I was playing Skyrim recently, having modded it to hell (and well beyond what Windows 8.1 will tolerate), and noticed just how lackluster the archery is. Great for stealth, a damp squib for anything else. I went in search of Chivalry to whet my bolt based appetite. I was not disappointed.
Chivalry: Medieval warfare is a chipped diamond of a game. The developers hit on a great idea and implemented it with some mixed results. Clipping errors are abound and sometimes the gamemodes glitch out (don’t play flag based games in case the flag stops existing!) but regardless, I can’t knock how darn intense it is, how great the game feels. The clanging of swords, the whirling of arrows and the PWHACK of a hammer to the face. It’s grim – and brilliant.
I used to play as the Knight, basically a walking tank with a big shield and a sword that becomes your faithful companion. You’d lumber at the enemy and fight your way through them, slashing a path cautiously, acutely aware of the Man-At-Arms charging you with a hatchet. You turn, block the strike and return with a sneaky stab. They wince, retreat and a Vanguard charges you – their swords scream ‘compensating’ and you stagger at their charge, trying a backhand slash to no avail. The Man-At-Arms returns to strike your shield, the Vanguard similarly hacking away at you. You hear the thud of an arrow hitting the shield, no time to see where it came from. You are soaking up the swings – you are there as fodder to die slowly. It is grim and glorious. I got tired of being fodder and became the archer.
Archers present a problem: they are either death incarnate, firing bolts with extreme accuracy, or they are a liability – hitting allies by mistake and being unable to hit an enemy at point blank. They are also made of crisps; a single swing from a Vanguard will end you, scattering your guts liberally across the landscape. You have a sword of course, but it is a weak sword and you have to be very good at melee to survive a confrontation. Melee fights between archers is something of an awkward dance of mild laceration as a couple of hits means a kill, or death. An archer that is both quick on the draw and good with a sword is a massive asset to the team. With my 200 hours of Chivalry, I dare say that I am an asset.
I love playing as an archer, I like to hide behind a rock, pop up - crossbow in hand - and pop some fool wondering in the open. With a height advantage, many archers can take that vantage point and rain death. I like to call this little bridge ‘the pillbox’ – we kill a lot of people from there.
However this in turn creates another problem. If archers are so great in the right hands, why doesn’t everyone become an archer? Well, some people just don’t like fighting at range. But even so on most servers about half the team will take up the bow and arrow, resulting in a hail of arrows that annihilates all in their path, whether friend or foe. Hence many servers impose limits on the number of archers that can play at once, usually to 4 or 5 per team. In those situations you just have to hope that the archers are not vegetables, and can at least kill something that isn’t friendly, I prefer the ‘oh god all of the arrows!’ servers – 32 players per team, obviously.
But having such potential to be deadly gets you in trouble, tactically speaking, because although you may not actually cause that much damage, you could in the right situation. You become a priority target. The corpses of archers are often strewn across the battlefield, arrows jutting from their chests having been hit from an enemy archer who will likewise shortly die to a hail of arrows. Like an argument on Tumblr, the whole thing degenerate into despair that is, from a distance, quite amusing to watch, being in it is less fun, in an adrenaline fueled stressy kind of way.
Whilst the knights, vanguards and men-at-arms prance about one another with swords, you are in hiding with other archers, just behind some stairs waiting to pop up and make your move. But over on the other side of the map the enemy is preparing to do the same, hiding behind pillars, walls and ledges; primed to but some metal between your eyes. You poke your heads up, the guy next to you gets it in the neck, their scream punctuating the fact that you need to fire quickly. You pull the trigger and watch the bolt fly gracefully. You hear a thud and the reticule turns red; a hit. Your kill is displayed in the corner and to your satisfaction it was the archer that ended your buddy. Such exchanges of fire are constant when lots of archers are in play. Take another look at the screenshot of the pillbox – this is what happened 2 seconds later:
Archery in Chivalry shares that magic of DayZ or Arma – so much time is spent just waiting, and then it all goes to hell in seconds. Only the process takes a lot quicker, and involves the soundtrack of sharpened steel on human skull. It is that satisfaction of waiting for the moment to be just right, lining up your shot and the gratification of seeing the target fall whilst projectiles whir around you. The sound is important – that zippy whirry sound (I hereby claim the words ‘zippy whirry’ for future use) that lets you know just how close to having your larynx smashed like an egg. It adds to the intensity.
Returning to Skyrim, you hear a dull noise – probably more true to real life (having not been shot at by several archers I cannot confirm) but far more boring, and far less able to sell me on the experience. It is seriously lacking, especially when the swords in that game give a satisfying clunk. It’s like having a wedding cake and Tesco’s conveyer belt chocolate muffins side by side – of course the muffins look awful, because they are. Such is the same with archery in Skyrim. What Chivalry does so well is creating a hectic situation through clever level and sound design that really sells you on the ‘oh crap that arrow’s gonna kill me’ front. I wish the bow and arrow received similar attention elsewhere – it is a surprisingly fun and often underplayed role.