In one of my first Mordhau matches, I stepped into the iron greaves of a default knight character and joined approximately thirty other warriors dressed in blue waging war against the evil red army on a snowy mountain peak. Suddenly, an unarmored enemy with a feathered cap and a stringed instrument ran up to me from the side and started playing his lute in my direction. A free kill, I thought, as I approached the bard with murderous intent. He kept playing as I swung my greatsword across his chest. Before I could raise my sword again to finish the job, I was immediately set upon by enemy and ally alike. I defended as best I could, but I was quickly overwhelmed, and the musician himself grabbed his lute by the neck and finished me off with a blow to the head. That’s how I learned Mordhau’s first unwritten rule: don’t mess with the bards.
Mordhau is an exceptional medieval combat simulator in the vein of Chivalry: Medieval Warfare. Its standard game mode, Frontline, mixes complex-yet-intuitive first person melee combat with 64 player, objective-based tug of war. Other modes on offer include deathmatch, wave based survival, and, of course, a battle royale. All the game modes are tied together with a deep melee combat system that’s simple to learn, difficult to master, and endlessly fun to figure out, topped off with a wealth of customization options, unlocks, map variety, and beautiful visuals.
Saying that Mordhau’s fighting system is good is an understatement. Every duel is as much a battle of wits as it is a clash of swords (or spears or hammers or rapiers or mauls and so on). A number of different types of attack are at your disposal, although some are more effective with certain weapons than with others. Thrusting the tip of your hammer at your opponent’s face will hurt, sure, but not as much as thrusting with a spear, and the reverse is also true. Slashing a spear won’t be very effective, but one well placed swing of a hammer will cave in your enemy’s head with a satisfying squish.
This is made even more complex with the addition of ripostes and feints, turning the fight into a competition over timing and faking out your enemy. On top of that are morph attacks, switching from a slash to a thrust at the last moment, or vice versa, and truly skilled fighters can counter an enemy’s attack with a perfectly timed attack of their own, called mirroring. Seeing two skilled duelists mirror clash with each other is like watching a lightsaber duel, complete with all the sparks. Mastering, combining, and switching up all of these skills is essential to improving, and it is immensely satisfying to go from wild, impotent thrashing to deft feints and punishes as you improve your skills.
Of course, all of this intricate swordplay goes out the window when you venture away from the honor-bound, one-on-one duel servers and into the chaotic Frontline mode. All the feints, ripostes, and mirrors in the world won’t help you when you’re set upon by three enemies at once with no back-up, only for all four of you to be clobbered by a random catapult strike. Frontline features a number of objectives, varying by map. One objective will see you escorting a cart full explosives toward a castle wall, another will have you defending or attacking defenseless pesents, and of course, there’s also run-of-the-mill zones to capture. All that strategy generally falls into the background, though, when you’re watching or getting dragged into the meat grinder in the center of it all. War is hell, and so is Frontline. But it’s also kind of silly, because you’ll still see shirtless boxers, lute playing minstrels, and creative cosplayers. Part Battle of the Bastards, part Monty Python.
As most historians will attest, medieval warfare was rife with cosplayers. In my short time with the game, I saw Mario, Link, a Roman gladiator, a referee, and a Viking. While not entirely period authentic, these costumes are made possible by Mordhau’s robust customization options. From the very beginning, you have access to a number of options to transform your character to your liking. There’s a wide range of clothing and armor to choose from, including light cloth, chainmail, plate armor, and nothing at all. Not to mention the many funny hats and helmets. Some cosmetic options are gated behind level and gold requirements, but there are no microtransactions, so for better or worse, they can only be earned the old fashioned way.
Then you get to choose your primary, secondary, and tertiary weapons, each subtracting from a point bank with which you pay for them, a la Call of Duty’s create a class system. Personally, I enjoyed repping Jon Snow, complete with bastard sword (sans wolf pommel, sadly). Part of Mordhau’s charm is how faithfully it represents its chosen setting, while also allowing players to have fun, looking and acting silly, if they so desire.
There are a couple of additional game modes on offer, as well. The battle royale is enjoyable enough, for what it is, but it’s probably a couple of years too late for it to really find its mark. The horde mode is fun for a little while, but unfortunately grows stale quickly. These misses are forgivable, though, because the Frontline and deathmatch more than make up for what the other modes are lacking.
All told, Mordhau has a lot to offer. Throwing yourself into the grindhouse in Frontline is crazy and chaotic and entertaining, and the maps are large and distinct enough that they are still fun to play, even after several hours. Even weeks after release, players are still probing the depths of the endlessly complex combat system. There’s no single-player element beyond fighting AI bots, however, so the length of time you’ll enjoy this game will depend on how much you enjoy its uniquely flavored competitive multiplayer. If it does sink its fangs into you, though, Mordhau has dozens of hours worth of head chopping, arrow shooting, character customizing, build testing, and lute playing to offer.
Diving into Mordhau’s rich combat system and wealth of customization options is endlessly entertaining. A must play for anyone with a mind for the medieval.