Mordhau, on first launch, strongly recommends that you play through a comprehensive tutorial, bribing you with a hefty chunk of in-game currency which can be used to buy weapons and armor for custom classes to use in the game’s multiplayer modes alongside the ten or so preset classes.. The tutorial doesn’t cover every type of medieval weapon in Mordhau, but it's enough to let you know that developer Triternion have made a game that revels in "realistic" combat.
Instead of a single melee attack button, players can thrust, parry, and slash in different ways depending on button mapping or a fairly intuitive mouse-look directional system. Look right, and your cursor will display a leading arrow indicating the direction of your next swing. Look up or down to ready a vertical slice, or roll the mouse wheel to thrust. It's a good tutorial, and by doing these rote drills in the tutorial's single-combat arena, you probably think you get the game.
However, when you step into the real game, it’s clear that actual combat in Mordhau is anything but structured or controlled.
Actual combat in Mordhau is clumsy and desperate, but not unenjoyable. The lessons of the tutorial section melt away as a horde of bodies smash into one another, flailing weaponry in attempts to land a hit. It is as chaotic as it is dangerous, since most battles revolve around person-to-person physical swings, and “friendly fire” is very much a threat. Mordhau impressively communicates its setting of dirty, grimy footsoldier combat with a very high chance of a stray blade slashing into your side.
Like Totally Accurate Battle Simulator, Mordhau brings combat down to its bare essentials, you, your weapon, and the hope that your weapon can connect with an enemy before their weapon connects with you. There is a strategy there, and occasionally you can pull off a sick parry-into-counterattack that makes you feel like the king of the battlefield, but most of the time I felt like I was just hoping for the right lucky timing to land a hit, or skirting the edge of a larger battle and getting a few swings in on whoever was foolish enough to venture too far out from their comrades. Mordhau’s team-vs-team Frontline mode makes me feel like a crappy soldier in a medieval battle, which is exactly what it should do.
But that’s not all that the game offers: there is a Horde mode, which pits teams of players against ever-growing swarms of AI opponents, as well as a Battle Royale mode that basically does what it says on the tin. Horde mode is an interesting change of pace, and offers a cooperative experience against rather straightforward enemies as well as introducing an in-battle currency system that allows you to purchase weapons and gear scattered throughout the map. It’s a wholly different style of battle than the Frontline mode, as the game’s AI opponents tend to favor being in groups and can be successfully picked off with even the game’s weaker weapons.
More than the other modes offered, Battle Royale felt like the most that Mordhau leaned into its dueling mechanics. The mode drops 64 players into a decently-sized map with an ever-shrinking play area, and due to the generally slower pace and every-player-for-themselves ruleset leads to more one-on-one combat encounters, where Mordhau’s aforementioned complex melee combat maneuvers can shine.
The fundamental tension between the game’s expansive combat mechanics and the brutal chaos of its combat is what gives it such a specific feel in its various encounters. There’s a bit of the realism-obsession that characterizes stalwarts in the genre (such as the similarly set Chivalry series), but it’s balanced by a wholehearted embrace of the more absurd elements of Mordhau’s setting. Charging into a melee while screaming alongside a pack of my screaming teammates feels like the exact correct response to this sort of game. Yell loudly and try not to die.
Regardless of specific game mode, however, the tone that Mordhau sets is solid. It’s a dirty, brutal sort of fighting, where intricate strategies fall by the wayside when you’re just trying to swing a heavy sword around and hope that you can avoid getting hit by a stray arrow. “Realistic” or not, Mordhau is a well-designed and well-executed portrayal of a clunky mess of combat, and if you’re looking for something that feels more down-to-earth and gritty, it satisfies.