the setting as a backdrop for multiplayer battles – but beyond that, you may want to steer clear of Wikipedia or history books.
During each match, players assume the role of a soldier and pick to play as either a York or a Lancaster. From there, the two sides clash outside a large map that can accommodate up to 32 players at a time, with the main goal depending on which of the two game modes have been selected: Team Deathmatch is won by the team which scores the most kills before time runs out, while Conquest is a Domination-style match where each side must capture (and hold) a number of flagged checkpoints littered throughout the map.
New players start off with only one soldier class available, and three more can be unlocked by gaining experience points. While some gamers may baulk at such a restriction, it takes little more than an hour to unlock all the classes, thanks to the numerous ways one can gain experience; aside from killing enemy players, experience points are also earned by capturing checkpoints, assisting other players, and merely being part of the winning team.
Once unlocked, the three extra classes include: a crossbowman, a well-rounded class that possesses a sword, shield, and crossbow; a longbowman, an archer who can pick apart enemies from a distance, but stands little chance from an up-close mêlée attack; and a footknight, a fully-armoured soldier who prioritises offence with a sword and lance. All of the classes are pre-configured, but further unlockables allow players to customise their soldier with weapons, abilities, and shield decals to represent their own one-man House.
The controls feature a keyboard/mouse setup that is familiar to both first-person and third-person PC titles, with the notable exception of using the mouse to control the direction of your swings: by holding down the mouse button and then moving the mouse a certain direction, you can determine which direction your weapon will swing. Moving the mouse to the left, for example, causes the weapon to swing to the left, moving it upward will result in a downward cleaving motion, moving it down will result in a quick thrust, etc. These precise attacks are not only important to connecting your weapon with a moving opponent, but also to target specific open parts of their body; if a soldier has his left side guarded with a shield, then it would be wise to attack from the right, while an enemy who has his weapon raised in the air may be susceptible to a thrust in his gut, and so on.
The emphasis on positional combat is unique in concept, but also marks the biggest flaw with the game when put into practice. Because the camera is also tied to the mouse, players will all too often find themselves fighting to maintain a proper camera angle as well as a proper striking angle. While this could be argued as an intentional mechanic to simulate a “real” battle between medieval soldiers, it is a cumbersome and frustrating control scheme that may see you end up cursing more than celebrating during those heated online skirmishes. Had the developers chosen to use a first-person scheme (or even better, to follow Dead Island’s analogue-driven weapon mechanic), this might have been more tolerable.
A much bigger and more infuriating problem is the hit detection. Whether plagued by lag or engine limitations, there are far too many moments in Roses where it looks like your weapon has properly connected with an enemy’s head, torso, or other body part, only to have it clip right through them. When a hit does connect, one of two outcomes occurs: the strike is blocked by an enemy’s shield or armour, or he sustains damage, both which are visible by an on-screen indicator. When a player has sustained enough damage, he will drop to the ground, incapacitated. From there, he can either be revived by a player or executed by an enemy. Though there is no time limit to being revived, facing execution will result in a longer respawn time, as well as award the executor with additional exp. To avoid such an outcome, players can choose to “yield”, which lets them plead for mercy and grant them immediate immunity from executions.
The executions are a satisfying sight to behold, even if you are on the receiving end. Brutal and merciless, fallen enemies watch with terror as they are bludgeoned by shields, skewered by swords, or stabbed repeatedly through the face with a dagger. Sadly, these moments also suffer from further technical issues. Aside from the fact that eager players will drop everything they are doing in order to execute someone else’s defeated foe (including completely ignoring a fellow ally in need of reviving or an enemy soldier attacking them), executions can also be stopped just before the animation ends; this results in many unintentionally hilarious moments where someone gets their faced stabbed repeatedly by interrupted players, yet still has a chance to yield even after their character becomes a human shish kebab. Rather than impose some sort of restriction on who can execute whom, this mad dash for some quick exp points only serves to distract players from working together.
On those rare moments where the server connection holds up, it becomes an entertaining sight to see armies of foot soldiers crash into one another. Toss in archers atop castle roofs and horsemen galloping through rows of bodies, along with the decent visuals, and the culmination is a decent representation of mediaeval warfare. But with the technical, mechanical, and online issues working against it, this war would be better put off until most of the kinks have been ironed out. As of this writing, three patches have been released, yet none of them have fixed the most major problems. Given the developer’s history, it may take a while yet before War of the Roses becomes fit to enter the online multiplayer battlefield.