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Watching the demo of Fatshark’s War of the Roses, I had to wonder, Why aren’t there more team-based, melee-focused multiplayer games? At times, it seems like every other game on the store shelves seems to have a khaki-wearing soldier toting a machine gun, so I was very encouraged to see Paradox taking such a risk with this title. Talking with producer Gordon Van Dyke, himself a veteran with five year’s experience on Battlefield and lead designer Marten Stormdal, who helped create the unfortunately overlooked Lead and Gold, it’s clear that this is the most ambitious and most uncharacteristic title in Paradox Interactive’s lineup.

War of the Roses is an online action game set during the Middle Age conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York. Players become medieval warriors and bash each other’s heads in variety of solo and team-based modes. The game’s historical setting is really just a backdrop to the action. The battles and locations may be historically inspired, but there’s no overarching context for the conflict beyond the individual player’s general advancement and unlocks.

Rather than relying on set classes and archetypes, War of the Roses encourages players to build their characters a la carte from a wide range of options. First up, you’ll want to select from the game’s list of over 60 weapons. The most important is your main hand weapon. This is typically a two-handed option, like the longbow or crossbow, or perhaps a great sword or a lance. This weapon will be the most significant choice in how you play the game. Pick a bow and you’ll want to engage targets at a distance. Pick a poleaxe and you’ll do well against mounted knights.

You’ll also want to select a secondary, one-handed weapon, like a sword, axe or mace. Having this other option gives players a chance to adapt to different encounters. If you’re a bowman and a knight manages to get too close, you can always pull out your hammer and defend yourself. Since this one-handed option is the only one that permits the use of a shield, some players may forego the main, two-handed option and just stick with a simple sword and shield. The developers admit that shields weren’t a common sight among footmen of the period, but they included it as a regular option, both because players expect it and because it can help inexperienced players stay alive a bit longer.

The final weapon is a dagger. While it’s handy if your other weapons break, the dagger can also be a quicker option for close-in kills against armored opponents.

Each of the weapons is balanced according to a number of factors. The large pole axes, for instance, do tremendous damage but are generally slower to use than simple swords and axes. Likewise, the crossbows are generally more accurate and deadly than regular bows, but the reload time is considerably longer.

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Players will then want to select an armor type that suits their style of play. Heavy armor like plate and chain mail provide lots of protection, but are slower than wearing cloth or leather armor. Some of these values are a bit ahistorical, as plate mail was not apparently as limiting in terms of speed and mobility as most people think. Each type of armor is rated in both penetration, which lessens the chance that the wearer will be damaged at all, and absorption, which lessens the amount of damage the wearer takes once a weapon penetrates. Naturally, there are a wide range of visors, crests, plumes and other attachments you can put on your armor to make it even more personal.

As in most online shooters, War of the Roses includes various perk slots to help you further refine your character. Quite a few are either/or selections. For your offense perk, you can choose to spawn on a horse, or have a quicker sprint. On defense, you can opt to unlock a shield bash or merely reduce the encumbrance of your armor. There’s even a heavy cavalry perk to give your horse added protection and ensure that the infantry will scatter when you charge.

Melee combat uses four different types of attacks: left, right, down, and thrust. To make an attack, you simply hold down the mouse button and move the mouse in the direction you want to strike. The longer you hold the button down, the more damage you’ll do, but you’ll have to be careful not to hold the pose too long, or your character will grow tired and your attacks will fail. Damage is determined by the base value of each weapon, the speed and location of your strike, and armor protection. This means running full sprint and swinging an axe into an opponent’s head will do loads of damage and possibly cause long term health loss through bleeding. On the other hand, landing a glancing blow with your mace against a heavily armored opponent is likely to only momentarily stun him.

While the industry has plenty of enjoyable third-person medieval combat games, from Kingdom Under Fire to Dynasty Warriors to Rune, this Call of Duty style approach is something not seen since the unfortunate Dark Messiah of Might & Magic. If Fatshark can manage to deliver on the gameplay, it will offer a compelling alternative to the military shooters that dominate the online action market.

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