Developed by the aptly named Torn Banner Studios, Chivalry: Medieval Warfare (a title which I assume is a clever take on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare) is a multiplayer-focused medieval hack-and-slash romp of violence and mayhem based loosely off of the Age of Chivalry mod for Half Life 2. The premise is simple: as a lowly knight serving under one of two warring factions, players must slash, cut, and bludgeon their way to victory in a variety of maps and game-modes.

What *isn’t* so simple is mastering the game’s unique combat mechanics. I don’t mean to imply the controls are hard to learn, they’re actually pretty straight-forward and easy to pick up. However, if you think you’re going to boot up Chivalry for the first time and be a master swordsman within the span of a few minutes, you’re in for a whole heap of painful lessons delivered at the end of your opponent’s blade.

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Chivalry has a very visceral and realistic feel when it comes to wielding the game’s vast array of swords, axes, clubs, spears, and ranged weapons that will most likely feel familiar to veterans of games such as Mount & Blade. Each weapon has different levels of power, speed, weight, and other factors that must be judged carefully to attain victory. Again, if you assume this is a game where you can just pick up a greatsword and spam-slash your way to victory, prepare to be humbled quickly.

Players can choose from four different classes: the Knight, Archer, Vanguard, and Man At Arms (often referred to as the “maa,” clever I know…) each with their own weapon loadouts and special traits. They can then hop into several different game-types such as King of the Hill, Free-For-All Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Team Objective, and even a 1-on-1 duel mode amongst others . The team-based modes have players joining up with either the Agartha Knights (blue) or the Mason Order (red) and the game’s single-player tutorial touches briefly on the story behind the two factions as it teaches the player the ropes.

Of course, Chivalry isn’t really meant to be appreciated for its story. The real meat of the game’s appeal ties back to its bloody, brazen, and downright brutal combat. It needn’t be said that this isn’t a game for squeamish gamers. A typical match involves plenty of severed limbs and heads, cringe-inducing sound effects, and close-up-cam viewpoints of arrows flying into people’s eye-sockets and players getting doused in boiling tar.

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If you’ve been paying attention to the whole “violence in video games” debate, Chivalry is no-doubt a game the critics would have a field day with. However, while I’m sure there are many who would judge Chivalry’s gameplay as mindless violence, ask any Chivalry veteran to describe said gameplay and “mindless” is most certainly not a word they’d likely use. While it is violent, Chivalry’s combat strikes a very fine balance between entertainment and realism. Much like the popular “dueling servers” from Mount & Blade, the PvP combat in Chivalry requires quick-thinking and judgment just as much as quick reflexes.

Using a variety of swings, stabs, blocks, feints, and “shove” moves such as kicks and shield bashes, players must out-think and out-smart their opponents while also accounting for other factors such as terrain and visibility. Chivalry can be played from either a 1st or 3rd-person perspective, each offering their own advantages and disadvantages. Combat in Chivalry isn’t about who brings the biggest or hardest-hitting weapons, it’s about who can utilize both their weapons and all of the other factors around them better than their opponent.

Sure, you can just load up with a heavy battle-axe or broadsword and swing wildly hoping for a quick kill, but a player who’s taken the time to master the game’s more subtle combat nuances such as positioning, speed, and timing will dance circles around a spam-swinger nine times out of ten (and the tenth time will most likely equate to dumb luck on the spam-swinger’s side). And since the game’s progression consists mainly of unlocking cosmetic helmets and different variations of existing weapons, the only thing that’s required to bridge the gap between novice and expert player is a little time and patience.

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Fortunately, both can be acquired without ever setting foot inside an actual match. In addition to the very handy tutorial, Chivalry also features A.I. bot support for a few of its game modes. Despite their dumb names (Sir Thane of Bane, Peter the Paige, etc.), the bots can put up a pretty decent fight and are excellent for practicing against and honing your skills before testing your mettle against human opponents. Sadly the bots lack customizable class selection or loadouts which makes practicing against a specific weapon/class impossible. But if you play enough matches you’re bound to go up against each of the four classes at least a few times.

If, after you’ve gotten your fill of slicing up bot-controlled opponents, you’re still not totally confident in your skills, you can also watch other players duke it out using Chivalry’s handy spectator mode. Spectating matches is not only a good way to observe how experienced players fight, it’s also pretty darn entertaining (now I see why the Gladiatorial games were so popular to the Ancient Romans).

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Sadly, as is the case with most online-multiplayer games, Chivalry’s in-game chat is often filled with drivel spouted by the less-mature amongst the Chivalry community. Fortunately, Torn Banner thought to include a handy toggle for switching the in-game chat off (though I’d recommend leaving it on when spectating games as some of the player’s reactions to getting beaten are comedy gold).

If you’re looking for a new medieval hack-and-slash title to sate your bloodlust, you could do a lot worse than Chivalry: Medieval Warfare. With its brutal and unique take on medieval combat, entertaining tutorial and spectator modes, bot-support for offline play, and free content updates provided by Torn Banner (the first of which just went live last week), Chivalry has been slowly gaining speed since its release last October and it’s showing no signs of slowing down as we head into 2013.

Chivalry: Medieval Warfare is available on PC through Steam for $24.99 and believe me when I say it’s worth every penny.