Come for the flashy stabs, stay for the depth of its medieval combat system.
I pull back my giant Zweihänder sword, ready for a stab, and then cancel my attack at the last second. My opponent falls for it, parrying a blow that never arrives. I haven’t dealt any damage yet, but in that instant I already know the fight is won. It’s in moments like this, where you work out how to expose an opponent’s weaknesses within the first few seconds of a fight, that I realised all the struggles I had during Mordhau’s painful opening hours were worth it.
After a short flurry of strikes and counters I draw my blade back for the second time. Again, I feint at the last moment, and again they bite, blocking at thin air. This time I’m ready to pounce, and they’re still recovering from their parry as I thrust forward. My blade jabs between their eyes, their neck snaps back as they fold to the floor, and their sword clatters on the cobblestones. “Good fight”, they say in chat as my next opponent approaches, twirling a spear.
Most of Mordhau’s modes are team-based frays, but its one-on-one duel servers best expose the brilliance of its medieval melee combat system. You can stab, you can strike from different angles by flicking your mouse, you can feint, “morph” from one type of attack to the other mid-swing, or “chamber” an opponent’s attack by matching the angle of their blade for an instant counter.
It’s initially overwhelming. I learned the mouse movements in an afternoon, but knowing when to use each move took me far longer, and I spent my first five hours dying repeatedly. During that time I wished Mordhau had a more in-depth tutorial so I could learn by playing instead of turning to YouTube guides. However, once I’d realised the importance of holding my nerve against an enemy’s feints I started to improve quickly, learning from my mistakes in each duel and turning tricks that had once worked on me back on my opponents (as demonstrated above).
That feeling of constant skill progression keeps me coming back. Nearly 30 hours in, I’m still picking up new combos of feints and morphs, and I’ve spent whole evenings fighting opponents in the same duel server without getting bored.
Landing a hit is satisfying in its own right thanks to gory physics and crunchy sounds.
It helps that landing a hit is satisfying in its own right thanks to Mordhau’s gory physics and crunchy sounds. Your blade rips into opponents with a bloody squelch, lopping of arms, legs, and heads as torsos go limp and ragdoll. The smooth animations help sell the fantasy whether you play in first or third-person, and your character feels responsive, grunting when they exert effort and groaning when they get tagged by an arrow.
It’s even more impressive when body bits fly in Frontline, Mordhau’s flagship mode. It’s a 64-player team-based battle in which you progressively capture control points on large maps, pushing the enemy back to their spawn. The scale and variety of these maps is impressive: each has a distinct look, from the white hills of Mountain Peak—the blood glistening on the snow has a certain morbid beauty—to the muddy battlefield of Camp, the largest map. My favourite among the four is Grad, in which one team spawns in a walled keep and the other in a wood across a field. Between them are towers with spiral staircases, ladders, log huts, stacks of hay and a lumber mill, each offering different tactical options.
Sometimes I take my powerful Zweihander build and rush to the front lines to bash some skulls; sometimes I play an archer and fire on enemies trying to scale the castle walls; other times I pick a fast, unarmored character that can move around enemy flanks. The character creator is robust in terms of your stats and the appearance of your armor (but not in the diversity of the character underneath, unfortunately) and lets you play any build you like: you start with a blank slate and allocate points shared between weapons, armor pieces, and perks. It has no restrictions on where you can spend those points, so you could create a heavily armored knight who only carries firebombs and has near-silent footsteps, if you really wanted to.
I’ve yet to try a playstyle I haven’t enjoyed. When you have 64 players swinging weapons and slinging projectiles at each other each fight becomes a spectacle, and even if you’re not racking up kills you can still have fun just watching the chaos unfold.
The other Frontline maps, sadly, aren’t as good as Grad. Two are fairly uniform and fighting on them feels roughly the same no matter what control point you’ve reached. Taiga, the last of four Frontline maps, feels like it was built for dull stalemates: once a team captures the central control point it’s difficult to wrestle it back, and as an attacker I feel like I’m being repeatedly funneled down the same narrow walkways into the crosshairs of waiting archers, which is simply not fun.
But whenever I’m frustrated, I just switch to a different mode, of which Mordhau has plenty – including a Battle Royale. None stand out next to Frontline or Duels, but each requires a different playstyle, so you’ll always find one to fit your mood. If Frontline feels too random you can try Skirmish, a team mode without respawns, encouraging more caution. If rounds of Battle Royale feel too drawn out, you can jump into a free for all or team deathmatch. It even has a horde mode against AI for when you need something more brainless.
I’ve enjoyed playing each mode, even Frontline on its worst maps, and that’s largely because they’re underpinned by the same deep fighting system. I love the mental gymnastics required to beat an experienced opponent—you have to tease out their weaknesses and create a plan to capitalise before they do the same to you. You’re bluffing and double-bluffing moves while deliberately telegraphing others, probing for a metaphorical chink in their armor so that you can sink your blade into a literal one. Finding and exploiting it feels fantastic.
I get the same thrill from beating my opponents as I did in Chivalry.
I get the same thrill from beating my opponents as I did in Chivalry, the 2012 multiplayer game that heavily inspired Mordhau. I eventually lost interest in Chivalry because players could abuse the physics system to attack in ways that barely looked human, such as spinning full circle in the air, bending over backwards, and hitting you from behind their head. Mordhau feels more grounded, like its rules are easier to understand and more difficult to exploit.
Unfortunately, it also comes with its fair share of hassles. That starts with the performance: Mordhau hangs on a blank screen for 10 seconds nearly every time I boot it up, and when I load into a server there’s a good chance I’ll be instantly disconnected and sent back to the main menu. The end result is that it’s not nearly as quick and easy to get in and start playing as most games are.
It has its fair share of trolls, too, from team killers to players that build defensive walls inside their own spawn rooms, trapping teammates. And naturally, there are unsavory characters in the chat. It’s not developer Triternion’s fault these players exist, but it’s worrying that there are no tools to report players in-game, for example, so their behaviour – including rampant racism and homophobia – persists and goes unpunished. A chat filter would easily catch much of the hate they spew, while a ban on building in spawn areas is surely a no-brainer to add.
The most important thing, though, is that Mordhau has the foundations of an excellent multiplayer game that could well hold my attention for the rest of the year.