War of the Roses – MMO Game Review
Passed Inspection: Visceral combat, lots of customization options, attention to historical detail, beautiful scenery, friendly player base, and fantastic sound design.
Failed Basic: Steep learning curve, inadequate tutorial, no single player campaign, and touchy controls. The need to unlock equipment means new players can have a rough time against veterans.
War of the Roses is something of an odd duck, a multiplayer-only deathmatch that tries to authentically recreate high medieval combat—Call of Duty by way of the Society for Creative Anachronism. It’s a concept that shouldn’t work on the surface of things but is engrossing and fun once it gets going, despite some flaws.
As noted above, War of the Roses is a multiplayer game, and the only single-player elements are the five tutorials that give the new player a chance to try out each of the four premade “profiles” (classes or builds), plus a fifth for mounted combat. These tutorials are skimpy and aggravating—the AI bots are rock stupid, and I had to quit one early because my computer-driven allies couldn’t keep up with my drive to the objective—but provide the minimum necessary to learn the controls and get started.
As a new player, you start out with access to four prefab profiles: the versatile Footman, the heavily armored Footknight, the Crossbowman, and the Longbowman. These main four are well balanced and essential for trying out different play styles and earning experience and gold, used to unlock new equipment and fighting styles for their custom profiles. You can also customize your personal coat of arms to give your medieval avatar a unique look. I based mine on the heraldry of my grandmother’s clan, Dennehy.
It’s tempting to unlock a custom class as soon as it becomes available, but it’s better to resist the urge until you have tens of thousands of gold and experience points stashed away. The four premade profiles are buffed up with lots of expensive “perks” and equipment to make them competitive—as I discovered when I took my newly minted billman into the field, only to find he was slow and barely able to defend himself against even the lowliest Footman. I had to go back to playing with the four basic profiles for a while to build up enough experience to properly outfit him.
The unlockable equipment system is my least favorite part of the game. A skilled player always has an advantage, true, but good luck if you try bringing down a knight, clad head to toe in custom plate armor, with a basic one-handed sword. I resented the time I had to spend grinding away with the basic builds before I could assemble a decent custom soldier. It would have been nice to have access to a menu of basic weapons and armors to give me a competitive custom profile without laboring away so long with the premade builds. I wouldn’t have minded then putting extra time into the game to unlock high-level equipment or fancy aesthetic customizations.
Gripes aside, the combat itself is visceral and satisfying. It’s a rush to pile into a scrum of a dozen swinging swords, then having it break up into a half-dozen intensely personal duels. You select the direction of your attack or block with intuitive mouse movements; there’s an art to predicting your opponent’s next move, so as to time your blocks and counterstrokes. The engine tracks where your blows land and whether they’ve glanced off armor or sliced bare flesh, making it quite a change from the generic “hitboxes” most games have.
The archery system, like the swordplay, is difficult to master, but satisfying when you drop a charging swordsman with a single shot to the unarmored face. Draw back the string and the power of your strike slowly builds, but take too long to line up a shot and your arms start to shake, decreasing the power and accuracy. Archery has become my favorite role in the game, because feathering your enemies requires you to think tactically. Archers have to stay on the fringes of the fight, seeking cover or elevation and using teammates to hold the enemy at bay.
War of the Roses also has a welcome element of teamwork. You’ll do best if you stick by your buddies and don’t let yourself get dog-piled by the enemy. This element is only enhanced by the unique way in which you “knockdown” enemies instead of killing them outright. When you dish out enough damage, the enemy soldier collapses to the ground. If the coast is clear, you can “execute” him for extra XP and gold—going through a five-second animation to brutally finish off the downed man with sword, shield, or dagger—or you can revive downed teammates for more of the same. You must rely on your teammates to cover your back while you “tend” to the fallen. Finally, teammates grouped into a squad can respawn close to their squad leader, avoiding another long run from the spawn point to the front lines. The emphasis on teamwork is welcome and feels closer to the more intimate, strategic fights of games like Left 4 Dead or Team Fortress 2 than the chaotic brawls of a typical deathmatch.
I would highly recommend a newcomer play the first few games on a “1v1” or “dueling” server. Fighting one enemy at a time gives the new player time to get accustomed to the swordplay system, but I also found the players there tend to be polite and even, dare I say, chivalrous. Opponents signal their readiness to fight by sketching a salute with a high block, and players are expected to tell each other “gf” or “good fight” after a well-fought bout. These servers are a pleasant place to learn the ropes and try out a new profile.
The graphics, art design, and especially the sound deserve special mention. The game runs smoothly even on a middle-aged computer (2.4GHz quad core, 4GB of RAM, and a 512MB GeForce 8800 GT) and the sprawling battlefields offer some lovely vistas, such as the sky over a town filled with flaming arrows and a brilliant orange sunset over a moor. Ah, to be in England now that war is here. The game shows off the care and time other players have invested in the design of their characters in the brilliantly rendered armor and personal heraldry. The sound is particularly effective at immersing you in the fight. A parried swing is rewarded with the sound of sharp blades scraping on each other. Take a mace to the helmet and you’ll be deafened with a bell-like ring.
War of the Roses is fun, challenging, and immersed in historical detail, but the need to grind for experience and the lack of a proper single player mode hold it back from greatness. The latter, especially, is a missed opportunity, because I can see War of the Roses’ solid combat system having an excellent second life in an RPG. It’s a must have for medieval history buffs and a good purchase for someone who enjoys multiplayer games but has gotten bored with more conventional fair. It’s not for everybody, and I don’t see myself playing it for much longer, but for now, I’m happy to charge across the battlefield to plant a warhammer in a dirty Lancastrian’s face.
Armchair General rating: 85%
About the Author
Matt Richardson is a freelance social media consultant and website administrator in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has a degree in History from Davidson College, with a special interest in military history and the Civil War. He has rotted his mind with video games since childhood. You can follow Matt at @MT_Richardson and read his blog at Ritalingamer.com.