“How am I supposed to review a game that I’m just bad at?”
I asked myself that after a few hours of “Mordhau,” a new PC game that drops players into multiplayer Medieval combat with a complicated system of strikes, blocks and parries. Unable to grasp the system, I had just died for the two dozenth time in a row after I parried too early and gave a guy with a maul a free overhand swing on my unlucky character.
Traditionally, video games have steered clear of featuring multiplayer close combat. Shooters will have pre-built canned animations that seem to lock onto enemies amid the fray, which makes it easier to play but not particularly challenging or fun. It’s usually more of a click of a button to execute the same punch, kick or slam with the butt of a gun as a last-ditch effort and not a tense swordfight. “Mordhau” changes that.
The game has a plethora of Medieval weapons ranging from longswords, maces, mauls, spears, polearms and daggers as well as shields, a lute, throwing axes and longbows.
Each weapon has its own feeling of weight, speed, range and lethality that plays out over its combat system. This is where the difficulty comes into play.
Your attacks — the path of the arc, the speed and the damage — are generated each time you swing your weapon depending on the how your character’s moving, where your mouse pointer was when you clicked and how you followed through. Hits will do damage depending on where you land your blow, too.
Big longswords are effective at wide slashes where you drag your mouse through the slash, building a sense of momentum as it follows your movement. You can also stab with weapons — the spear being a better candidate for this than the dull executioner’s sword—and execute vicious overhand attacks.
But it doesn’t end there. Players can defend themselves with shields or properly timed parries, which I eventually got the hang of once I started to understand how the system was generating attacks.
And it doesn’t stop with that, either. Attackers can also do trick attacks, switching from one kind of swing to another or call off an attack altogether to bait out a parry or block in order to create an opening.
Part of the problem with melee combat in video games is the sense of depth. It’s tricky even in “Mordhau” to judge just how far your weapon will reach, meaning that especially in the early going that a lot of strikes will whiff.
It’s a big, complicated system that really breaks the mold cast by other major multiplayer games. After a few hours and some time with easier-to-master weapons — I’d suggest the pole axe or a sword and shield — I started to see how all the many difference pieces fit together.
Instead of rushing in to meet my quick and embarrassing end at the end of a spiked mace, I was engaging in fights that looked more like duels. There’s something really fun about standing face to face with a heavily armored knight as you parry his sweeping longsword attacks, bait him into parrying your poke with a feint and bashing him on the head with the hammer end of a pole axe.
“Mordhau” isn’t the first to try to bring some nuance to melee combat, but it does so with the modern trappings of multiplayer games: There’s a 64-player team-based mode, a “FortNite”-esque Battle Royale mode, and a horde mode that’s similar to what you’d find in the zombie mode in “Call of Duty.”
The big battles are a load of fun as players swarm around in big melees, but be careful about hitting your allies as there is friendly fire damage.
Still, I wish there was a more detailed tutorial system or even a dueling system to learn the ropes. Luckily, playing with a friend made it easier for me to learn, but not everyone will have that option.
I’m having a lot of fun with “Mordhau,” but I can’t overlook a sticking point I still have with the character customization. While there are plenty of ways to customize your character’s armor, the selection of skin tones for characters ranges from lily white to slightly tanned white. There are no options to create a character of color or any female characters.
The developers appear to be committed to adding these options in future updates, along with more weapons and locations. I hope they do.
Matt Buxton is a freelance writer and gamer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Play
Rating: Three stars out of five
Release Date: April 29, 2019
Internet usage: 20GB download, connection required for online multiplayer