Simulated melee combat has been part of video gaming since the first game consoles rolled off the assembly line. Countless developers — and at least one famous author — have tried to make it work. Most have failed in one way or another, piling compromise atop workaround until the act of clashing swords with another armed opponent looks more like two butterflies mating than a deadly duel. Mordhau is different, and it just might be the best medieval combat game I’ve ever played.
The multiplayer title from Triternion has been a lock on the Steam best-sellers list for nearly two full weeks now, and for good reason. Stepping out onto the battlefield, surrounded by allies and faced with deadly adversaries, every round feels meaningful because the combat feels authentic. This is a game about timing and patience, one that makes fighting with a sword and shield feel more like dancing than chopping wood or playing a quick time event.
Mordhau gets the little things about melee combat right, and the secret is in the physics. Every object in the game is able to collide with every other object. Players collide with other players. Weapons collide with other weapons, and weapons also collide with the scenery laid out on the battlefield. It’s a giant geometry puzzle, one that’s constantly shifting and moving in real time.
The effect is to create moments of gameplay that feel quite real. I’ve fought duels that could have been ripped straight from the pages of Arthurian legend. I’ve had other moments that play out like Game of Thrones’ famous Battle of the Bastards, with allies and enemies crushing in from all sides. In first person, the game can easily make you dizzy. I haven’t seen the impact of bodies like this in first-person since my time as an offensive lineman.
Rush in to attack without a plan and you’re a goner. Since friendly fire is on, even if you stay back looking for a weak point in the line you’ll be trampled to death or cut down by your own allies rushing to get into the fight. Each round is barely controlled chaos, and it’s a marvel that the game’s netcode manages to hold together with so much shit flying around at the same time.
But there is a subtle elegance to it all that is simply astonishing.
Say that I’m armed with a short arming sword and a shield. My opponent has a long spear, and we’re squaring off along a narrow wooden bridge. My weapon is slightly faster, meaning I can make more blows against his guard in a shorter amount of time. That mean eventually I’ll start to bloody him. But his spear will do slightly more damage with each attack that he’s able to land. Even if he’s not able to land as many strikes against me, he’ll eventually wear me down.
By raising my shield, I can limit my opponent’s ability to thrust with their spear. The shield will protect my vital organs, but leave my limbs exposed. Because the bridge is so narrow, my opponent can’t take wide, sweeping swings with the shaft of his spear to knock me off balance. If he does, his weapon will collide with the walls of the bridge. He’ll lose momentum, staggering slightly, and exposing himself to attack. So he starts pecking at me, forcing me to slide and pivot in place to block his blows.
Similarly, because of the length of his spear, I can’t close the distance with him. If I do, he can simply change his grip, choke up on that spear, and pepper me with strikes against my head and neck.
And so a delicate dance plays out, with each of us launching timid, probing attacks. We begins to carefully move back and forth across the bridge, trying to find a vulnerable place to land our blows.
Everything changed for me in Mordau when I learned how to turn my hips into a parry, and it’s that strategy that works to my advantage here. By facing in the direction of the spearman’s attack, I’m able to more consistently block his blows. With enough opportunities to try it, I might get lucky and perfectly time a riposte — a nearly unblockable attack that gets past the spearman’s guard.
I put my shield on my back. The spearman thrusts at my left shoulder. I turn, tapping the right mouse button to parry with my sword. Just as quickly I tap the attack button, swiveling my hips back at my opponent as my avatar launches a devastating swing that severs his arm. The spearman falls, and the bridge is mine.
Of course, these sorts of intimate battles are playing out all around me. Where things get interesting is when players begin to work together.
In one video, from an early version of the game that was playable about a month ago, you can see a small group of players completely change the nature of the battle by teaming up and employing group tactics. They form a massive shield wall, then slowly begin to bear down on a group of archers that has taken up residence along one side of the map. The impact of their methodical advance is devastating, and causes the other side to change their loadouts to something similar in hopes of countering the strategy.
Before long both sides are kitted out with swords and shields. A front line develops, a meat grinder that fixes the battle in place. Then things evolve further, with ranks of spearmen occupying a second line to support the swordsmen with their shields out front. Watching the video is like seeing hundreds or thousands of years of military tactics evolving in real-time. Without the robust physics simulation running on the back end, that simply wouldn’t be possible.
And that’s the real achievement of Mordhau. The guts of this game are so intricate that players are actually able to explore the weird, wild world of medieval weaponry on their own and find out what works best for them. Add to that an elaborate cosmetics system, with dozens of clothing and armor items available for purchase with in-game currency, and you have a potent mix of discovery and self-expression.
There’s also two additional game modes: a one-versus-many battle royale mode, and a player-versus-enemy horde mode. After nearly a dozen hours with the game, that means I’ve yet to even scratch the surface. There’s also an engineering class in the game, one that can build siege weapons and fortifications. You can even fight on horseback, landing devastating blows at speed. I mentioned archery, which includes longbows and crossbows. There’s thrown weapons like axes as well.
It all adds up to an incredibly customizable experience where, just as in the Dark Souls franchise, practice leads to huge gains in skill.
Right now I’m working with a bastard sword and a kite shield. Together they allow me some flexibility during the same in-game life. I can switch between a heavily armored defensive strategy and a more aggressive, offensive strategy on the same character. With a one-handed grip on the bastard sword I’m able to protect myself against heavily armored foes with the shield. Alternately, a two-handed grip allows me to take bigger, faster swings at more lightly armored enemies and horses. Best of all, putting the shield on my back protects me from sneak attacks from behind.
Mordhau is not an early access game, but it is being added to and tinkered with on a regular basis. If you’re interested in giving it a try, there’s no better time to get in than now. The player population is high, and there are servers scattered all over the world. The learning curve is steep at first, but the game includes an excellent tutorial that can be played again and again until you get it right. You can find Mordhau only on Steam, but a console release isn’t out of the question.