Chivalry is a game which has, in my opinion, made a huge marketing misstep. The trailer advertising the game on Steam is this; a dreary, dull and depressing montage of heavily-armoured men hitting each other in slow motion over and over and over. Not only is this doing the game a disservice by implying that it is boring, but it doesn’t even remotely reflect the overall tone of the game. What the developers should do – if they want to shift any more copies, which they should – is replace it on their Steam page with this, the video that sold the game to me and several other people I know. It’s far more representative of what the game is like: an utterly ridiculous human dismemberment simulator that has turned its low production values into a distinct advantage. Nothing in Chivalry is taken seriously; you half expect the level backdrops to fall over if pushed slightly too hard, but it’s all played for laughs. Yes, even though it features some of the most horrible FPS deaths this side of Soldier of Fortune, Chivalry is never not funny. It’s bloody and violent in the same way that the Black Knight from Monty Python is bloody and violent, and that goes a long way towards making me like it.
This feeling of ludicrousness that permeates Chivalry is completely intentional – which makes the decision to market it with such an awful trailer rather baffling – with several game features that have been added almost entirely for the purpose of making things sillier. Take the X button, for example. It’s conveniently located right next to the core WSAD group so a player can easily access it, so you think it’d be bound to some key game feature. In any other game that’d probably be true. In Chivalry all it does is make your guy shout/scream a warcry at the top of his lungs, but its proximity to WSAD means it can be spammed to hilarious effect. Right next door to the shouting key is the taunt button, which is also spammed en masse to perform a crude medieval version of a Maori haka before battle is joined and heads inevitably start to roll.
No matter how silly it is, though, Chivalry wouldn’t have much of a shelf life if there wasn’t some kind of game in there; happily not only does it exist, but it’s actually pretty well thought-out. There are four classes in the game: Men-at-Arms (fast, can dodge, sod-all health, short fast weapons), Vanguards (average speed and toughness, powerful slow weapons with long reach), Knights (stupidly tough but slow to match, versatile weaponry), and Archers (arrow-spamming scum, also gets daggers and a backstab bonus). Every single one of them is viable on the battlefield, which is quite the achievement given that each class has access to a wide range of weapons such as broadswords, bardiches, double-headed axes, military picks and forks. There is never any need to pick a certain class to fill a hole in the team’s lineup; instead you just go with whatever seems the most fun to you at the time, which I must say is a refreshing change from your average class-based game. Short respawn timers add to this rather positive approach the game has: to wit, that any time I spend not burying a brutal two-handed maul in somebody’s skull is time wasted. Chivalry knows what it does best, and it wants to put as few barriers as possible in between me and the fun parts of the game.
With 30-odd melee weapons in the game balancing them so that a dagger is a viable pick in the face of a broadsword-armed knight is a bit of a challenge, and it’s one that has been overcome by making all of the swords, spears, polearms etc. actual physical objects in the game that you swing around to decapitate your opponents. That two-handed sword your Vanguard is flailing around with might have a long reach and a hefty arc, but if it encounters a piece of scenery in the middle of its swing – a wall, a tree, a cart or whatever – it’ll stop dead and won’t hit the archer crouched down next to it. Meanwhile the archer has already stabbed you twice in the nuts with his much faster weapon while you ready yourself for another attack. If you don’t have the room to swing that claymore with total freedom you might be better off putting it back in its sheathe and drawing a secondary weapon with a shorter reach. Making short-range weapons not only viable but actually desirable in certain scenarios ensures that every class in the game remains effective if used properly.
“If used properly.” Never was a sentence uttered more hopefully about the average FPS player. To be sure, there are a lot of Chivalry players who know what they’re doing with their chosen class – fighting a good Man-at-Arms is an exercise in frustration as he blocks and dodges every attack while mercilessly exploiting any openings you leave him – but the vast majority of them are idiots who will happily run into a scrum of struggling bodies swinging their zweihanders repeatedly until something dies or they do. Since teamkilling is turned on by default, and what they’re swinging has the weight and momentum appropriate to a bloody great piece of metal that has been rather unfortunately sharpened, what usually happens is they’ll kill who they were aiming at — and then the blade will plough right on through him and hit somebody wearing their own team colours. You will get teamkilled a lot in this game. Sometimes it will even be your fault, as you just end up dodging into the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s something you learn to live with, though; Chivalry would be a much different game if people didn’t have to take some care in what they’re doing with their weapons, at least in theory, and it encourages you to think about which attack is going to be most appropriate to use in a given situation.
There are three types of attack in Chivalry. The default is a sweeping right-to-left swing, which are easy to hit a moving target with and can be very useful for striking multiple opponents with a long weapon, and which can also be chained into a series of quick attacks that keep any enemy they successfully hit reeling and off-balance. More interesting – and more rarely used – are the overhead swing, which takes the most time to wind up but is also the most powerful attack, and the quick and long-reaching thrust/stab. Stabs are what every polearm player should be using to make the most of their long weapon, but even if you have a bog-standard sword the stab is great for massed melee fights since they probably won’t hit a friendly as well as being rather good at dispatching fleeing opponents. The overhead swing is mostly used to either one-hit an unsuspecting opponent – like that bastard archer with tunnel vision who headshot you in your last life – or for getting in over a shield block. (Shields are also physical objects in the game, and only defend the parts of your body they actually physically cover.)
Deciding which attack is best for a given situation/weapon is probably 90% of the game, but it’s a very complicated 90% because there’s so many different scenarios. If you’re facing an onrushing baddie you can either time a stab so that he runs onto your spear/sword, or else move backwards, let him swing and then move forward and smash his head with your maul while he’s recovering. If you have a sword and shield combo then suddenly dropping your guard for a quick stab takes a lot of players by surprise (I once played pretty much an entire game that went like this). If somebody is blocking all your attacks then it might be time to change tactics – try a different attack, try feinting (where you go through the wind-up animation but then cancel the swing, which works because enemy players can only block for a short period so you trick them into wasting their block), or even try booting him in the nads to knock him off-balance.
That’s the meat of the melee combat, then. It’s all framed in an entertainingly barmy Team Objective mode, where the goals are (mostly) not something mundane like “Stand in this zone for thirty seconds to capture it!” but instead feature such typically medieval pastimes as:
- Murdering an entire village full of Filthy Peasants and burning their houses.
- Dumping a cart full of plague-ridden corpses into a settlement’s water supply.
- Destroying land-based trebuchets which are firing on your invading sea fleet.
- Escorting a battering ram to a castle gateway and smashing down the door.
- Killing the enemy King.
There are only a few of these objective-based missions but they all have 3-4 stages each and can go on for a good twenty minutes depending on how successful the attacking team is, meaning there’s more than enough variety here to keep you occupied for hours. Each scenario is asymmetrical and far from balanced, but since they provide more of a backdrop to the frenzied scrum of melee than anything else that’s not a massive problem. There’s also more conventional Team Deathmatch/King of the Hill modes for people who like to suck all the joy out of things; personally I don’t see myself ever playing a mode that isn’t Team Objective. It’s just too much fun.
Minus points? Well, in spite of Chivalry’s detailed melee combat I wouldn’t say the game itself is particularly deep. It’s something you load up for half an hour of soothing decapitation rather than a game to play competitively and/or obsessively; I see Chivalry’s shallow nature as a strength but others will probably disagree. It’s also priced at a rather discouraging £19, and while I don’t want to disparage the quality of the development team’s work – they’ve done an extraordinary job of making the most of their limited resources – Chivalry is low-tech disposable fun and nothing more, and I suspect that’s not the sort of thing that anyone on the fence about it would be inclined to pay a premium for.
Still, I can’t complain. I watched the video, bought the game and found the product to be pretty much as advertised, so I’m happy. I doubt I’ll be playing Chivalry a month from now – if only because there are bigger, prettier games looming on the horizon – but the time I’ve spent with it so far has been a relaxing and refreshing change from the hyper-competitive stat-tracking multiplayer experiences that are the norm these days.. If you find the Dotas and Counterstrikes of this world just a little bit too tense and stressful then you could do a lot worse than picking Chivalry as the antidote. It is a game whose intentions are simple and uncomplicated, and therin lies its charm. I’ve enjoyed it very much.