Kingdom Come: Deliverance first-look: "Dungeons and no dragons" in Warhorse's open-world RPG
Under its leafy canopy, the wooded clearing has an earthy glow and a still, oppressive quiet. It’s a scene fit for motivational posters and pre-packaged Windows wallpapers, and it would be picturesque if it wasn’t for the dirty, angry man with the broadsword. He stands up, hefts the weapon, and charges straight at me, looking for blood. My sword is already out, and my steel rises to meet his.
I’m watching a demo of Kingdom Come: Deliverance as played by developer Daniel Vávra, and the game already looks impressive. The open-world, medieval RPG is ambitious, creating a live slice of medieval Europe full of sprawling cities, harried townspeople, and refugees fleeing civil unrest. Quests will be open-ended with multiple paths to completion, including non-violence, and Kingdom will be the rare medieval setting without even a hint of dragons, magic, or elves.
“Books and movies have changed,” Vávra says, showing me slides of '60s-era Adam West Batman against the gritty Christian Bale incarnation. "People have grown up, and their heroes have evolved with them." He flips to a nameless, generic fantasy setting featuring two busty women in strategically unwise armor, then to an image of Sean Bean from Game of Thrones.
This realism-first attitude produces a gorgeous countryside rooted in history and split into three acts, each with around 30 hours of gameplay. The map in act one is nine square kilometers, generated by satellite-modeled terrain in the same way that Arma 3’s maps are derived from scans of real-world Greek islands. Development studio Warhorse, based in Prague, is so dedicated to a hard-reality version of events that they were, as Vávra tells it, spending too much time on research. Now they have an in-house historian.
The team's dedication to an immersive simulation extends to the array of side-quests and activities—it is an open-world game, after all, and you can ignore the orders of your liege lord and bolt off to the hills if you’re not feeling particularly duty-bound. In rapid succession, a short trailer shows gameplay clips of hunting, purse-cutting, spelunking, weapon crafting, horse riding, layered and customizable clothing and armor, open-field battles, and siege assaults. Each NPC will have a daily routine that can be altered: if you kill a local barkeeper, his regular patrons will go elsewhere and talk about the sad fate of their friend. All of these variables are running in CryEngine, and Vávra says the game will lend itself to mods, and the team is hopeful that they’ll support modders with at least some basic tools.
But in a lot of ways, the fortunes of Kingdom hang on the moment after swords slam together. It’s fine to talk about the game’s huge world and the political intrigue surrounding a kidnapped king, but all that work will be blunted if the first-person melee combat fails to shine. First-person swordfights are very hard to get right, a struggle so notorious in games design that author Neal Stephenson famously funded a Kickstarter just to fix it (and failed), resulting in the now-defunct Clang. Even first-person mainstays like Skyrim and Chivalry: Medieval Warfare succeed in spite of their melee combat, rather than because of it.
Kingdom’s melee combat is ambitiously deep. Enemies have five regions to target—the head, arms, and legs—and each area can be attacked with an up-, down-, left-, or right-side strike. The most impressive moment comes when Vávra points out that each strike and block begins as an animation, but becomes a procedurally generated, physics-based reaction as the sword hits something. Blades flex and bend, skittering against each other and bouncing away after a successful parry. When it works, it looks more like watching a renaissance fair duel than the insubstantial pre-rendered attack animations seen elsewhere.
Warhorse is working to self-publish the first act of Kingdom in late 2015. Warhorse is launching a Kickstarter campaign today looking for $500,000. In the next few months, they’ll be releasing a test build featuring a small village to backers who pitch in $48 or more. This test village will be constantly updated and will include combat when they’ve smashed enough bugs to make the melee presentable.
The game has a long way to go before it’s finished and some big technical hurdles to clear, but what I’ve seen already has me cautiously optimistic—bordering on stupidly excited. Check out Warhorse’s Kickstarter campaign, and strap in for a long two years of eager anticipation.