Need to know
What is it? 64-player medieval warfare with melee weapons, bows, and big set pieces
Expect to pay: $40
Developer: Torn Banner Studios
Publisher: Tripwire Interactive
Reviewed on: Intel Core i5-9600K, 16GB RAM, Nvidia RTX 2070 Super
Multiplayer? 40-to-64-player team and free-for-all modes; console crossplay
Chivalry 2 is some of the most fun you can have on PC right now. It’s a riveting, theatrical medieval warfare game that’s equally about martial arts mastery and roleplaying as a Middle Ages buffoon. Sometimes you spend 30 intense seconds expertly dueling another player with swords, other times you’re skewered by a ballista bolt while shaking a fish in the air and declaring that you’re “power incarnate.”
At the center of Chivalry 2 are 64-player team objective-based matches. These are multi-stage battles that see castles sieged with rolling towers and ladders, peasants slaughtered, and caravans ambushed. They all start roughly the same way: both teams lined up and sprinting at each other with swords, axes, polearms, maces, bows, and more. My approach to these charges is to smash the ‘yell’ key to howl stupidly, throw my shield into the mass of bodies in front of me, chuck my sword at them, too, and then meet them with hacks from my secondary axe. If I’m lucky, I break through the line and chase down the cowardly archers who stopped running 50 yards short of the fight. Usually, someone chops my head off first.
Subsequent lives in Chivalry 2’s objective maps have quieter beginnings. You spawn a short jog away from the front line, where one team is trying to accomplish a typically medieval goal (burn the tents, push the siege towers, destroy the trebuchet), while the other stands in the way. Some objectives are more fun than others (carrying gold from one spot to another is a bit of a chore, but escorting payloads is always entertaining) and I find attacking more satisfying than defending in every case, so there is a better side to be on. Each map tells the story of a battle between two factions, the Agathians and the Masons, a setup that could have been superfluous, but which is treated with such comedic seriousness that it feels essential. There’s even a lore codex.
Hustling from the spawn zone to a contested objective provides time to build camaraderie with teammates by joining a chorus of yelling and babbling using quick chat lines—there’s everything from tactical orders to ‘your mom’ jokes, each with VO from multiple actors. This is an essential part of the Chivalry 2 experience. I always try to win, sometimes completing objectives by myself when my teammates are clueless, but treating Chivalry 2 like an esport is like expecting a WWE Hell in a Cell match to adhere to the rules of Greco-Roman wrestling.
Chivalry 2 is part theater and it’s better for it. Sometimes you’ll come across two players bowing at each other, or crouching up and down. What are they doing? It doesn’t matter. Just let them do it. I never attack someone who’s goofing off, and when I really need a break from the fight, I’ll pick up someone’s head or whatever else I can find lying around and stand around shaking it and shouting, even when arrows start piercing my chest. (Cowardly archers would go after an easy target.)
Like Rocket League, which has also spawned some idiosyncratic player behavior (look up “Rule 1”), Chivalry 2 is about a love for the game as much as winning it. I usually keep text chat off (it does attract some annoying players), but each match feels like a conversation anyway, or a bunch of little ones. Most directly, you can hit a key to send a commendation to the player who just killed you if you think they got you good, and I enjoy giving those out sparingly. Even when my team and I are just screaming and rushing toward an objective as the clock ticks down, though, I feel a kinship that I don’t get from the Battlefield games.
Like Battlefield games, though, most teamwork in Chivalry 2 is incidental—you’re all just trying to do the same objective, or kill the same guys, though now and then you have the opportunity to revive someone or intervene when they’re outnumbered. Games with smaller teams, such as Rocket League or Rainbow Six Siege, are the best gaming experiences I’ve had with friends, but I don’t feel like pulling friends in would improve Chivalry 2, except maybe if we organized dueling parties on empty servers. It’s a low-pressure game where you can casually focus on individual performance (yeah, yeah, it’s about the objectives, but we all hit Tab to look at our K/D ratios after every death).
Cooperation in team deathmatch is even looser, and obviously doesn’t exist in free-for-all. I prefer the slightly calmer 40-player servers for team deathmatch, and free-for-all is a mess, but I was surprised to find that it works. One map features a central platform surrounded by a pit, and for no reason other than that it’s there, players love standing on it and defending it like an American Gladiator. It was my platform for a while, and I want it back.
The honorable and the archers
The casual atmosphere somewhat belies Chivalry 2’s complex and challenging melee combat system. The slash, stab, and overhead strike attacks aren’t rigid animations. As you swing, you can aim your blade, and swiping the mouse in the direction of the swing rotates or bends your torso into attack. If you hit an opponent before they hit you, you’ll interrupt their attack, dealing damage but taking none yourself. If they successfully block, however, they have the initiative on the next swing, and if you’re too predictable, they may counter and get a free hit in. Among other nuances, there are also jabs and kicks and attack cancels, and a lot of variation in weapon speed, range, and damage, from knives and cudgels to kriegsmessers (really big curved swords) and pole axes. Personally, I love aiming at heads with light swings of the sledgehammer. Blunt weapons stop on impact, while blades continue through, and I find that sense of impact more satisfying—it feels like an insult, bonking someone on the head, like I’m doing a vaudeville bit.
At any given moment in a fight, you have a lot of options for what to do next (a few good ones, many bad ones), which is what makes Chivalry 2’s combat so fun, and why I like that it plainly tells you what you’ve just done or what was just done to you with words on the screen: heavy attack, blocked, riposte, feint, counter. Perhaps it could be criticized for needing to supplement its sounds and animations with text, but the fwap of a solid hit and ping of a riposte are satisfying and identifiable. There’s just so much going on when you’re fighting multiple enemies that the words feel essential. That’s especially true in the first-person view, which limits how much peripheral information you’re getting. (It can be a little dizzying, but the default first-person view isn’t a gimmick. I like it better than the optional third-person view.)
Chivalry 2’s best achievement is that it is possible to fight multiple opponents and win. You could see it simply being pointless: If hits interrupt attacks, how could you ever get an attack in with multiple differently-timed strikes coming at you? The answer in Chivalry 2 is counters and ripostes, specially timed attacks which briefly block all incoming attacks. In combination with the fact that bunched up enemies are as likely to hit each other as they are you, it’s possible to win a one-on-three, and it feels like being Henry Cavill’s Geralt in the scene where he gets the “butcher” moniker. (Throwing a sword through someone’s chest and then pulling out another one is something you can do in Chivalry 2. I’ve done it a few times. It always feels cool.)
I must, unfortunately, once again mention the reviled archer class. I can’t deny it: Standing in the back shooting people with arrows is fun and effective, so much so that I want to do it more. But it’s so shameful. Archery feels too easy, and dying to an arrow while you’re having fun sword fighting blows. The upside, as a melee class, is that sometimes you get to chase down an archer with an axe and take revenge.
Ye olde PC gaming
Chivalry 2’s 2012 predecessor was made by talented modders turned pro developers, and that do-it-yourself PC heritage is obvious here. Chivalry 2 has auto matchmaking if you want, but also features a server browser, with support for custom dedicated servers on the update roadmap. The essential graphics options are all there (arbitrary resolution, unlocked framerate, FOV slider, motion blur toggle), and it looks great. I don’t mean Battlefield-style fidelity and effects, but Chivalry 2 delivers readable, attractive art and smartly restrained color palettes (cool blue night, warm yellow desert, etc). There aren’t any mod tools right now, but they’re on the table.
It’s a bit janky, too, as tradition requires. One time I teamkilled a guy I was trying to help because hucking bandages into his face registered as damage instead of healing. Another time, auto-balance moved me to the other team but I didn’t spawn, and couldn’t spawn, and just had to leave the server. A number of bugs are acknowledged on Chivalry 2’s public development roadmap, and I trust that the big ones will be fixed. It’ll probably never be perfectly well-behaved software, though, and it isn’t the sort of game that strives for exacting adherence to physical laws. In one of my funniest moments, I accidentally threw my spear through the back of a teammate’s torso, wounding but not killing him, and then hit the apology emote before pulling the weapon out of his ribcage to go on fighting. Games described as “polished” tend not to feature that kind of fun.
The most disappointing bit is the special class abilities, which includes those killer bandages. Even when they work, they feel like a distraction more than a fun addition. After trying to let them grow on me, I still hate the fire bombs. Being set on fire in the middle of an otherwise clean fight just isn’t fun, but when I’ve got them, I don’t have it in me not to go for the easy kills. (It feels like I may as well be an archer for using them… ugh.) The only special ability I like is a banner that heals nearby teammates. It affects the game in a more interesting way: Allies swarm around it and opponents try to break through to smash it down. I’d play a simplified game mode that removed all special abilities, though.
Maybe that’ll be possible when custom server support is added. The development roadmap also shows that the first big content update, which will add two new maps and new soldier customization options, is coming soon. Further in the future, Torn Banner plans to add horses. Those updates will all be free, as will bug fixes and balance changes, of course.
Chivalry 2 launched with six objective maps and two deathmatch maps, so the first content update will bring it to 10 maps total—not a huge number, but it’s still nice that the post-launch stuff is free. The only in-game purchase you can make right now is a currency that lets you unlock cosmetic items faster than you would by playing. The soldier customization is surprisingly detailed, but it hasn’t been a draw for me, in part because I play in first-person and so I don’t see myself much.
The weapon unlocks (which have to be earned) increase your loadout options at a reasonable pace. It’s a fine way to provide milestones for newcomers, but I like playing Chivalry 2 because it’s fun to win fights or come up with stupid roleplaying ideas, not because I am driven to unlock more stuff. It’s a novel idea, games that are fun regardless of how much stuff you can collect, but I think it could catch on.