It’s interesting that, after years of seeing the First Person Shooter genre bound to M-16s, Kalashnikovs and assorted firearms, we got two games based on melee combat and medieval warfare in two weeks. It would be an error, though, to dismiss one or the other as a clone, as they’re similar in setting and in the most basic elements, but they differ radically in their spirit and features.
It would also be a mistake to judge Torn Banner as an inexperienced studio. While Chivalry is indeed their first commercial title, they accumulated a lot of experience in developing the Half-Life 2 mod Age of Chivalry, that forms a very solid base for this new game.
In Chivalry: Medieval Warfare the player is dropped in the fictional medieval realm of Agatha, torn by a civil war between the loyalist Knights of Agatha and the rebel Mason Order. That’s pretty much the whole story, as this isn’t a game that puts any weight on storytelling. It’s interesting, though, that Torn Banner made an effort to make the two factions rather unique, while similar in their equipment, going above and beyond the call of duty in giving each side a different visual style.
Graphically Chivalry holds its own rather well, adopting a slightly cartoonish art style and palette that very well fit the Unreal Engine used as a base for the game. Characters are well modeled, textures and detailed, but what really shines are some of the maps.
While there aren’t many, for the moment, I can honestly say that some of them are between the best designed I’ve ever seen for a FPS. They’re extremely large, varied and complex, with tons of passageways, walkways, bridges, bottlenecks and alternate routes artfully assembled together to create a result that doesn’t strive to be just functionally interesting and balanced, but also very pleasing to the eyes, even thanks to the extensive use of every lighting trick present in the Unreal suite.
The addition of a lot of blood and gore helps in giving battles a gritty look. Beat on an enemy enough, and he’ll be covered in his own blood. If your strikes are clean and precise you’ll also have a chance to decapitate him, or cut one of his limbs off. Together with realistic rag-doll physics, the presence of dismembering really doesn’t make you miss the implementation of choreographed fatalities.
The biggest problem with the game’s visuals are its animations. In most cases characters look extremely robotic, and some of the attack animations are so unnatural that they make it actually harder to judge your weapon’s reach. While this is partly excusable due to the fact that Chivalry is a crowd funded game with a low budget, excluding the possibility of accessing advanced motion capture facilities, this does hamper the enjoyment of the game by quite a bit.
A second (smaller) problem is the complete lack of visual customization for your in-game character. There is a menu to change your helmet, but only those that funded the game with more than $150 get to use that option at all. It’s not exactly what I’d call stylish to put an entire menu in the game that only about thirty people can use, especially for something like this, that isn’t really secondary. Hopefully it will be amended with post-release DLC, that Torn Banner promised will be free.
The audio of the game is adequate, but generally a little loud. A very interesting feature allows you to bellow a warcry at the press of a key or to give orders and have your character speak (or shout) a rather extensive array of lines with a slightly unwieldy but quite useful menu. It does contribute further to the general loudness, but when you’re in the middle of a brutal battle, can’t really complain about people screaming left and right. It actually adds quite a lot to the atmosphere of the game.
A game like this, of course, lives or dies on its gameplay, and more precisely on its combat. When using a melee weapon players have access to three different strikes: a sideways slash, an overhead strike and a lounge. Interestingly enough, the last two options are regulated by a quick roll of the mouse wheel. On the other hand, the right mouse button prompts a parry or a block with the shield.
While this may seem somehow limited on first inspection and makes attacking rather easy and intuitive, there’s really no lack of depth in Chivalry’s combat.
First of all Torn Banner took a page from the book of fighting games, with the ability to cancel an attack, in order to feint and provoke the opponent into blocking too early. This, by itself, adds quite a lot of tactical depth to battles. Add to that the possibility to jump. crouch and kick the enemy off balance (or down a cliff), and things become even more complex.
There’s also a very clever stamina bar that depletes whenever you miss an attack, putting the player at a severe disadvantage once its depleted. This prevents people from just charging into the fray swinging wildly without any situational awareness. Well…it doesn’t really prevent it, but at the very least it turns the most unskilled berserkers into sitting ducks very, very fast.
The way strikes interact with each other is also quite balanced. If you hit an enemy while he’s preparing an attack, you’ll interrupt him, while if your attack comes while his is already past the preparation phase, he’ll still hit.
The result is a melee combat system heavily based on position and timing and ultimately delightfully technical, while still easy to learn. It allows new players to get into the fray without feeling like an useless baboon wielding a broom stick (thing that can definitely happen to newbies in Chivalry‘s main competitor), but it still rewards those that will go above and beyond to master the trade.
Accessibility is also enhanced by the presence of a well crafted tutorial, that explains every single move and technique in detail, and does wonders in getting people up to speed even on the most advanced features of the game. It was about time for a developer to actually understand tat not everyone is born with a virtual sword in his hand.
Unfortunately archery simply isn’t as fun or as effective as melee combat. While I can’t properly put a finger on what is wrong with it, it seems to me that arrows are way too slow and way too visible. That allows targets to easily spot them as they come and avoid them without excessive effort, when they aren’t off target to begin with, because it’s very hard to lead shots due to the low projectile speed.
It’s actually a pity, because a few clever features like the arrow camera or the ability to crouch to make shots more precise made for quite some potential here. Hopefully a patch will address the problem in the near future.
Additional depth is added to gameplay by the presence of four very different playable classes. Besides archers, that are hampered by the problem I just described, you can chose between Men at Arms, Vanguards and Knights.
Men at Arms are quick and nimble, with little armor and smaller weapons balanced by the presence of a shield and the ability to dash around to avoid blows. Vanguards wear heavier armor and carry long reach weapons like spears and polearms, enabling them to keep the enemy at bay at a distance and to unleash devastating running charges. Knights are the heaviest kind of troops, armed with a powerful two-hander and a combination of one-hander and shield to switch between an offensive and a defensive approach.
Personally, I find that you can’t go wrong with Knights. They also look way cooler, but obviously your mileage may vary here. There are enough choices to pretty much satisfy every kind of playstyle (unless, again, you like archery, but at least the possibility is there, but you’ll have to put up with some pain in order to learn to actually hit things).
Unfortunately there isn’t much in terms of progression. You can unlock a very limited number of weapons, made even more limited by the fact that, if you have a favorite you always use, you’ll either have to switch or be able to unlock only its most direct evolutions. If you want to unlock the advanced axes you have to use an axe, if you want new swords, you have to use a sword and so forth.
On one side, the limited unlockables and the fact that they’re not progressive in power (unlocking new options will make you more flexible, but not stronger) helps a lot in keeping the game balanced and skill-based. On the other hand the lack of more progression perks means that, if you feel the need to be rewarded for your victories, you may find serious longevity problems with the game. When you win, you won’t come out from the battle with much to show for it, besides the fun of the battle in itself.
There’s another element that has me conflicted, and that’s the prevalence of friendly fire. In Chivalry it’s fully enabled by default, meaning that your companions can (and in many cases will) kill you, whether intentionally or not. It does feel delightfully hardcore, and should encourage players to pay attention to who they are attacking, but in effect, most don’t.
This results in a lot of instances in which you’re killed by someone on your side that was just trying to attack an enemy standing near you. It’s relatively realistic, but in reality your field of vision isn’t as limited as in the game. Also in real warfare there are a lot less trolls that will simply start hacking at their team mates for the twisted fun of it. The fact that team killing isn’t penalized in any way is the real problem.
One of the best elements of Chivalry is how most battles are structured. Torn Banner used the large size and scope of the maps to create some lovely multi-objective engagements that play pretty much like a small story line For instance on one of the maps the Knights of Agatha will have to light some signal fires in order to show the landing zone to their fleet. If they’re successful, they’ll move to the next stage, in which they’ll need to destroy the trebuchets targeting the ships, and so forth.
It makes the gameplay definitely more active, varied and fun that the usual team death match and king of the hill (that are still included in the game, but are also less frequent), and it complements the great map design rather perfectly, prompting players to explore and adapt to multiple gameplay styles on the fly.
I only wish that the maps could alternate between the roles of the factions. Each scenario, instead, sees each faction always playing the same role. So if you always play as a Knight of Agatha, you’ll always attack on certain maps, and always defend on others.
Ultimately Chivalry: Medieval Warfare is a little rough around the edges, as you would expect for an independent crowd funded project, but if you can get around the relatively minor flaws scattered here and there, it’s definitely a big bundle of fun. It’s accessible but still rewarding when mastered.
While a better progression system might have generated a more long-lived and addictive experience, the great map design and the balanced combat create some of the best melee battles on the market, and if you’re tired of firearms and grenades, this game will probably give you a much needed breath of fresh air.