I played “War of the Roses” as a multiplayer shooter. Not because I had to, you understand. I don’t even really think I was supposed to. But I did anyway, because I chose to.
Despite my tendency toward the longbowman class (and, later, through my creation of a custom bowman class for myself), I had to resort to my sword from time to time, usually in a frantic attempt to fend off Lancastrian knights who’d broken through to my position with every intention of teaching me a lesson for my cowardly ways. And so, little by little, I learned to play.
Generally, multiplayer skirmish games like this take little in the way of learning. Grab a shotgun, zoom around a map, and shoot anyone whose name appears in the wrong colour. Bingo bongo, job’s a good’un. But in the true Paradox style, War of the Roses takes a bit of getting into.
And also in the Paradox style, attention to historical detail is immense. Or, at very least, it certainly gives the impression of being immense to someone who knows embarrassingly little about the conflicts in question. But from the moment you start to design your own coat of arms, and the game insists on using the correct heraldic terms for blazing an achievement of arms, you know that this has been a labour of love with the devs, as is so often the case for these guys.
At its heart, War of the Roses is a medieval take on a multiplayer FPS like, shall we say, Battlefield. Two teams strive to beat one another through military means. Each team is broken into squads, and each squad can spawn on the squad leader or a number of fixed spawn points. Unlike Battlefield, however, the action takes place in the third-person, and close-combat fighting makes up a large part of what’s going on. Oh, and there are no helicopters. Naturally.
It is this swordplay that makes or breaks War of the Roses, and it actually sort of does both. It is impossible to describe first contact with this system as anything other than clanky and unwieldy. Holding down the left mouse button gets you ready to strike, and then whichever way you drag the mouse (left, right, up or down) shows which way you’re going to swing your sword. What this means is that it’s not simple to, say, swing your field of vision (and thus your aim) to the left while bringing your sword down from above. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever hit an opponent with a downswing of a melee weapon in WotR. Blocking works in the same way, but with the right button and a sweep of the mouse to choose which side you’re blocking. When you successfully parry an incoming attack there’s a definite feeling of “WHO’S THE BOSS NOW, PUNK?”
At first, it feels really clumsy. But the tagline for the game is “Skill is not an unlock”, and as you play the game you do sort of get the hang of it. And, over time, perhaps mastery will come and you will be breastplate-deep in the maimed bodies of your foes.
Skill may not be an unlock, but by jimminy it’s about the only thing that isn’t. Most swordplay games may give you more unlockable swords, for instance, but… well, the sheer number of unlockable thingamabobs in WotR is actually a little overwhelming, particularly when you’re trying to get set up while a countdown warns of the beginning of the next round. At first you’re given a man-at-arms template, a standard kind of dude with a sword, shield and dagger, then after a round or two you will unlock your first missile template, then another, then a footknight with a big spiky warhammer in addition to some bulky armour and a couple of other weapons. But these are just tasters really, examples of how unlocks could be combined if you were so inclined, so that when you finally unlock ‘Custom 1’, you know what style suits you. Then it’s menu after menu of options, tweaks, unlocks, perks and items to create your own character. These unlocks can be purchased with coins (provided you’ve reached the minimum level) but they come really slowly. This isn’t a game where you get a new toy every 15 minutes. But what you do get is a remarkable suite of choices. For instance, once you’ve selected a weapon, let’s say a one-handed sword, you’ll also have the choices that include pommel, grind, handle and even fighting style, all of which work well against certain other things, creating a complex set of interrelationships. For instance, heavy plate mail armour is pretty much impervious to swings from a short sword, but if you stab with it, and catch your enemy just right, you can take him down pretty swiftly.
No tanks and helicopters, but there are a couple of crazies who ride around the place on horses, with lances, and this is a whole new skill to learn. Those big meaty horses make nice targets for archers.
Ultimately, this really is a game of skill. There is an awful lot to learn, and fortunately it’s good, grisly fun the whole while. Once you’re downed by an enemy, you are vulnerable to a sickening execution move which will kill you properly, but the executioner himself, kneeling on your chest and preparing to sluice your jugular with a ballock dagger, is himself vulnerable to your heroic warhammer-waving teammate, who can then revive you (assuming he doesn’t then get attacked in turn…)
There are a couple of issues still to be sorted out. Matchmaking, that old bugbear of MP gaming in general, is tough, and I found myself using Steam chat to tell my proud brother-in-arms Sir Tero which server and squad I was joining as there are no clues in-game. There is no minimap, presumably for authenticity, but it can make it a little hard to tell where your teammates are sometimes. Balance issues are appearing here and there, but with such a range of weapons and armour, that’s to be expected and Paradox are dutifully sorting things out all the time.
WotR is a lot of fun, provided you’re willing to suffer through the learning curve. There are only two game modes – Conquest and Team Deathmatch – at present, but more will no doubt follow. This is a surprise hit.