After you lose too much blood and collapse to the ground, there's nothing as unsettling as watching helplessly while your foe towers over you and proceeds to stab a broadsword through your ribs to finish the job. Or hoists his shield over his head before bringing it down on your skull. Or uses a knife to gouge a bloody hole through your face. Or battle-axes you in twain. For the victims forced to become first-person spectators to their own murders up close, War of the Roses' grisly executions are downright horrifying. But blood feuds tend to be messy, and the ferocious vigor that you bring to the battlefield makes the hyper-violent, merciless 15th-century combat in this medieval multiplayer brawler often electrifying.
Pared down and brutal, War of the Roses lets up to 64 armored warriors clash in sprawling battles as the Lancaster and York factions work to slaughter one another en masse. Large-scale multiplayer matches are the main focus. Insane free-for-all brawls unfurl in each match as large mobs of swordsmen, armored footmen, mounted knights, and archers collide across the beautiful countryside. Whether you're plugging barbed arrows into enemies from distant rooftops or thrashing through an alleyway mob in close-quarters melee combat, a frenetic energy punctuates every chaotic encounter. The structure and flow of combat feel much like a shooter: you select a class loadout complete with unique weapons and perks, dive into the fray, hack up your adversaries, and respawn when you get clobbered. However, using ancient weaponry to slice up your enemies up close and personal puts a different, quite cool, spin on things.
The complex fighting system takes practice and skill to master, but it's easy to appreciate the depth it adds to battle when you get over the initially awkward training-wheels phase. Melee combat is a dizzying dance of angled attacks, blocks, dodges, and parries as opponents circle each other. Clicking and holding the left mouse button charges your attack, and moving the mouse in the direction and at the angle you want to swing lets you adjust your blow before letting it loose. Blocking with a shield or weapon is handled in much the same way. It's not always the smoothest process, since delivering attacks and executing blocks take precise timing--and that can be tricky to pull off when you're in the middle of a mob swinging swords, axes, spears, and halberds around like lunatics. That said, every successful blow or parry is gratifying, and the adrenaline really kicks in when you're going toe-to-toe with an opponent hell-bent on gutting you like a Thanksgiving turkey.
Archers and crossbowmen add another layer of chaos to the mix. They're different animals altogether and perhaps the most fun classes to play. Turning foes into pincushions from across the battlefield is ultra-satisfying, but you have to lead moving targets and take distance and arrow drop into account with every shot. Archers can hold a drawn bow for only a few seconds, which helps to keep them from being overpowered, and cranking a crossbow is a painstaking task. While long-range warriors are somewhat capable with a blade in a pinch, their weaker stature and limited weaponry mean they also can't hold up long against more heavily armored foes.
Regardless of your class, taking a moment to revive fallen comrades or finish off prone enemies introduces a risk-vs.-reward dynamic that earns you bonus coins and experience but leaves you vulnerable. Executions are particularly awesome, as is taking down an enemy who's about to execute a comrade and then reviving your pal so he can turn around and send his would-be murderer to his doom. It's almost comical how fast and frequently the tables turn, and the fluidity of matches keeps things exciting.
War of the Roses' authenticity even extends to the realistic interplay between different weapons and armor types. Some blades bounce off heavy armor leaving a mere scratch damage-wise, but putting an arrow through the thin visor in your foe's helmet or jabbing a weak spot between armor plates can be lethal. Prepare to experience utter panic the first time you face off against a tanked-up adversary you can barely injure with your weaker weapons. The starting arsenal and available loadouts are limited at first, though you unlock more options as you level up and earn coins for kills.
Once you open up several custom character slots, the ability to tweak your warriors for maximum killing effectiveness is a great time sink between battles. Applying perks that increase your fighting prowess in different ways is only the beginning too. You can even go as far as picking the actual materials for each weapon--right down to the wood and metal types--which subtly affects their effectiveness. The level of depth is commendable. It's also a potent lure to keep you diving back into matches to test out your new gear and earn coins to score better equipment.
As thrilling as the game's massive medieval bloodbaths can get, War of the Roses isn't without its flaws. A few bugs, ranging from minor visual glitches like indoor rain, to bigger problems like midair respawns that send you plummeting to your death, pop up from time to time. They're a minor nuisance. The sparse play modes or other ways to experience the combat are the bigger issue. This rivalry between warring houses is certainly worth exploring outside of the online battles, but nothing really touches on the historical aspect behind the conflict. And with only two modes--Team Deathmatch and Conquest--battles grow repetitive over time.
Limited though it may be, War of the Roses delivers a grisly, realistic take on third-person medieval combat that hits most of the right notes. More than just a refreshing change of pace for the genre, it captures the raw kinetic essence of the period's turbulent warfare in an exciting way. Fatshark's plans to roll out additional modes and updates will eventually beef up the content available for you to chew through, but even right now this is a satisfying multiplayer experience.