This past weekend, Steam held a free weekend event for Chivalry: Medieval Warfare, an indie first- or third-person action multiplayer game. As its subtitle suggests, the gameplay revolves around medieval warfare, with armored knights and archers waging war against each other in bloody, brutal combat. You play as one soldier on the battlefield, selecting from four classes and picking specific weaponry. The various game modes include typical team deathmatch, free-for-all, and last team standing, with "team objective" pitting teams against each other in attacking or defending specific objectives.
The combat is based mainly on timing and stamina management; blocking attacks and stringing together combos requires precise timing, and each attack or parry consumes stamina. These features make Chivalry's combat feel a little more tactical than your average hack n' slash game, while the weapons have an authentic feeling of weight and impact to them. Coupled with the intense gore and the in-your-face nature of one-on-one combat, Chivalry has a lot going for it. It's exactly the kind of game I want to like, but I just couldn't convince myself it was worth it from the free weekend event. Here are my impressions of Chivalry, based on the free weekend.
Chivalry features four playable classes: the archer wears light armor and uses either bows or crossbows to attack foes at a distance, and has short blade weapons for close-range defense; the man-at-arms wears light armor and uses broadswords and light shields, with a unique ability to quickly side-step dodge in four directions; the vanguard wears heavier armor and uses two-handed polearms to attack from a greater melee range with the strongest offensive damage; and the knight wears full plate armor and uses heavy shields, granting him the highest defense while also allowing him to wield longswords with one or two hands.
The four classes allow for different playstyles, which is nice because you can play whatever suits your style best, or you can alternate classes for the sake of variety. The game features a weapon unlock system as well, so as you accumulate kills with different weapon categories on different classes, you make progress towards unlocking new weapons. There's a fair amount of variety to the weapons, with each class being able to choose one primary weapon from three initial options, one secondary weapon from two initial options, and one tertiary item. Some classes get throwing axes or daggers as their third weapon, some get shields, some can throw oil, smoke, or fire, and so on. There aren't a whole lot of customization options, but there's enough there to give the game replay value and staying power.
Along with stock FPS game modes such as team deathmatch, free-for-all, and last team standing (as well as, supposedly, king of the hill and capture the flag, though I never found any active servers running these game modes), Chivalry features a game mode called "team objective," usually requiring teams to attack or defend certain points on a map. One map tasks the red team with burning down a village and killing the peasants, so the red team has to fight towards the village, grab torches from bonfires, and throw them onto houses while murdering helpless peasants; blue team has to defend. Red team then has to push a battering ram to the castle gate and knock the gate down. Once in the castle, someone from blue team is designated as the king, and red team has to kill the king to win the game.
Other maps have different objectives like lighting signal fires or destroying trebuchets. Team objective is a pretty fun game mode because it gives you some kind of meaningful purpose for all the action, while promoting more teamplay and strategy. This, I feel, gives Chivalry an edge over similar medieval/fantasy multiplayer games because the objectives and mission structure have more lasting appeal in my eyes than random, repetitive deathmatches.
As a multiplayer action game, combat is Chivalry's livelihood, and it's kind of a mixed bag. Left-clicking allows you to perform basic lateral slashes and right-clicking allows you to parry with your weapon or block with a shield if you have one equipped. Besides that, you can also use the mousewheel forward to perform a thrust, and backward to perform an overhead strike. Attacks and parries consume stamina, which can be quickly depleted in a fight and is slow to regenerate, meaning each hit or miss is vitally important to your survival. Success in combat is about properly timing your parries and trying to get past your enemy's defenses.
One of the unique tricks to Chivalry's combat is the dedicated feint button -- pressing Q during an attack's wind up animation cancels the attack, which you can use to fake-out your opponent and attack with a follow-up strike while he's open. Likewise, enemies can feint attacks at you, so duels are a delicate dance of trying to outsmart each other, rather than trying to win through sheer force. The other fun aspect is that friendly-fire is always on, and it appears to do full damage to teammates, so when you go into a large battle among dozens of fighters, you have to be really careful where your attacks are swinging so as not to kill or wound players on your team.
Chivalry boasts an interesting damage system as well, that promotes aiming for certain parts of the body or using certain weapons against certain kinds of armors. Swords are better against lightly armored foes (the archer and the man at arms), and blunt weapons are better against heavily armored foes (the vanguard and the knight), so it benefits you to switch weapons depending on who you're fighting. Aiming for exposed parts of the body that aren't as heavily armored (such as in the joints, where there's only chainmail instead of plate armor) will do more damage, and if you can knock an enemy's helmet off, their head becomes a ripe target for bludgeoning.
It's surprisingly easy to decapitate and dismember enemies in showers of blood. These gory visual effects are a large part of the game's visceral atmosphere, making it look and feel more intense than the action might even suggest, but the feeling of using the weaponry has a satisfying feeling of authenticity as well. The animations and sound effects for attacks, coupled with the way enemies react to being hit, make the weapons feel like they have genuine momentum behind them, letting you feel the impact of your weapon bouncing off a shield or plunging into an enemy's chest. Few games have made melee combat feel so weighty and visceral, and Chivalry is right up there in that department.
Where Chivalry falters is in the sometimes unresponsive feeling of its controls. A lot of my deaths were the direct result of me intending to do one thing and my character doing something else. For instance, I'd be about to engage a foe, attempting to lure him into attacking me so that I could parry and riposte, but when it came time to parry with my weapon, I right clicked and watched as my character stood there like an idiot and took the hit directly to the face. I had full stamina at the time and have never had issues with this mouse registering clicks; this kind of thing happened on multiple other occasions with other kinds of input.
At times I'd respawn and go sprinting back into battle, running across relatively open and even terrain, only to find my character has stopped sprinting for some reason, as if he stubbed his toe on a small rock or something. It then takes a few seconds to notice this and then get back into a running stride again, and that kind of thing is especially problematic when playing as a vanguard, because his unique ability is to perform a sprinting lunge attack; it's kind of flustering when you go into a battle intending to open up with a devastating jump attack, only to have your character seemingly trip over his own feet and prevent you from actually doing so.
The tutorial blatantly lies to you about the controls, as well
Chivalry has some pretty un-intuitive hit detection for blocking and attacking, which can make things even more frustrating at times. In order to block an enemy's attack, you have to press the parry button at the right time, and the tip of their weapon has to be visible on-screen -- the idea is to make you aim specially in the direction of their attack instead of just blocking a 180-degree area in front of you. But this leads to some pretty inane moments when you appear to block an enemy's attack squarely in the middle of their blade, but you take full damage because the tip of their sword was just barely off-screen.
Likewise, this hit detection system promotes offensive maneuvers where you attack and drag your crosshair off-target, as if you're intentionally trying to miss (which is incredibly counter intuitive to me), just to get past the player's hit detection rather than legitimately getting past his defenses. I've had times when I've had a full tower shield up, an opponent directly in front of me, and his attack somehow went through my shield. It would be one thing if he'd flanked me, or kicked my shield out, or tricked me into attacking or something, but it's damn frustrating when a seeming defense doesn't work and when the game itself offers no clue as to why his attack went through your shield. I had to use google to figure this stuff out.
Besides that, I also found the input queuing system clunky and unresponsive. The idea is that if you make two or three quick button presses in a row, the game logs each input in a queue and performs the next action once the previous action has finished. This is specifically how you execute combos: you click to start your attack, and before the first attack finishes, you click again -- if you wait until the animation is almost finished, the next attack gets registered as the start of a new sequence, instead of the second hit in a combo. So basically you have to queue up two attacks and take your hands off the controls for three seconds while you watch your character perform; yet another aspect of the control scheme that's not especially intuitive to me.
Commands in the input queue don't seem easily overwritten, either, meaning if the situation changes in a split second and you suddenly decide you need to block, you'll be stuck watching your kick animation follow-up after your sword attack, instead of going into a parry. Then your parry comes up after you've already been hit, and if you were frantically spamming right-click trying to get it to work when you wanted it to, then you're stuck in a loop of off-beat parrying while the enemy turns your face into french fries. And with the game's low-health system, it only takes about three hits before you die, depending on your class, so one mistake like this can mean your death.
The problems get amplified on a large scale battlefield, because the odds of encountering these kinds of small problems go up significantly, and with all of the other people around you're even less likely to survive after even a minor mistake. With dozens of people running around like crazy doing all kinds of things, it often felt like I couldn't get anything working properly because there was always something (another player, a personal mistake, a glitch, an inconsistency with the game mechanics) there to screw me up. It was very difficult for me to feel even remotely accomplished in these huge battles, and I couldn't figure out why certain things weren't working the way I expected them to.
The flow of combat improved instantly once I switched to smaller servers for small skirmishes and one-on-one battles. Feinting, for instance, actually works in one-on-one battles when two players are actually able to focus on another, whereas in large battles feinting only left me completely exposed to be damaged by any number of spamming attacks. It was much easier for me to read my opponents, trying to trick them into attacking or blocking at a certain time, and actually enjoying the finer nuances of the combat system. Even though I still died about as often as I killed someone else, I got actual satisfaction from the smaller duels.
Which brings me to a crucial point: the community of Chivalry and the woes of free weekend events. When I joined the "duel server" (an 8-man server in a small arena, free-for-all mode) I didn't really know what I was doing, so I just went in attacking people randomly and was promptly chewed out for not respecting other peoples' duels. I apologized and quickly learned that the purpose of "duel servers" is for one-on-one duels, and that the etiquette was not to interrupt a fight in progress.
After a few rounds of this, a number of people had dropped in and out and the server was promptly filled with newbs and/or griefers who didn't respect the etiquette of duel servers. I'd look at another player and do my cheer animation to signify I was ready for a fight and they'd come straight in and attack me while I was in the animation. I'd respawn and have people camping the spawn, killing me instantly. I'd be fighting someone and suddenly get a sword in the back. I'd be typing in the chat window, my character obviously idle, and people would run over for the free kill. When I expressed my frustration and tried to communicate the purpose of the duel server, I was insulted and told that honor and respect have no place on the battlefield.
Free weekends always seem to bring out the worst in people, and I like to pay particular attention to how veterans react to the free weekend. In the case of Chivalry, it seemed like most of the veteran players (both in-game and in the forums) were spewing hate, spite, and venom towards all the free weekenders because the influx of new players were ruining their game. Granted, they have a valid point that new players don't know what they're doing, are frequent perpetrators of accidental team-killing, and they don't know how to work on objectives, but I feel a multiplayer game should be more welcoming of new players, because multiplayer games live or die based on how many people are actively playing. I felt very unwelcome and was frequently offended by the gross generalizations and insults.
What's perhaps more indicative of the Chivalry community is how vets responded to my questions about the game. When something wasn't working properly for me, I'd ask in chat for advice/suggestions about what I was doing wrong, trying to figure out how specific mechanics worked that weren't covered in the tutorial, and I frequently received such comments as "lol u just suck, learn to play or go back to cod." There were some very helpful and friendly people, but they definitely felt to be in the minority to people who just wanted to act like elitist pricks to all the new players, and the forums have more than their fair share of obsessed fanboys who react to any degree of criticism towards the game (even constructive criticism) with extreme hostility and antagonism.
A strong majority of matches I played were filled with griefing teamkillers, and it was especially alarming on servers with no votekick option, because your only option is to deal with it or just leave the server. Servers with votekick options were very quick to kick people for accidental teamkills. I played several matches where one team was stacked with experienced veterans pubstomping newbs and having the time of their lives doing it. A lot of this could simply be the result of the free weekend and may not be indicative of the normal game experience, but it was definitely annoying and did not leave me with a good impression -- which is what free weekends are supposed to do.
It's also worth mentioning that playing against bots for the sake of practice is basically worthless, because the AI is so incredibly stupid. They get caught in repetitive loops standing around doing nothing or running into walls, and they even attack each other in the spawn point when this happens. They all just go straight up the middle of the map with zero tact or strategy, they clump together in impossible clusters, they attack and block seemingly at random, and feinting has absolutely zero effect on them because the AI doesn't respond to feints or attacks in the first place. Granted, this is a multiplayer game so I don't expect great sophistication from the bots, but it would be nice if the bots were at least halfway competent for you to practice some of the basics.
So to me, Chivalry had a lot of potential. It's exactly the kind of game I should like, considering how similar its combat is to the combat in some of my favorite games, but its execution felt just slightly off to me. I understood all of the basic principles and had good timing in my reflexes and actions, but for some reason the controls felt somewhat unresponsive to me. It was just very frustrating to understand how things were supposed to work while feeling very comfortable and at home with the system, yet failing so miserably because a couple of seemingly minor yet apparently crucial aspects had escaped my grasp. I got some enjoyment out of the free weekend (nearly seven hours of gameplay), but it's not the kind of game I want to hone my skills at unless it gets some considerable polish in the future, or if the community mellows out and becomes less obnoxious.