REVIEW: In days of old when Knights were bold...
A platoon of knights charges down the hillside, swords raised, battlecries filling the air. Archers loose arrows overhead at the encroaching enemies, the red-garbed knights of the Mason Order. There’s a heady rush of adrenaline as the two armies meet, swords, axes, halberds swinging. Limbs fly, shields buckle, the clang of metal on metal and the death rattles of the dying are the only sounds to be heard.
This could be a description of any number of medieval strategy titles or even action games, but Chivalry is different. In Chivalry, you are one of those Knights charging into battle. And you’ll do so from a first-person perspective, battling up to 63 other players online. Chivalry is, in its most basic form, an online arena / objective based multiplayer combat game, in which two teams of players either kill each other or work together to complete a number of pre-set goals. Kind of like Unreal Tournament or Enemy Territory, but with broadswords and maces instead of assault rifles and railguns.
Now, I’ll be honest, when someone says a game features first-person melee combat, I’m usually pretty wary. That’s because, traditionally, it’s never worked. A few examples have made it satisfying and intuitive – Arkane’s Dark Messiah of Might & Magic and Dishonored chief amongst them, as well as Zeno Clash– but there’s often such a disconnect between the controls and the action that it never feels visceral enough to work. Chivalry changes all of that. Torn Banner’s inaugural title is brutal, yes, but it’s surprisingly good at conveying a sense of location within the world.
It helps that the controls are simple. A left click delivers a wide sweeping attack, not too damaging but capable of hitting enemies (and allies) in a generous area. Flicking the mousewheel up causes your character to perform a powerful overhead, capable of slipping between the shields of defending foes, and mousewheel down delivers a swift forward thrust, difficult to hit with but very powerful. The right button, meanwhile, performs a parry – an act requiring precise timing for those without a shield. Archers work a little differently, with the right button effectively nocking an arrow / bolt and the left firing, but every class has access to a handy kick move which can be used to interrupt enemy attacks and break guards.
The beauty of the game’s combat lies in the pacing and surprising subtlety. It’s possible, for example, to perform a feint, interrupting your attack mid-windup to lure your opponent into attacking. You can also perform double-sweeping combos, which can be used to trick an opponent – deliberately miss with the first attack, then catch them with the counter-swing as they’re exposed whilst preparing an attack of their own. Each of the game’s four classes has a variety of main, secondary and tertiary weapons, many of which need to be unlocked, and each has its own traits and nuances to consider. The Knight, for example, can use single-handed swords in conjunction with a large shield, or can forego the protection of the shield in favour of a slow but powerful double-handed warhammer or great axe. There’s decent variety, with more due to arrive soon when the flail makes an appearance, and more importantly there is a discernible difference in how the weapons feel.
Each class also has a special ability of sorts to call upon. Archers, naturally, get a zoom function, though given that arrows and bolts don’t fly in a direct line aiming a shot accurately is more difficult than you might think. The Man-at-Arms is lightly armoured but quick, and can dodge when you double-tap a direction. Vanguard – my personal favourite – has the widest reach with a selection of polearms and claymores, and gets a devastating sprinting attack, but their attacks are very slow, whilst the Knight has the heaviest armour and strongest shields but suffers from poor speed and agility.
Combat is frequently hilarious – health is in short supply and weapons are devastating, and there’s plenty of limb removal, throat slitting and decapitation all around, with friendly fire a particularly major concern with some of the larger weapons. There are various siege weapons which all-too-often result in the firer wiping out half of their own team with a badly-aimed shot, and combat is quite often a scrappy, messy affair with deaths – both intentional and accidental – on both sides. We also ought to mention the truly hilarious voice commands, which allow your characters to bark out instructions, taunt enemies, and so on. Some of them are downright creepy – there was a very surreal moment where a group of us were pushing a battering ram whilst constantly mashing the ‘laugh’ button.
The game boasts a reasonable selection of maps, and they’re quite nicely varied, ranging from rural villages to muddy battlefields to rocky mountain fortresses and even a sun-drenched middle eastern city, and there’s good variety also in the range of game modes on offer. There’s a standard free-for-all deathmatch which seems to be present for completions sake, but the other game modes are more compelling – Team Deathmatch is more exciting, and Last Team Standing proves surprisingly tense. King of the Hill is just an excuse for a very messy bloodbath, but the real meat lies in the objective-based modes, with progressive goals that comprise anything from destroying a trebuchet emplacement to depositing a cartload of corpses in a river, and there are a couple of real standouts - a mission which has one force assaulting a town, butchering villagers, then taking a battering ram to break down the castle doors and finally attempt to murder a player designated as ‘King’ is a personal favourite. One or two objectives don’t seem to be that fairly balanced, and there are a couple of levels with particularly cruel chokepoints that seem to favour one side over the other, but generally the maps offer a good range of different environments with a variety of tactical options.
It’s with the presentation that Torn Banner let the side down a bit, as Chivalry sports a very simplistic interface with basic textual overlays and health graphics. There’s a welcome tutorial mission complete with terrible voice acting and poor animations that does the job well enough, but it’s the actual process of finding a game that’s the real problem with Chivalry. The only option you have is a remarkably antiquated – and somewhat buggy – server browser. You can technically filter by gametype and hide servers with passwords or that are full, but it’s a bit hit and miss, and sometimes you’ll have to restart the game a couple of times before it manages to get you on to a decent server. As for the servers, their quality varies, but given the precise nature of the combat playing on a server with a high ping is little more than an exercise in frustration. Fortunately you can invite your buddies on Steam to join your game, but if the server is full they’ll just get a garbled error message that isn’t overly helpful. Thankfully the bugs are mostly limited to outside the game itself, so when you’re in a match you can concentrate on playing the game and enjoying yourself.
In-game things look pretty good; the Unreal 3 engine is put to good use, and the landscapes and player models, whilst a touch simplistic, are well-textured and animated – especially the attack animations – and there are some nice details, like helmets being knocked flying when you strike an opponent’s head, or bloodstains smearing the bodies of injured warriors. Death animations (and sound effects) are especially good, full of gurgling and screaming soldiers, sprays of blood, and deliciously meaty impact sounds. There’s not a lot of music, though it’s decent enough, and whilst the voice acting is pretty bad it’s also absolutely perfect in its ham-fisted delivery.
Chivalry is, in many ways, a perfect representation of the kind of warfare it portrays. It’s brutal, satisfying, and a bit messy. It’s rough around the edges, but full of passion. It’s simple to understand yet deceptively layered. It differs, really, in just two key aspects: unlike real war, it’s absolutely hilarious, and endlessly fun.