Chivalry: Medieval Warfare Review
Some frustrating bugs mar this otherwise entertaining and visceral medieval combat game
While the market for competitive pseudo-realistic first person shooters has exploded in the last five or so years, Mount and Blade has remained relatively uncontested in the realm of on-the-ground Medieval combat simulators. The multiplayer-only Chivalry: Medieval Warfare intends to challenge its title, and while it offers up some incredibly satisfying and complex melee combat, a myriad of bugs and a fairly limited number of maps cast a shadow over the game's better aspects. However, with developers promising to provide extensive post-launch support in the way of additional content and patches, this is definitely a game anyone who likes the idea of medieval warfare should keep an eye on.
In a nutshell, Chivalry lets you choose a class and a weapon, then throws you into a multiplayer game with up to 32 people. From a first, or less ideally third person view you must slay your foes to whatever purpose the game mode you are playing dictates. While the premise sounds overly simple, the melee combat in Chivalry: Medieval Warfare is so good that it alone makes the game worth playing. You must learn how to block, when to use which attack with each of the varied weapons, how long it takes for your swing to wind up, and how long the reach of your weapon is.
While all of this probably sounds familiar to Mount and Blade veterans, the thing that sets Chivalry apart is that the combat has fantastic weight to it. You get a great sense that you are swinging a big heavy weapon that actually occupies space in the world, and when that weapon makes contact with another player, the result is glorious. The sense of impact resulting from a direct hit from a claymore or maul is fantastic, and you will want to re-create that feeling over and over. The weapons seem so deadly that at first you will feel empowered, and will likely charge into battle swinging madly. While this might cause some damage, you will likely be hacked down by more experienced players who have learned some of the finer points of the game's combat.
Chivalry's hammy but serviceable tutorial will walk you through the principles of combat that will prove essential if you want to survive and serve as a helpful member of your team. Since friendly-fire is always on, a bad player can actually directly harm teammates, so it is a good idea to try and learn the basics before heading onto the battlefield. The most basic and probably the most important thing you will learn how to do is block. Blocking in Chivalry is a bit more complicated than in most games which involve swordplay; unless you are using a shield, you can only bring your weapon up to block for a couple of seconds before it is automatically lowered. This means that you must time your block just right so your weapon of choice is actually blocking when your opponents blow comes in. Furthermore, you need to be pointing the reticule on the center of your screen at the tip of your opponent’s weapon for the block to be successful. Pulling all of these things off in the heat of a chaotic battle is a tall order, but once you get into the rhythm of parry-and-repost, the combat develops a great flow.
Once you get blocking down, the next thing to worry about is which attack to use. Left-clicking results in a horizontal swipe attack, which while effective is relatively slow and can also harm nearby team mates. By scrolling the mouse wheel up you can also initiate a quick poke or jab attack, while scrolling down results in a slow but devastating overhead strike. Each different weapon, of which there are many, will behave a little bit differently. Some are shorter but have faster swing times, like maces and axes, while others like pole-arms are best used to keep enemies at a distance. Each weapon has a learning curve that needs to be mastered in order to become successful with it. Every action you do will also eat into your stamina bar, which if depleted will greatly compromise your effectiveness in combat.
To further focus the gameplay you are given a choice of four different classes. The Man at Arms is a quick but lightly armoured fellow who must use his dodge ability to evade the attacks of the heavier-hitting classes. The vanguard is moderately armoured and can use pole-arms as well as two-handed great swords, all of which are great for keeping enemies at bay. The knight is a heavily armoured brute who can take a beating and give one out all the same. Mauls, axes and claymores are his weapons, and you must learn to block effectively to survive while fighting lighter and quicker classes. The fourth class is the archer, who ditches the melee weapons for cross-bows, bows-and-arrows or Javelins. The archer can backstab with his dagger for a damage bonus, but getting into a close-combat situation with the archer is generally a bad idea.
Within each class you can choose a primary weapon, secondary weapon and a support item such as a shield or throwing knives. For all of the classes there are weapon tiers where gaining kills with one weapon will lead to the unlock of another weapon in the same category. Unlocked weapons are fortunately side-grades rather than direct upgrades, but none of the weapons feel useless or overpowered if used or countered correctly, apart from maybe the two handed war-hammer which can kill any class with one blow to the head. Just prepare to get frustrated when fighting more experienced opponents, no matter what equipment they are using. There is no armour or weapon customization to speak of; the emphasis is purely on the gameplay.
While Chivalry contains most standard modes for competitive multiplayer, including team death-match, free for all and capture the flag, they all feel fresh thanks to the great combat. The most interesting mode however is Team Objective. In this mode one team must complete a series of varied objectives while the other team defends. A game of team objective might look something like this: first you and your team mates must burn and pillage a village, killing peasants, then push a battering ram up to the castle door, smash down the door, storm in and kill the king who is played at the end by the best player of the defending team. Each map has entirely different objectives, and they are well varied and interactive, making the maps a lot of fun to play through. Defenders often have access to tools such as ballistae, catapults and even pots of oil which can be dumped on enemies’ heads as they try and smash down the castle door. The biggest downside right now is that there are only four maps for this mode, with one or two maps favouring the defenders a bit too much. Team Objective is so much fun for the most part that you will wish more maps existed for this mode.
While all of this is great in principle, at this point Chivalry simply doesn't feel like a finished product. The game crashes quite frequently, sometimes in the middle of a game, sometimes on the main menu. You level up in the game, but gaining higher levels has no clear purpose. A lack of a stats page and weapons being unlocked via kills means that completing objectives in order to score points garners no benefit. I even had both my levels and unlocks completely reset at one point for no apparent reason. When the game crashes, or if you lose connection to the server you are on, any unlocks or unlock progress you gained while playing is erased. The server browser doesn't work properly, with filters not functioning half the time or saving between play sessions, and game modes being displayed incorrectly. A lack of auto-balance means teams are often incredibly uneven and people are usually unwilling to switch to a losing team [auto-balance has been added in a post-launch patch that also fixed server filters, although filter settings still do not save]. While steam says the game has 57 achievements, they are not currently visible and cannot be unlocked, which might be a deterrent for some people.
Sadly the lack of polish also extends to the gameplay as well. You might get stuck in the terrain, or experience a ridiculous looking animation bug when taking damage while interacting with an emplaced weapon. The hit registry is usually ok, but hitting a target that is running away from you is unreasonably difficult, even if you are right behind the target with a pole-arm. I encountered invisible walls while playing as an archer that prevented my arrows from passing. While not necessarily a bug, the blocking mechanics can be overly particular, even with shields, meaning you might get hit even if your opponent's weapon appears to be intersecting your block. The length of your weapon does not appear to have any impact on your blocking, meaning a dagger is just as effective at blocking as a claymore. If playing on a server with even moderate ping, blocking becomes exponentially more challenging, and low-ping servers aren't always available at this time given the current player base. All of these rough edges combine to make Chivalry a very frustrating game at times.
On the bright side, most of the rough edges do not carry over to the game's presentation. The small dev team at Torn Banner has made great use of the Unreal Engine 3, with the varied environments all looking quite good. One map in particular has some spectacular volumetric lighting that reflects off the detailed player armour in impressive ways. The animations are quite good as well, when they work properly. Limbs can be dismembered and heads chopped off, adding to the satisfaction of a well-placed blow. The sound design is also superb, with swords clashing loudly and a satisfying crunch resulting from a direct hit. There are a variety of voice commands that result in your character saying something, or screaming manically. The voice acting is great considering the size of the development team, and the constant yelling helps invoke the chaos of a medieval battlefield. The sound track only comes on towards the end of a match, but the music works well with the game.
When the sharp visuals, solid animations, great sound design and voice acting are taken as a whole it is difficult to find another game that invokes the blood-lust and chaos of a medieval battlefield like Chivalry. Watching a spawn-wave of enemy soldiers charging towards you screaming their guts out is a terrifying prospect, and charging with allies into a huge melee hollering bloody murder is hilarious and empowering. While in its current state Chivalry is difficult to recommend for the 25 dollar asking price, with a few patches and a couple more maps this could be one of the best and most unique competitive multiplayer experiences around for those who are tired of shooting each other.