Review: War of the Roses
As the Middle Ages waned and England started to move towards the Renaissance, the country was far from peaceful. A series of dynastic wars erupted between two branches of the Plantagenet royal house: York and Lancaster. That period of internal strife took its name from the white rose and the red rose that served as the emblems of the two rival houses, and became later known as the Wars of the Roses.
For some reason civil wars aren’t very popular as settings for games. The Wars of the Roses are even less popular than the average, as I can’t really remember many past games featuring them as their main backdrop. That’s kind of strange considering that they come with some rather powerful imagery due to the rose-fashioned emblems, and it appeared in several strategy board games like the classic Kingmaker by the old and glorious Avalon Hill (that also generated the only computer game I remember featuring the Wars of the Roses).
War of the Roses aims to immerse the player in that brutal war-torn era, and does so starting with the graphics. The seven maps included in the game are extremely pretty, with very detailed high resolution textures and enriched by a really lovely lighting engine that conveys the atmosphere of the battlefield perfectly both in broad daylight and during night-time battles.
The lighting effects contribute even to make characters visually pleasant, as they are mostly clad in metal armor and swing steel weapons around, they tend to interact with sunlight in a rather flattering way, especially when viewed from certain angles.
The level of detail featured in the design of the game’s equipment is what makes its visuals truly shine. Armor and weapons are painstakingly recreated in every little plate and rivet, giving the game a realistic and gritty look that is quite unique in today’s market made of chainmail bikinis and suits designed with an eye for looks more than for realism. It kind of reminds me of The Witcher, that also has a very realistic equipment design, and that’s a good thing since I love The Witcher.
Animations, unfortunately, are a bit more hit and miss, with some hitting the mark while others look quite stiff. There are also a few graphical glitches like limbs, weapons and shields that clip upon collision and vegetation that rarely “inflates” as you approach it, with a rather hilarious instant growth effect, but they don’t detract from the visuals too much.
One of my main pet peeves is the lack of visual customization for the face of our characters. While I understand that quite often faces are hidden by helmets and visors, in an online-centered game being able to sport an unique look is important. Unfortunately there’s absolutely no possibility to change anything in our character’s visage, that will be simply determined by the character slot we’re using. Army of clones and all that…
Visual customization is provided mainly by equipment and by the rather fantastic coat of arms design system, that will let you draw the personal emblem that will be displayed on your chest and on your shield. It’s very flexible and includes a metric ton of options, ensuring that pretty much everyone will be able to create a design of his liking. It also allows you to chose the crest that will be displayed on your heavy helms.
Another little flaw is the lack of variety in armor designs. Every heavy armor looks the same in it’s 3D model, and the same can be said about light and medium armor. The only difference between the different sets is the color. Considering that during the Middle Ages and Renaissance armor was heavily customized and its design differed depending on the artisan that crafted it, and on the taste of the customer, I would have appreciated some different choices in actual look between the same class of armor.
Luckily helmets make it up for what armor lacks, providing a lot of different kinds of headgear varying from a simple hood to a full fledged great helm. On top of the aforementioned crest, you will be able to add further (fully functional) details like visors, coifs and gorgets.
As usual pictures tell more than a thousand words, so if you want to see more of the visuals of War of the Roses you can check out the 185 screenshots in the gallery below. I’m quite sure they’ll be enough to give you a clear idea of what the game looks like.
While visuals are by all means decidedly pretty, what makes or breaks an online-centric competitive game is the gameplay. If you’ve followed the development of War of the Roses even with the most distracted eye, you’ll know that single player features are very, very limited. There are a few training missions that pitch you against bots (half trained monkeys would be a more appropriate definition, as they are digital beings of mind numbing stupidity) and let you check out the maps of the game without hordes of player-manned enemies out for your blood, but they actually do very little in teaching what you have to do.
The lack of a solid tutorial that could teach new players the basics of combat is actually the single worst flaw of the game. If you played the Mount & Blade series before (shame on you if you didn’t) you’ll probably feel right at home, as the basics are pretty much the same, but if you’re new to this kind of melee-heavy battles, I hope you’re prepared for a whole lot of pain and frustration.
Mind you, if you get down to business, the combat system is very logical and even intuitive, but it’s so completely different from what most people are used to that it takes a lot of adaptation and training before yielding appreciable results.
To swing a weapon you have ton slash with the mouse in the direction desired, while pressing the left button at the same time. Pressing the right button while slashing will parry in that direction. If you have a shield things get slightly easier at least in defense, as you just have to generically aim the shield towards the incoming blow and press the right button to hold it up.
Holding the button longer will actually increase the power of the attack (up to a limit) creating a nice balance of risk against reward with every single swing.
Things are complicated further by the fact that weapons will actually cause damage only if you hit at the right angle and with the right part of the weapon itself. If you are swinging a halberd but only the wooden pole connects with your enemy, he’ll just laugh at you and keep on coming. If you swing your implement of destruction without the proper distance to gain momentum you’ll also fail at causing appreciable damage, as the inertia won’t be enough to wound your opponent severely.
Armor also plays a fundamental role, as it provides with very sizable protection depending on its thickness, and even the most lightly armored enemies still wear a suit of chainmail under their tunic. The game simulates angles of penetration quite precisely, so don’t expect wild swings thrown in random directions to cause much harm, as only clean hits that collide with the armor from an almost perpendicular vector will penetrate. Everything else will have very little effect or bounce off completely.
Of course aiming at unprotected areas like the face makes penetration way easier, but heavily armored opponents can lower their visor (at the price of visibility) sending you back to square one.
Add to that the fact that weapons and shields are actually physically simulated objects that exist in the environment no matter if they are swung or actively used to parry, which means that if two swords collide or your hit collides with a shield that is just being held idle or is even strapped to the back of your enemy, no damage will be done.
This extremely complex combat system is bad news and good news at the same time. It can definitely frustrate the average newbie used to Call of Duty or Battlefield, where you can just spray and pray and still get some kills. If you do that in War of the Roses, you’ll be nothing else than a moving training dummy unable to cause any harm and courteously providing your enemies with a way to inflate their score with no effort at all.
The good news is that players willing to put in the effort to actually learn the system will be faced with extremely satisfying and rewarding results. The levels of defense you have to surpass against a skilled enemy are so many and so complex that when you start actually causing damage and killing your opponents regularly, you’ll hit some sort of melee Nirvana, turning a previously frustrating experience in one of the most satisfying offered by this kind of competitive game.
Basically, it’s hard to learn and even harder to master, but when you do learn it and even more when you do master it, it’ll probably be one of the best moments of your gaming career. Perseverance is the key, and in a market that does nothing else than holding our hand and spoon feeding us with easy victories and instant gratification, I’m not sure that this is a bad thing. Scratch that. I’m quite sure that this is a very good thing, provided that a good and solid tutorial would have made the learning curve a lot smoother without weakening the overall challenge.
Archery is a lot easier to approach, but it’s still very precisely simulated and provides its own level of complexity and its own skills to master. Crossbows deal the most damage at a longer range, and their bolts will travel in a semi-straight line for a long distance, making them the easiest weapon to aim. The problem is that they behave exactly like real crossbows, meaning that they take ages to reload, and if anyone hits you while you’re frantically cranking on the cranequin, you’ll be interrupted and you’ll have to start over.
As a crossbowman you’ll have to take your shots only when you’re reasonably sure to hit, and then find a place to hide for the several seconds it’ll take to reload. While the skill required is probably lower than with other weapons, your situational and tactical awareness will be tested more.
Bows are basically the opposite end of the spectrum compared to crossbows. They reload very quickly, but their arrows drop quicker as well as they travel towards your target, requiring a lot more aiming skill and a good instinct in judging distances to compensate. You’ll also be able to keep the string drawn for a very short period of time. If you hesitate too long before firing, your shot will cause less damage as the string loses tension, until you’ll eventually have to redraw it completely, losing the shot.
Arrows are limited for both weapons, and even if they recharge over time, properly conserving your ammo is a further way leading to victory.
I have to say that archery is very satisfying in War of the Roses. Not only it’s extremely well simulated (the only thing missing is simulating the effects of the wind, but maybe I’m asking too much there), but it requires a lot more skill and tactical awareness than any firearm featured by any first or third person shooter, without being as hard to initially approach as the game’s melee combat.
New players will find themselves with a few different ways to approach combat. The easiest and less initially frustrating is to pack a bow and master the art of Robin Hood. It’s satisfying and very fun almost from the very beginning, as soon as you learn the basics of judging distance compared to the drop of your arrows, and to give shots against moving targets the proper lead.
While that’s a good way to immediately start enjoying the game, it will give you very little training in melee combat, making you miss on a lot of the fun. The opposite approach, going entirely melee, will help you master combat faster, but will possibly cost you several hours of frustration as you learn the art.
My personal advice is, as soon as you unlock the first customizable profile, to create a hybrid combatant. Pure archers are a tad too squishy to survive well in melee, unless you’re already very skilled, so pack up some medium plate armor (heavy plate will take longer to unlock and its encumbrance is too heavy for archery), a shield, a good longsword or one-hand axe and a good medium helm with a visor, and strap a longbow to your back at the same time.
That way you’ll experience the easier approach of archery, that will probably also allow you to gain more experience and coins to improve your equipment faster, while limiting frustration to a minimum, but at the same time you’ll be able to engage decently in melee, learning the ropes that you’d pretty much miss while going pure archer or crossbowman. At least, that’s what worked best for me.
The bleeding/healing systems and executions are a rather great complement to the fighting system. At any point during the game you can bandage yourself or one of your allies, manually healing some of the damage received. If someone hits you during the process, it will be voided.
If you receive too much damage, you’ll start bleeding. When you do, you’ll only have a handful of seconds to bandage yourself or you’ll be knocked out. You can also be knocked out instantly if you receive damage over a certain threshold.
Once you’re knocked out, your destiny will be decided by whoever reaches you first. If it’s an enemy, he’ll be able to to execute you, sending you straight back to the profile selection screen and forcing you to respawn. An ally can heal you up, putting you back into business. If no one finds you for a few seconds, you can decide to wait or to yield and respawn. Healing allies and executing enemies takes a few seconds and makes you vulnerable, but it’s also very flattering on your final score (and progression), creating a very nice risk and reward system, not to mention that executions are definitely spectacular as your character gruesomely impales his enemies or gouges their eyes out with a sharp knife.
Combat in War of the Roses is an extremely satisfying, frantic and hilariously adrenaline-rich experience, while requiring skills, tactical awareness and reasoning at the same time. Provided that you’re willing to climb past the steep initial learning curve. It’s the most challenging, deepest and simply the best battle system I’ve ever seen in a game of this genre. Besides the Mount & Blade series nothing comes close. I know that’s a very flattering statement, but no other game does. It’s that simple.
Of course that can backfire seriously on your enjoyment if all you want is taking pot shots at your enemies and mindlessly kill stuff without much thought involved, but if that’s your primary aim, War of the Roses simply isn’t for you, and there’s plenty Call of Duties for you to unleash your aggressive instincts on.
One thing is for sure: Fatshark went to great lengths to provide the game with a very good netcode able to support matches of up to 64 players. Crowded battles that include the full complement of combatants are definitely an impressive sight and a frantic and fun experience.
A rather weak area of the game are its modes. At the moment there are only two: Team Deathmatch and Conquest. In the first you’ll just have to slaughter the enemy team, while in the second you’ll have to slaughter your opponents and conquer a number of objectives (usually five, but there are a couple of maps that feature only three) at the same time.
Since helping in capturing an objective automatically grants 1000 experience points and 1000 gold, and each team will immediately capture one or two objectives at the beginning of each match, playing Conquest is almost an absolute must if you want to progress through the game as a reasonable pace and unlock the most advanced perks and equipment faster, turning the objective-based mode into the only real viable option, potentially reducing the game’s longevity.
Squad spawn is another rather solid flaw. If you’re dueling an enemy squad leader and his mates get killed somewhere else on the battlefield, be ready to see them instantly teleport around you, potentially turning an extremely pleasing one vs one into a frustrating and almost hopeless five vs one. I did manage to wipe a whole squad by myself a couple of times, but you aren’t going to fight a whole group of headless chickens that often.
The progression system is, besides combat, one of the most satisfying aspects of the game. You can progress both in levels and in riches. While your level will unlock perks and equipment to customize your personal knight down to the smallest detail of his armor, weaponry and skillset, you’ll also have to purchase them with gold, providing an absolutely addictive progression that will keep you hooked to the game until you get your profile perfectly honed both in functionality and looks.
It’s also a great way to visually display your battle prowess with richly decorated heavy equipment that is the mark of a veteran. If you see someone with full plate armor riding on a barded warhorse, you’d better be careful, as he’s at the very least not a newbie, and most probably he’s a skilled opponent that will be ready to exploit any weakness you show. He may be an absolutely unskilled but very patient poor sod that demolished his enjoyment in order to grind all the way to that level death after death, but in my experience those are quite rare. The hopeless tend to give up on War of the Roses quite a lot before they manage to look that good.
All things considered, War of the Roses has the full potential to be a divisive game that people will absolutely loathe or love to death. It’s steep and ruthlessly unforgiving learning curve will prompt quite a few to give up before it becomes really fun, but the complex, deep and purely satisfying combat will keep those that will prove patient around for a long time.
If you’re tired of the rather flat and somewhat unchallenging experience and of all the hand-holding and spoon-feeding provided by modern shooters and want a more fulfilling experience that will test both your reflexes and your perseverance at the same time, it may be time to hang the assault rifle to the wall and pick up the Claymore. It won’t be easy, but it should you manage to endure the hardships of a budding sword master, it will be fully worth the effort.
If any War of the Roses is a courageous gamble. Your mileage may vary on whether it’s a successful one or not. For me it is. You have been fully warned, but ultimately the choice to follow the unforgiving but stimulating way of the sword is yours.