War of the Roses, the third-person action game from Fatshark and Paradox Interactive, is historical combat set against the backdrop of the 15th century English civil war. Hostile relations were between two punchy strands of the Plantagenet family, the houses of York and Lancaster, and these two powerful dynasties fought a long and brutal war over the English throne.
The sole focus here is on multiplayer, and there's nothing for the solo gamer to invest time in other than a standard bot mode. If you like your games drenched in narrative and linear storytelling, this might not be to your tastes. But for those seeking an entertaining slugfest, read on.
You control a solitary soldier and, in teams up to 32-strong, engage in brutal and engrossing battles across a selection of seven historically inspired maps set in different locations around England. The primary focus of the game is the first of three wars between the two houses, and Fatshark are hoping a sequel charting the next war will not be too far behind.
Picking a side is simple, as there's little difference between the two factions. As lead producer Gordon van Dyke explained to us, the city of York was actually controlled by the Lancastrians during the conflict, and so geography and politics will hold no sway over which side you choose. But pick a side you must: clicking on either a red or white rose drops you into that army, and once you've assigned yourself a squad, it's time to go to work.
But before we go to war, it's probably worth having a look behind the scenes, as the premise is only one facet of War of the Roses. Behind a thick plate of historical accuracy is a deep and complex multiplayer game, and one that won't be conquered overnight. There's a steep learning curve, but luckily, overcoming it is a pleasure - not a chore.
The first time a player sits down with War of the Roses, they're presented with one basic build. Just a couple of games played and three more are unlocked. Beyond that you use credits earned in-game to open up custom load-outs.
As you progress through the levels, earning in-game currency as you go, more and more features, accessories, perks and options become available to you. The choice is extensive, and builds can be tailored to very specific tastes. You can adjust almost everything, from the type of visor fixed to your helmet, to the tips that go on the end of your arrows.
The customisation options available to players here are among the most extensive and impressive that I've ever seen. You can adjust your personal preferences down to the tiniest detail, and beyond that you can pimp out your armour with all manner of quirky little cosmetic touches. I went for a giant red turnip for my emblem, but each to their own.
The first role you'll assume on the battlefield is that of a Footman. Armed with a pointy sword and no clue, it wont be long before your lying prostrate on the ground, an enemy straddling you as they plunge a sword into your face. I think nearly every introduction to War of the Roses is this brutal.
The reason behind the inevitably brutal introduction is the initially tricky controls. You can prepare to a certain extent (there's a bot mode to help you find your feet), but even with practice, first steps in the game proper will be far from perfect. A click and swipe of the mouse sends your weapon crashing in the desired direction - left, right, up and stab - but attacks are slow and movement is cumbersome. You have a range of different ways in which you can attack your enemies, but they have the same set of options, and this can lead to lengthy duels between players as they try and pick away at each others weaknesses.
Blows from the sword (or axe, spear, halberd etc) can be easily deflected with a well timed raise of the shield. In fact, during initial sessions, many will spend an awful lot of time hiding behind their portable cover and backing away from encounters, hoping for support from their team.
It takes some getting used to, and even several hours in you'll be forgiven for still not being entirely comfortable wielding your weapon. Luckily after a short time playing there are plenty of options made available for those who don't enjoy the early exchanges and want to try something a bit different.
The options come in the form of three more readymade builds. Added to the Footman are options for Crossbowmen, Longbowmen and Footknight. The crossbow is a powerful ranged weapon, but it takes an age to lock and load, which may put some people off. Longbowmen have a much quicker reload time and decent range, and a Footknight is a formidable close-quarters fighter, often seen wearing a visor and charging headfirst into combat.
Beyond the four preset builds, there are custom slots waiting to be purchased. It is here that people can be as specific as they want, and can use the money earned in matches to buy gear and perks that make you a more formidable proposition on the battlefield. The initial builds are all fully stocked with perks, making them balanced and suitable for newcomers, but real flexibility comes from creating your own load-out. It means that noobs don't enter the fray at a disadvantage, but more experienced players have the option to create nuanced set-ups that provide options on the field.
It is in the aforementioned custom slots that horses can be acquired, and these change the complexion of a battle considerably. Whilst a rider is an undeniably larger target, they're also incredibly effective at taking out soldiers who are on foot. Enough hits from swiping swords and well aimed arrows is enough to take down a horse, sending its rider crashing into hand-to-hand combat, but a well coordinated cavalry charge can be devastating to an opposing frontline.
If you do fall foul to a cavalry charge, or an archer's arrow, or an axe, you go into a state of limbo (unless you've been insta-killed, of course). In this state you watch the scene around you unfold, and if your team wins the battle, players can revive you. Alternatively, if it doesn't go well, the opposing team can execute you for a bonus XP payout. However, this can be avoided if you yield and take your own life before an execution is initiated.
The executions are violent and brutal, and not for the faint-hearted. Shields, knives and swords are brought crashing down into fallen skulls. Deciding whether to yield is a decision that is played out several times in each match. Whilst you might be revived, there's also every chance that your enemy might simply roll you over and finish off the job if you're not quick enough. Decisions, decisions.
Technically, we're assured that the game runs at 60fps, and this high frame rate is to stop client errors. Fatshark want the intimate combat of War of the Roses to be as accurate as possible, and constant updates are one way they're ensuring this. The other way is an advanced hit detection system that registers a huge amount of information when calculating hit damage.
The attention to detail goes even further than that, with factors like weapon surface and armour thickness all impacting on the damage dealt and received on the battlefield. It makes sense too, hitting bare flesh does much more damage than hitting plate armour, which even degrades the weapons that make contact with it.
There are two modes to play: Conquest and Deathmatch. Both are fairly straightforward, and this respect War of the Roses is far from cutting edge. Deathmatch sees the two warring factions facing up against each other in a race to 100 kills (or until the timer runs down). Conquest focuses on capture points, with the dominating team acquiring an increasing amount of points earned from a finite pool. Control enough capture points for long enough and eventually that team will earn all the points and win the game. It sounds more complicated than it is, and it's always clear who's winning, and what it is you need to do to pull it back.
On the whole, it looks pretty decent, though it's obvious that the game has been made to work on a wide variety of machines. Graphics are functional, often pleasing, but never jaw-dropping. There are also glitchy moments: ladders can be a pain to climb (and sometimes you get stuck at the top and have to drop down and start again), and plants often sprout in front of your eyes as you move around the maps.
Audio is perfectly passable. There isn't a lot of variety in the sound effects, but given the setting you wouldn't expect too many. It's atmospheric, and the chink of swords clashing is a constant presence in both the game and in the menu. The soundtrack is well chosen, with historically inspired music accompanying Gregorian chants to good effect. It looks and sounds the part, so the game's minor technical and visual shortcomings are easy to gloss over.
The setting won't be to everyone's taste, and the pacing of the combat is deliberately slow, which might not appeal to a generation of gamers fed nothing but fast-paced all-action in-yer-face shoot-em ups. There's also a steep learning curve, and frustrating initial encounters might also be off-putting.
That said, I really enjoyed my time with War of the Roses. It's steeped in history, it's deep and it rewards experimentation. Whilst I certainly wouldn't recommend this to every gamer out there, if you've finished this review and are still intrigued, you should definitely consider checking it out.