War of the Roses hands-on preview

I go into War of the Roses with a simple goal: I want to plant a crossbow bolt dead center in someone's face. That's not asking much, right? Just put a crossbow in my hands and I'll handle the rest. I'll check out swords and spears and other 15th century tools of death, but those are the weapons of the common man. I'm in it for the precision face piercing.

As soon as I launch the pre-beta build of developer Fatshark's new multiplayer melee murderfest, I realize I have no idea what I've gotten myself into.

Before throwing me into a round of hilariously bloody medieval combat, War of the Roses presents a paralyzing volume of customization options. I pick a crossbow character class -- other options like footman, longbowman, and mounted knight fail to distract me from my crossbow lust -- and suddenly find myself wading through menus that will determine my battlefield capabilities. I can choose between a hand drawn firing mechanism, a pull lever, a push lever, or a windlass crossbow, each with different stats for damage, encumbrance, and active and passive reload speeds.

And then the arrows. Do I want frogleg arrows for maximum damage, or armor piercing arrows for taking down mounted knights? Or barbed arrows? Or hammerhead arrows? Or broadhead arrows? I settle on froglegs, sacrificing bolt capacity for extra damage. That takes care of one weapon.

Fatshark's vision for third-person medieval brawling marries the pre-game loadout customization of Modern Warfare and Battlefield with the deep statistical rabbit hole Paradox strategy game. I don't just choose a sword as my secondary weapon -- I decide what type of metal that sword was forged from, what kind of pommel it has, and what kind of fighting style my avatar will adopt when he unsheathes his blade.

Death by arrow, death by blade

I begin the first match on a hill overlooking a dreary medieval village and spend a solid minute fumbling with my crossbow, practicing the active reload mechanic to hurry a bolt into place. And I discover it's very, very hard to shoot someone with a crossbow from 50 yards away -- bolts take a couple seconds to cover the distance, and most footmen are constantly strafing while in combat. But when I snag a lucky headshot and see a damage counter pop up above a barely-visible enemy on an opposing hill, I feel like a master crossbowman.

War of the Roses broadcasts the depth of its combat systems from the very first menu, but that complexity takes a backseat to ridiculous mayhem as soon as a match begins. Respawning avatars (and their horses) appear in midair and fall 20 feet to the ground, as if they've been dropped onto the field of combat by a playful god. The character animation strives for realism, but there's something inherently goofy about half a dozen swordsman crashing together like angry moshers, their arms cocked back preparing mighty swings that will likely miss.

The depth is still there, though. Active reloading, which can take several well-timed clicks of the mouse, makes every shot precious. With a sword, that depth impacts the play experience differently. It's challenging to fight well, as swords can be swung left or right, from overhead or in a forward thrust. An intuitive click and mouse swipe in any direction will trigger an attack, but choosing the correct angle and distance to attack from makes landing a blow trickier than it seems. In the hands of beginners, skirmishes devolve into clumsy sword-swinging sessions: players hack the air instead of each other, collide, pull back too far, and miss again. It looks and feels completely awkward. And it's a blast.

When I walk too close to an enemy and try to hew him in two, my avatar simply bonks him with the sword pommel -- he doesn't have the space to build up a killing slice. But when swords find flesh, they do so with an immensely satisfying schlick and a healthy arterial spray that reminds me of Dragon Age's gleefully blood-coated characters. Hitting home feels exactly as gory as sword fighting should, but the combat deserves dismemberment to go along with its sword clangs and gruesome sound effects.

At least there are execution moves to finish off wounded enemies -- when I go down, I get to watch a dagger stabbed into my throat from the first person. There's a trade-off to those satisfying executions, of course -- later I plant a crossbow bolt in an enemy attempting to execute one of my allies. Revives work much like they do in Battlefield: downed players can give up and respawn or sit on the ground waiting for a teammate to save them (or an enemy to knife them).

Swordfights are a dance of retreat-and-advance, haphazard swinging, and desperate parrying of incoming blows. Even in small 8v8 team deathmatch -- the game supports up to 32v32 player matches -- combat feels like barely bridled mayhem. Mounted knights run down slower footmen; archers shoot knights out of their saddles and casually commit grand theft equus moments later; poleaxmen try to wield poleaxes without looking silly (note: this is impossible).

Preparing for war

Despite its early beta stage, War of the Roses feels like a game I could sink hours into. It's very clear from the outset that I will be bad at this game for many, many hours as I learn when to swing a sword and when to parry, what kind of armor works best with what class, and what perks best fit my playstyle. Fatshark promises 60 perks to further differentiate player characters, offering the flexibility to blend classes and create specializations like mounted archers or slow, heavily armored walking tanks.

And 8v8 offers only a small taste of what an all-out 64-player brawl will feel like. The first map we play, the rainy village of Edgecote Moor, is too large for our eight-man teams, and finding an enemy can take a couple minutes of mindless trudging after respawn. The London Tournament, however, offers a wide-open killing field that plays host to constant battles.

I can only imagine how chaotic it will be on a full server, but I won't have to preserve that blood-slick tourney ground in my mind for long. War of the Roses launches in a closed beta during the second week of August, and Paradox has already seen more than 65,000 gamers register for a shot at early access.

After an hour of play, I learned that longbows are easier to fire than crossbows, bunny hopping is no way to escape from a knight's lance, and dying to a sword is infinitely more entertaining than taking a sniper round to chest. Every encounter in War of the Roses feels intense, profoundly silly, or (usually) both. Team deathmatch has been done a million and one times before, but even within an old framework, War of the Roses' swordfights and jousting sessions are refreshing.

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).