Chivalry 2 hands-on: When in doubt, hit an archer with a sledgehammer

I know I'm getting salty when the 'sure's start coming out. As in, "Oh, sure, I guess that enormous axe blade just chopped my head off and I died, that's fair" or "Sure, I guess you're just allowed to stab me in the chest with a spear. Fine!"

I like Chivalry 2 a lot, but it sure can be infuriating. I got a chance to play the upcoming medieval combat game in a recent alpha test which included both team deathmatch maps and big objective maps. In the objective maps, you've got to run for ten seconds or longer to get to the front line after spawning (spamming C to yell "rauuugh" helps pass the time), and when you get there, you might not get a chance to do anything but die. Maybe you'll be poked to death by three guys with spears, or mobbed by shiny armored knights, or, worst of all, shot through the eye with an arrow. "Oh, sure, why wouldn't you stand 20 yards away from the fight and shoot arrows? You absolute joker."

I really should've hit Alt-F4 and called it a night when I start getting mad at the concept of archery, but the prospect of going on a spree just kept beckoning to me from beyond the respawn timer. I just love a spree. Example: After putting up a disappointing K/D during one objective-based match, I switched to a two-handed hammer I'd recently unlocked and, for a minute, turned the game into a gritty Three Stooges reboot as I bonked head after head with it—the metallic thunks and squishy splurts are fantastic. I stopped giving a crap about the objective, a line of trebuchets my team was supposed to blow up, and entered pure bonk mode. I bonked out 11 kills before they hauled me down. (See the gif at the top of this article.)

This guy is slightly outnumbered. (Image credit: Tripwire/Torn Banner)

You can't really trick an executioner's axe that's already set an execution course for your neck.

Chivalry 2's melee combat is quite nuanced, which that bonk spree perhaps doesn't communicate. Maybe it's more accurate to say that the possibility for nuance exists. With one of the many melee weapons, you have three main swings (typically a horizontal slash, a stab, and an overhead strike, each with light and heavy variants), a special attack, a sprinting special attack, a kick for breaking blocks, and a jab to interrupt. You can cancel attacks, feint, throw your weapon, block, and counter with the right timing. You can dodge backwards and to the sides, and you can duck. It's exciting to imagine using all these options in a fight: "I'm going to thrust, and they'll block, but I'll cancel, and I'll kick, and then, and then"and then some guy named Freemason_Hog111 will casually jog by and bust the back of your head open with a morningstar.

Maybe the mind games will be more prominent in 1v1 duels. What developer Torn Banner is showing off prior to Chivalry 2's summer release are 64-player medieval mosh pits: both the team deathmatch and attack-and-defend maps start with all the players lining up and charging at each other. In that environment, I did not fool anyone with feints. You can't really trick an executioner's axe that's already set an execution course for your neck. 

Above: The proper form for a match's starting charge is: yell, throw your weapon, get as many kills as you can, yell some more, die.

Every fight requires skill to win, though, even with the big, heavy weapons. You've got to shove your way in at just the right moment and make your opponents whiff, or hit the perfect block timing. Kicking and jabbing are useful, and many players forget about them. Most importantly, you've got to remember to use your mouse. Swipe your mouse in the direction of a strike animation and you'll connect faster and draw a bigger arc. Aim it high for headshots, low to go for the body. In tandem with smart WASD movement and dodging, good mouse control can sneak your strikes around blocks and help you score a lot of kills, especially against opponents who are just letting the attack animations play without following through. It's the difference between a novice who swings a baseball bat stiffly, and a pro who puts their whole body into it. The latter's gonna hit the dingers.

There are weapons that are just easier to score kills with than others, though, and that led to some of my frustration. I stubbornly wanted to prove that I could dominate with a basic-ass sword, but I wasn't good enough. To some degree, I like that Chivalry 2's weapons feel unbalanced, though. If I wanted to rise to the top of the scoreboard, I grabbed a big axe and tried to best the other team's top players at their own game (see some big axe kills in the gif below). And if I wanted to humiliate knights with finesse, ducking under their greatswords and jabbing at their kidneys with smaller, faster blades, I could try—and usually fail, and get salty about it.

After you're killed you can press F to commend the player who got you.

I wasn't the only one reacting a little emotionally, either—the chat got a bit chippy on day three of the alpha. It's funny that such a goofy game got tempers going across a weekend. You can drop anvils on people, dance and taunt instead of fighting, throw all of your weapons at someone and then try to punch them to death. But can we get on the objective, please? Hello?

Nothing crossed the line, but the character of the playerbase will be of some concern for Chivalry 2's devs. Mordhau, a medieval warfare game from another dev, gained a reputation for attracting assholes, and that's something they hope to avoid. Aside from a vote kick function (which I only saw used spitefully), Chivalry 2 will include player reporting, and chat can be turned off.

One thing I love is that after you're killed you can press F to commend the player who got you (paying your respects, so to speak), which sends them a notification and some bonus points. It's nice to be able to say "good swing, bud" with a keypress. It's especially fun when you've got a little rivalry going, and you and the same player have nodded to each other a few times. In that case, not commending them also carries meaning: That was a lucky one, asshole

And, of course, I'll never commend a filthy archer.

Chivalry 2

An archer about to get what's coming to them. (Image credit: Tripwire/Torn Banner)

I really do hate playing against archers. Hitting them with a sledgehammer is satisfying, but I'm not sure it's satisfying enough to make up for the frustration getting an arrow in the face while trying to riposte. Maybe I'll change my mind after playing more, but as of now I wouldn't mind playing on "no archery" servers. 

There's some good news in that respect: Chivalry 2 has a proper server browser, and support for customizable player-run servers is on the post-launch roadmap. There's no comment yet on exactly how customizable those servers will be, so I can't say whether class limits will be possible, but it doesn't seem unlikely.

I also don't like the class abilities. The idea is to give players utility beyond swinging axes at each other, and I don't object to that, but I found the abilities either distracting or annoying. Footmen have healing packs that they can limply chuck at teammates, which just feels pointless when knights can blow horns that heal every teammate around them. I really despise the fire bombs thrown by Vanguards, and fire in general. Having my vision obscured by flames in the middle of a sword fight, when I'm trying to put all that nuanced combat to use, just feels frustrating. 

Maybe that's my problem, though: I'm trying to play a medieval battle simulator as if it's a sword fighting simulator. Torn Banner is very clear about Chivalry 2 being the former.

"Our primary influence is Hollywood," Torn Banner president Steve Piggott says. The objective-based maps are sectioned into well-defined sets where players are funneled into bloodbaths: Storming the beach, battering down the gates, defending the town square. It's supposed to be a huge mess of blades and arrows and limbs.

In one map, the top player on the defending team transforms into the "heir" for the final stage, becoming a VIP who has to be protected by their team (but fights powerfully, too). I was the heir once. It was very fun (until it bugged out), and I like how Chivalry 2 encourages goofing off even in its most important moments. You've got special emotes as the prince, you can sit in the throne, players can kowtow before you. That playfulness helps keep the mood below the rage quit line—and will maybe help keep behavior in chat civil. Running around a corner to find two opposing players emoting at each other instead of fighting is an effective reminder that you're just playing a game about yelling and swinging big medieval weapons around.

The biggest trick will be getting players to keep coming back, something Chivalry 1 and Mordhau struggled with. They were big hits at first, but didn't hold onto audiences in the way the most popular shooters have. Crossplay may help with that. From a design perspective, though, Piggott thinks the most important thing is that Chivalry 2 feels fair even when you die, and that players "know how to get better." A tutorial helps with that, but also clarity in the animations and netcode—you've got to know what you did wrong to know how to get better. My experience was a bit buggy, but did mostly feel fair, even if the animations didn't always correspond perfectly to what happened (eg, a swing might appear to barely miss, but actually connect). The tutorial is well-made, and if you get a chance to play, I highly suggest doing it. It'll put you at an immediate advantage over those who skip it.

Fire just robs me of opportunities to use my big axe. (Image credit: Tripwire/Torn Banner)

What I find really encouraging is something Piggott told me about the way Chivalry 2 is constructed. "We know that players are going to find things that we didn't realize," he said, "so we built the system to build the game in a way that we can tweak all those things. We have a million different knobs and dials."

Chivalry 1, in contrast, was more or less stuck the way it was when it was done, a consequence of it being made by "amateurs all over the world," says Piggott. I look forward to seeing how this more experienced Torn Banner team tinkers with the meta after Chivalry 2 releases. It'll be tricky: Like I said, I don't necessarily want every weapon to have the same average success rate. Like picking old-style Tachanka in Rainbow Six Siege, using classes or weapons rejected by the meta to prove your skill can be a lot of fun. At the same time, if players are getting axe murdered constantly and can't find viable counters, something will probably have to change—you don't want it to be so unbalanced that everyone uses the same thing.

A few days of alpha testing wasn't nearly long enough for questions of balance to be answered—I'm probably still using a lot of the weapons wrong. There's a beta coming up later this week, where I hope to further establish the hammer meta. (We'll have some codes to give away for it; check back in on Thursday.)

Along with balance updates, Torn Banner will add new maps and other stuff after release, including something it decided to spend some extra time on: horses, which will be able to "kick in all directions," I'm told. I look forward to saying "oh, sure, that's fair" after getting hoofed in the back of the head while trying to pull off a clever feint. That's the nuanced combat I crave. 

Chivalry 2 will be out on June 8. It'll be exclusive to the Epic Games Store for a year, and then it'll come to Steam, which Torn Banner is thinking of as a "second launch." With all the updating and tweaking I expect, it'll probably be a very different game by then.

Tyler Wilde
Executive Editor

Tyler grew up in Silicon Valley during the '80s and '90s, playing games like Zork and Arkanoid on early PCs. He was later captivated by Myst, SimCity, Civilization, Command & Conquer, all the shooters they call "boomer shooters" now, and PS1 classic Bushido Blade (that's right: he had Bleem!). Tyler joined PC Gamer in 2011, and today he's focused on the site's news coverage. His hobbies include amateur boxing and adding to his 1,200-plus hours in Rocket League.