Blinded by the sun as the thwack of lances pings off my armour, I’m running down a hill as the whizz of bolts and arrows pass me by. Cornered behind a stack of hay and fatally wounded, I make a knee-jerk decision whether to yeild to my enemy or take a shield to the neck, decapitating me indefinitely. I was too slow. My enemy kicks me over and pounds his shield into my jugular, grimacing into my eyes.

When I respawn, who knows how I’ll die.

The grand old Duke of York

War of the Roses is the spiritual successor to Mount and Blade, a much beloved game published by shared publisher Paradox Interactive, developed by Turkish developer TaleWorlds. This time around, Swedish team Fatshark produce this AAA quality medieval combat simulator – or as I like to call it, the-worst-of-the-1400′s-simulator.

When I heard about the announcement of War of the Roses I was as giddy as a 13 year old girl at a Beiber concert. You see, I’m from the historically rich town of St Albans, England, where the war between the House of Plantagenet and the houses of Lancaster and York kicked off. Indeed, The First Battle of St Albans is featured in the game as a playable map, as well as the close-by Barnet. Being from a small English city, you don’t get many video-games set in your town. Sure, we’ve had Harry Potter and James Bond, but no video-game goodness. Hey, it might be 1455 and nothing looks even remotely similar, but I still reveled in the glory of passive participation none-the-less.

Assuming not everyone who plays War of the Roses is from St Albans, let’s discuss the game from the perspective of the every day player. Quite simply, War of the Roses is magnificent; it takes everything players loved from the Mount and Blade series and polishes it up. Combat is more fine tuned and less janky, and the visuals are incredibly beautiful. Chainmail folds into creases as your character bends down to reload his crossbow. The lancers armour is muddied and rusted at the joints, with light draping over the scratches and dents like silk over stone. The faces of the soldiers are marred by war, with grimaces and yellow teeth and broken noses oozing the wear and tear both physically and emotionally of war from this era.

Maps, too, are large and beautiful. Rain, mud, water, smog, fog and humidity all play a part. The darkness of night isn’t alleviated with any artificial lighting. Everyone is in the same fight – the thick of it. Keep your wits about you and defend yourself, and you might last long enough to lynch your foe, or thrust down your dirk into his cheek to finish the job.

The mood is certainly right in War of the Roses, with a gritty, but not too washed out series of maps in which to rage war. From green fields to castle sieges, towns to tournaments, the team at Fatshark got every detail necessary to portray a gritty and violent war from the 15th century.

Unlike Mount and Blade, which featured a long and interesting single player campaign, War of the Roses houses a similarly design concept as Tripwire’s Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad; boasting a fully-voiced single player experience aimed at polishing up the skills of the player. This tutorial-campaign (it isn’t actually called a campaign in the game) takes players through each of the maps, in order, giving an over-view of the history of each battle. Once inside, players are given a class and told to complete objectives such as capturing points and killing a set number of enemy combatants. Because of the complexity of the combat, there’s a little bit of a learning curve, so this mini-campaign is an entertaining way to get into the mechanics of the game without a threatening kick-to-the-balls.

Shake-spear? I’ll more likely shaft it through your chest with a steady aim

The combat in War of the Worlds is indeed very, very similar to its spiritual predecessor, Mount and Blade. If using axes, lances, dirks and swords, players move the mouse forwards, backwards, left or right to decide the aim of the swing, slice or jab. In doing so, your opponent has a chance to rally a defense, aiming his sword or shield in the direction of your swing. Don’t worry though, because hit his shield enough and it will eventually break, leaving him tantamount to defenseless. In War of the Roses, the lance out-lengths the sword, and picking your class and weapon becomes a tactic in and of itself – matching your play-style. If you’re good at blocking, you might opt for a short-sword and shield for those quick jabs. If you’re more confident with heavy armour and a lance, then the Lancer might be for you.

In all, there are 5 set classes, but an almost infinite number of variations. For instance, you’ll move from Foot-soldier to Lancer, unlocking the next class rather quickly through experience gain. Eventually you’ll unlock the ability to cusomize class and spend some in-game gold on buying new weapons and armour. There are over 30 weapons to chose from, and over a dozen customizable helmets; light, medium, and heavy, all included. There are even perks (special abilities) that let you bash opponents with your shield, or aid you in long distance archery or with the crossbow. The in depth leveling system, complete with weapon variations, faces, armour and perks, also comes with an awesome feature:

Each player can create and customize his own coat of arms, which will appear as a decorative shield in game-play – here’s an example of a weaponized coat of arms being pummeled into someones face.

Note that subtle, refined texture. The beauty of the colours… how they complement each-other so gracefully. Not a close enough look, here’s how it looks from the victim:

Sure, War of the Roses is unforgivably violent, featuring class specific and varying finishing moves, where players can get extra cash and experience for finishing off a player before they yeild. It’s not as easy as it seems in a big show-off between many players at once, and with the danger of someone coming up behind you and slashing your neck, there isn’t much time to dance around on the floor with a prospective victim. Getting that awesome dirk to the face finisher successfully, though, is incredibly epic – and you’ll find yourself eagerly grinning every time.

Likewise, when you or a comrade has fallen, there is a short amount of time whereby a teammate can pick you back up. During this period you are susceptible to finishers from the enemy, but it should be noted that a ‘resurrection’ will grant 100 more gold than a finishing move, so always pick to help a friend more than to finish the enemy, as it heeds greater rewards.

It’s probably appropriate to talk a little about distance killing. Bows and crossbows have their pros and cons. For instance, crossbows are insanely tedious to reload. Reloading consists of standing on the spot, without movement, playing a sort of mini-game whereby you match the cog to the crank about 3 times until the meter hits 360 degrees. In all, it probably only takes about four seconds, but in War of the Roses four seconds is a hell of a long time to be standing still. Once loaded, though, you can run around with it fully cranked, ready to pull it out with awesome accuracy and not much ‘bullet’ drop. The bows on the other hand are much more versatile, able to fit the arrow and fire off a shot in quick succession. The problem is, you can’t hold the arrow pulled back for very long, as the optimal point of power hits the middle for a split second then falls back, ruining your chances of the kill. You must be quick, and fire fast, whereas the crossbow can be aimed indefinitely, with holding shift to steady the shot. Also, bows have much greater drop at a distance, but accuracy is still very high. Memorizing those drop lengths is essential, but the bow is a very good tool indeed. Also, crossbowmen do not carry a shield, whereas (and this is true for all classes) cycling between numbers 1-4(5) will bring out variations of sword, sword and shield, dirk, dirk and shield, etc. So, as a longbowman, if someone gets too close, you can efficiently defend yourself.

As with Mount and Blade, horse-riding returns. Except this time it seems much easier to kill the horse. The mechanics are much the same, with a finite sprint and the ability to cruise control and swing at opponents as you pass them by. A mixture of horse and lance is, of course, a critical blow to the enemy team.

War of the Roses faced a day of problems at launch, with server instability and a very late unlock for pre-order customers. Thankfully, UK based Multiplay offer three official, ranked servers, which are very high quality. Online games are stable now, with a proper PC-centric server browser we all know and love. And whilst there’s a problem, due to the combat, some janky movement in otherwise beautiful animations can be caused by stupid lag-spikes, it’s an overall enjoyable experience that is ironing itself out very quickly indeed. There are 7 historically accurate maps, with 64 player combat spanning Team Death Match and Conquest (which is basically a siege mode, depending on the map type.)

War of the Roses is an astonishingly beautiful game – right down to the creases in the armour and the dirt on players faces. The maps and visuals are made-for-PC gorgeous, and whilst it could run better, it’s a visual feast that surpasses most if not all of the AAA titles we’ve seen recently. It feels a little to 3rd person action gmaes like what Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad feels like to first person shooters. A PC game for PC gamers, War of the Roses is a triumph for Paradox Interactive, Fatshark Productions, and the PC gaming community on the whole. Reasonably priced but with the polish of a AAA title, I cannot recommend this enough.

Thanks to Paradox Interactive for not making this a free-to-play venture – it could so easily have gone that way.