Ah, the medieval times. Let’s be honest; they were a bit crap to live in. But that didn’t stop us romanticizing the whole thing and dreaming about being heroic knights smacking people around with swords. Mordhau knows that we like knights and swords and hammers, and it also knows that we love violence and blood and skulls being smashed. So Mordhau lets us play as knights and decapitate each other. Thanks Mordhau. You’re a good friend.
Mordhau is multiplayer medieval combat game that pits 32 players against 32 other players in massive battles. Having spent a while in Early Access it’s finally out as a true release, so how does it hold up?
What’s a medieval combat game be without a robust fighting system at its core? With a left click you launch a standard attack, and depending on the direction you move the mouse you can alter the direction said attack comes from. Move the mouse left and you’ll deliver a back hand. Move it up and you’ll swing from above. It takes time to get used to this, but once you do it allows you a lot of flexibility.
The second form of attack is a stab, mapped to the mouse wheel by default. Again, you can adjust the angle of attack based on mouse position.
Finally, the basic core of the combat is the parry mapped to the right mouse button. A parry only lasts a second so timing is crucial, but as the name implies it lets you stop an incoming strike. It can even be used to deflect projectiles if you’re quick enough. A successful parry also lets you riposte using a faster attack than normal.
Now that the basics are out of the way let’s start getting into the more advanced stuff. First, your attacks can be sped up or slowed down depending on how you move. For example, if you swing from the left then also turn around the left the attack will drag, whereas if you spun toward the right it would hit sooner. Using this lets you throw off an opponent’s parry timing.
Next, by tapping Q during an attack’s wind up you can cancel it entirely, performing a feint to fool the enemy into parrying.
Attacks can also be morphed, turning a stab into a swing or vice-versa. Again, it’s all about tricking the opponent.
Then there’s the mystical and tricky art of chambering. You do this by matching an opponent’s attack type and angle. Manage to nail it and you can launch a new, quick attack.
And the final trick in your arsenal is the kick. Now, obviously this is useful for booting people off of high points and few things are quite as satisfying. But the biggest use of the kick is to deal with shields. Unlike parrying a shield block can be held for as long as the person likes. A good kick can open that defence right up so that a large mace can be introduced to the face.
When you mix all of these things together – and no doubt a bunch of other techniques that I wasn’t good enough to master – you get a robust and brutal combat system that rewards skill and careful positioning. It’s tricky to master, too, and I feel no shame in admitting that I’ve struggled to learn it. Something about it doesn’t click naturally with me. But when you do get it right and start carving a swathe through the opposition it feels fucking glorious.
With that comes immense frustration, though. With no singleplayer campaign your training will come solely through fighting others online, and that can mean a lot of hours spent getting absolutely pulverized. The massive battles means death often comes swiftly from behind, from a well-placed arrow or from the back of a horse. Even if you manage to get into a 1v1 fight the skill gap could leave you weeping into your keyboard. If you’re the kind of gamer that gets easily frustrated with dying then Mordhau may not be for you.
What Vermintide 2 proved is that a good mellee attack needs to have fantastic feedback. Mordhau seems to have realized this, too, and so when hits land in Mordhau they feel substantial. Hefty thuds and splatters of blood are your reward for murdering people in the face, as well as the occasional decapitation or severed limb. Quite frankly smashing someone in the head with a maul might just be the best thing in video games this year. It sends a delicious tingle down my spine.
Although I’d argue that the game is more immersive and enjoyable in the default 1st person view, there’s a 3rd-person option too. This offers a much broader view of the action, which in the middle of a 32v32 Frontline fight can be invaluable.
The way you build character’s is one of my favourite parts of Mordhau. Essentially you get 19-points to play with, and each weapon, piece of armour and perk costs you some of those points. There’s a vast selection of weapons to choose from, from short swords to hefty mauls that turn an enemy’s face into something resembling jelly that’s fallen from a great height. There may also only be three levels of armor (light, medium and heavy) but there’s plenty of variations to choose from, plus extra layers of customization to spend your hard-earned gold on. If I have a complaint it’s that the perks don’t feel very valuable outside of just one or two, like Bloodlust.
So, with plenty of praise of Mordhau it’s now time to start delving into what is holding the game back from reaching its full potential. The headlining mode in Mordhau is the 32v32 Frontline where teams fight to push the enemy back and capture the objectives. The match ends when either team runs out of respawn tickets or if the final objective is completed.
There’s just five maps for Frontline at the moment, and each of them is wildly unbalanced to favour one team or the other. That’s because the development team opted for asymmetrical map designs, which I’m personally in favour of since it makes them feel more unique and varied. However, asymmetrical maps are a lot tougher to balance and Mordhau suffers greatly from that problem.
Then there are the teams themselves. Whatever black magic is working in the background to match players up needs some serious tweaking. Right now a typical match will see one team clearly dominating within the opening minutes. Rarely does a comeback happen. Occasionally a more even battle occurs and these are Mordhau at its very best.
The prime example of how messy things can get is the newest map called Crossroads. There’s just a single central objective to fight for amidst a ruined fort, while outside is nothing but rolling fields where dozens of horsemen charge around. Horses are incredibly powerful in Mordhau, which makes the fact that both teams closest spawn points on Crossroads are in these fields. Spawning into the battle only to immediately get tramped to death. For the people attempting to fight for the objective this is nothing short of a horrendous design decision.
Other maps aren’t quite as bad. Horses tend to feature much less, though spawning right into the path of a horseman still happens.
Yet as irritated with the game as I often got, the times that I chuckled or even genuinely laughed outweighs it. Like many multiplayer games with so many people involved Mordhau is a stage where plenty of stupidity can occur, whether it’s somebody playing a lute next to a raging battle or when you stop and stare at an enemy who just fell off the bridge. I’ve fought people dressed as the Grim Reaper, chased bards across the map and even seen enemies get kicked to death in a corner while a teammate looks on and laughs.
Outside of the Frontline there are two game modes; the first is a simple Horde mode which pits you and a few allies against increasingly difficult waves of A.I. Outside of the brief tutorial this is probably the best place to get to grips with some of the fighting mechanics, but is otherwise pretty dull fare.
The other mode is Battle Royale, which feels like is now just a legal requirement in any new game release. It’s exactly what you’d expect: start with nothing, get some gear, kill other people, steal their gear and avoid the ever closing circle of death until only one player is left standing. While its inclusion provides more content I’d much rather the development time be spend on making more maps.
Weirdly there’s no official mode for 1v1 fights, a baffling omission given the outstanding combat mechanics. But the Mordhau community have already dealt with that short-sighted decision by setting up duelling servers. These places are fascinating little realms where a duel doesn’t start until both combatants perform a flourish with their weapon. Other players roleplay as referees to ensure everything is fair. People who try to get in cheap strikes or misbehave are punished.
Speaking of misbehaving Mordhau features a votekick system that causes a lot of problems. You see, hurting and even outright killing team-mates happens in Mordhau. Typically, it’s accidental because in 32v32 where people are swinging huge weapons it can be difficult not to hit an ally. But since anybody can initiate a vote to kick a player out things can frequently spiral out of control. The chat can quickly become filled with calls to boot someone. Sadly when a vote pops up there’s no information on whether the player has killed team-mates. A glance at the scoreboard can give you an idea, but it’s still an awkward system where players can find themselves kicked for minor accidental offences.
There’s no official system in place for dealing with team killers, either. Implementing such a system would doubtless be difficult in such a chaotic game. Without one, though, it’s not uncommon to be attacked and harassed by team-mates who just want to cause some grief for others. The votekick system can occasionally deal with this, but it’s far from an elegant solution.
Connection issues were rampant during my time with the game, too, despite the dedicated servers. Massive ping spikes were a constant problem that affected my matches, though bypassing the quick search and using the server browser can help.
So Mordhau has some big problems. Considering the amount of time it spent in Early Access the poor balancing and lack of maps are difficult to forgive. And yet Mordhau has also been a source of some of the funniest and most enjoyable moments of 2019 gaming so far. I’ve consistently gone back for a match or two or three every day, taking the bad in stride in exchange for the great moments.
Mordhau has a lot of potential under its plate armor. The combat mechanics are superb and the large-scale battles feel hectic and fun. It just needs an injection of new maps to keep the community happy, some big rebalances and proper 1v1 support. Mordhau isn’t quite the knight in shining armor yet, but if it’s a dutiful squire it might one day get to take a knee.
3.5 out of 5