There is chaos on the battlefield, the strangely logical chaos of a brutal fracas. Everything is light and sound and mud and blood and the glint of clashing steel. Grunts and bellows and screams beset you on all sides, and are flooded with input as you try to make sense of the things you see and hear in front of you in time to stay alive. You parry once, twice, again, riposte, slash, backstep, parry, slash, dodge. A maul crushes your opponent’s skull from seemingly nowhere, and three more enemies crest the hill in his place. You dig deep, unleash your war cry and charge ahead, coordinating with your ally for a few miraculous moments as you sideswipe while he thrusts, cutting down the poor sap who ran ahead by himself. You meet the opposing duo, and begin a brutal waltz of exchanged parries, slashes, dodges, nicks and cuts. You plunge your sword through one and now the odds are in your favor, your sole opponent backed up against a rock with nowhere to turn. You move in for the kill, interrupting his attack with your sword and leaving him wide open for your ally to bash his head. You’ve won, and as you reach for the “scream” key to celebrate, you hear the telltale sound of clay shattering and see yourself licked by fire. You turn to run; your head is a boulder, rolling away from your body. As it settles, you can see your attackers dancing over your decapitated corpse while one of them plays the lute. This is the third time that jackass has snuck up on you, you are helpfully reminded, and you swear vengeance as you are whisked away to the overhead view of the battle.
This is MORDHAU, the incredibly robust medieval combat game that brings a visceral, brutal melee experience right to your fingertips. If it sounds like that other medieval warfare game you may have played, this is no accident. While it’s from a different team, MORDHAU makes no attempts to hide its inspirations. This is the Chivalry sequel we never got, and it is every bit bigger, better, and more refined. Given the popularity of games like Chivalry, Mount & Blade, and War of the Roses (to name a few), it’s no real surprise that there is still strong demand for multiplayer hack and slash titles, and given the dearth shooters on various marketplaces, a good melee-focused historical combat game is a welcome diversion.
One problem often faced by the genre is that it’s extremely hard to get the combat right. Controls can be difficult to make sense of, particularly given that melee weapons have so many varied movements, so they have to be robust enough to offer variety, but simple enough that your moveset is easily accessible in the heat of battle without losing your head (quite literally). Luckily, MORDHAU does a great job of nailing this balance; most of your moves are mapped to your mouse buttons and mouse wheel. Being able to execute slashes, thrusts, overhead strikes, and parries all with your mouse hand (and without any finger gymnastics) makes the flow of combat feel natural, allowing you to focus on the fight instead of fumbling with your keyboard. Combining your weapon movements with dodging, jumping, crouching and kicking via the keyboard, and you have all of the tools you need for some good sword-fights. MORDHAU adds its own flavor by allowing you to use the Mordhau technique, in which you invert the hold on your weapon so that you are gripping the blade and can use the pommel as a mace, which can help add some versatility to your loadout.
When jumping into battle, you can choose from a healthy set of pre-defined classes (ten in all), like the Protector (big burly knight), the Brigand (versatile swordsman), or the Scoundrel (literally a pre-built troll class with fire pots and bear traps). As you become familiar with the finer points of the game’s armor and equipment offerings, you can choose to create your own classes with whatever loadouts you choose. Experimenting with the pre-built classes really helps give you a feel for what you like to do in combat, and class customization then lets you take the best bits of your favorites and put them together so you can wreak havoc on the battlefield in exactly the way you like.
Custom classes give you an allotment of points to spend on armor, weapons, and character perks. You are free to distribute these points however you see fit, but unsurprisingly, the more utility a particular piece of equipment or a perk has, the costlier it is. Creating a class that does all of the things you want offensively may require you to scale back on your character’s armor or perks. On the other hand, if you’re really solid with one specific weapon, you can dump more of your points into survivability perks to keep you in the fight longer. Heavier armor classes also come with speed reductions, so the more you choose to fortify yourself with things like plate mail, the slower you’ll be able to move when running, and as such you will likely be inclined to pick weapons that deal high damage since that will be your primary means of escaping tricky situations. The end result is that people can get very creative with their custom classes, but no specific combination can really be overpowered or dramatically superior any more than a particular situation might allow for. Cosmetic character customization options are fairly deep, allowing you to create highly personalized avatars as you work through the progression. However, the game is lacking in female character models for the time being; the developers have stated they are “looking into it,” which hopefully means they’ll follow through.
Where MORDHAU really excels is in the excellent depth of its immersive presentation. Thanks to some great use of Unreal Engine 4, sunlight delicately filters through tree branches, blade edges glint as they catch the light, while smoke and haze fill your vision. Textures are rich and crisp, ambient sounds lend an extra layer of tangibility to the world, and the sound design of the weapons and guttural war cries is shockingly good for an independent release. Character animations are also great, with a fluidity and degree of realism that help you remain grounded to the battle; jabs, swings and thrusts alike are all carried out with a weight and speed that looks as natural as anything; riders on horseback lean and sway with their steeds, which themselves also gallop and turn with an admirable authenticity. All of these details are crucial to the success of the combat itself, as these are the elements which help you instinctively know when to time your parries, dodges, and counters. This smoothness holds up well in the thick of the fight, such that you can focus on reading the situation and (sometimes frantically) determining your next move instead of being distracted by a lack of polish.
The actual experience of playing MORDHAU is of course something wholly different from the sum of its parts. The discrete elements of this game create all of the right conditions for a melee battle simulation that is often intense, sometimes overwhelming, and rarely dull. Through all of my matches, I have felt probably more than in most games a sense of simultaneous excitement and confusion; an eagerness to charge in and try out my new gear and to test my mettle against the others in the server, juxtaposed against a sense of not being able to fully grasp everything happening around me. One on one skirmishes are arguably my favorite encounters, but these are generally rare. More often than not, you’re up against multiples, hopefully with allies of your own, and keeping track of the flailing limbs and crushing blows while keeping your extremities attached and your vital fluids inside of your meat sack is a daunting challenge. Fights can quickly become disorienting as friends fall and foes gather reinforcements, and vice versa. Cutting and running is often a plea for a sword in your back. Maintaining control is largely a foregone conclusion; instead it’s best to settle for a tenuous grip on your weapon and a hope that your instincts and teammates won’t let you down.
I think this is one of the largest successes of MORDHAU; the feeling that even when you’re comfortable with your loadout and confident in your ability to read players and situations, you’re never really in control of much. The knowledge that everything can turn against you in a matter of seconds keeps you on edge in a way shooters often can’t possibly recreate. Quick reactions alone won’t get you out of a tough scrape in MORDHAU; you need to have an awareness of the area around you and a plan for standing your ground, and sometimes things just won’t go your way. I’ve seen very skilled players fend off two enemies, occasionally three, but typically only to fall to a new challenger waiting in the wings to exploit a moment of weakness. Some situations are simply insurmountable, but that can be a freeing aspect, letting you experiment with aggressive tactics you might not pursue in other competitive games.
That’s not to say that strategy and tactics aren’t important. Invariably, matches are won by the team that is most well coordinated and best responds to changes in conditions. Experienced players aren’t just those who understand the specifics of using their weapons, but who know the appropriateness of certain loadouts and tactics against whatever their enemy is deploying. The 64-player servers make it easy for big groups of friends to party up together on a team and, if they feel so inclined, work together to make pushes on capture points and use complementary classes to give them the edge in skirmishes. I’ve been unfortunate enough to find myself on teams where large numbers of people have opted only to wield lutes or their bare fists, which is admittedly hilarious but not especially sound as a strategy for victory.
I’ve mostly touched on Frontline, the game’s large-scale 64-player territory control mode. It is most immediately comparable to Battlefield’s Conquest mode, and for my money that’s where the best action lies, and where MORDHAU really shines. It also ships with Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Skirmish (Multi-round Team Deathmatch, but each person only has one life), Horde, and a Battle Royale mode, now apparently a mandatory fixture of any multiplayer title. While I admit I have often thought to myself that Popular Battle Royale Games could use better melee weapon options overall, I generally don’t think this is what I want out of what I feel is becoming a tired genre. Yes, it’s a “new” spin on the idea, and only having medieval weapons to use does help matches feel more raw and tense, but it also loses something in the translation. Rather than contriving some means to “parachute” onto an island, the game spawns you onto the map at a location “suitably” distant from other players and the game more or less proceeds like free for all deathmatch, except that you have to scavenge gear and you can’t respawn. It’s certainly worth a spin, but it’s lacking a dedicated map and a larger sense of scale.
MORDHAU nails most of what it sets out to achieve. The combat feels great, the maps are well designed, the action is ever-present and games are nearly always really fun, even if you’re losing. The push and pull of a good Frontline battle is palpable, giving a real sense of movement and dynamism to every round. I still often feel like I only barely have control over what I’m doing, but given what I’ve seen in-game, the skill ceiling is high and you can become quite adept if you’re willing to put some time into learning the finer points. To be honest, the joy and panic of rushing into battle with a sword or halberd I only barely understand what to do with feels incredibly authentic in a way, and so it serves to heighten my enjoyment rather than detract from it. MORDHAU is brutal; it is frantic; it is blood and guts and severed limbs. Above all, MORDHAU is the medieval hack and slash combat game you’ve been waiting to lose your head over.
A Steam code was provided by the publisher for review purposes