On paper, Mordhau doesn’t seem to share much in common with fighting games like Street Fighter. But like every great game about in-your-face combat, this medieval first-person slasher boils down to three things: tactics, timing, and spacing. Beneath the chaos of Mordhau’s battlefields whirrs a highly-robust melee combat system that far outstrips the complexity of the typical block-parry-strike of similar games, while still remaining elegant enough for the uninitiated to glean the basics at a glance. But there’s one problem: there’s no dedicated duel mode. In Street Fighter, I never have to worry about someone sucker-punching my character in the back of the head. But in Mordhau? Would-be duelists must deal with exactly that scenario, except also with swords, arrows, and knives.
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A Welcome Throwback
Priced at $30 and developed by a small indie team spread across the globe, Mordhau feels like a throwback to a previous era of Steam, when a relatively-niche, retail-price, multiplayer-only game could sustain a player-base through the sheer force of its quality, rather than the monthly or even weekly drip-feed of new content popularized by Fortnite. It’s the first new multiplayer game I’ve played in years that doesn’t offer a single microtransaction. There’s no paying to expedite progress or to grab additional skins for your sprightly knight, just an XP bar that unlocks items in the store and a single currency to buy them, both of which can only be earned through actual play.
And while most games these days focus on a single all-encompassing game mode designed to appeal to the greatest number of players — Apex Legends still doesn’t have a duos or singles option even now, three months after launch — Mordhau boasts several, including a horde mode where you and your fellows bash in the heads of many, many, many computer-controlled goons.
The frantic team-fighting and constant three vs. ones of the default Frontline mode, which resembles the on-the-ground view of battle-focused strategy games like Total War, can be entertaining in small bursts, but it’s the game’s unofficial duel servers that keep me coming back for more. These servers use the game’s free-for-all “deathmatch” mode, but the players inside coordinate to square off one vs. one, signalling to each other with an emerging language of gestures that add up to something like etiquette. You “flourish” at a foe to indicate that you’re ready to fight — once they flourish back at you, you can begin stabbing and feinting in earnest. It’s a throwback to older games like Jedi Outcast, where players would crouch to approximate bowing before initiating a lightsaber battle.
But just like one guy with a disruptor could ruin an honorable Jedi duel, there are limits to the ad hoc systems Mordhau’s players have created. For one, there’s very little you can do to someone who refuses to abide by them, other than vote-kicking them from the server, and that requires a majority of players to recognize their misbehavior. For another, there’s no real in-game definition of what actually constitutes sporting behavior in a duel itself.
Is it fair to suddenly toss a throwing axe at your opponent’s face in the middle of a fight, or change to a completely different weapon that you happened to pick up from a previously defeated opponent? Disarming your foe temporarily stops the contest in a traditional fencing bout, but here it’s one of the game’s core mechanics, as a punishment for letting your stamina completely drain. Should you let your opponent recover their weapon, or take advantage of their vulnerable state to deliver a killing blow? Regardless of what you think personally, the game’s community has decided on the latter. On the few occasions that I’ve tried to show mercy, I ended up summarily executing my opponent after they tried to punch me in the face instead of picking their sword back up.
A Lesson in Etiquette
Some of the duel servers are a bit more stringent about what they view as proper conduct, advertising themselves with tags like “no throwables, no archers, 1v1 only.” That said, unless you have the admin on hand, you’re likely going to run into quite a few roving bands of griefers, all itching to stab would-be duelists in the back. And while this sort of childish griefing is par for the course with popular multiplayer games, I personally find this behavior far more disruptive and annoying than in the other games I’ve devoted hours to recently. As one friend of mine put it, the real reason that the Mordhau community seems so retrograde is because the freeform nature of these servers gives griefers something to destroy. The duelists keep building their ornate sandcastles, and the griefers keep knocking them over again with their “RDMing,” a shorthand for “random deathmatch,” a term used by those in the roleplay community for players who kill others for no good reason.
It’s a testament to the strength of Mordhau’s melee gameplay that, for all my complaints about the state of the game, I still continue to play it on a nigh-daily basis. At first, the game’s surprisingly ample tutorial supplies you with only a handful of tactics to vary up your roundhouse swings and quick stabs, among them a “morph” that allows you to change one strike to the other, and “feints” that let you bait an opponent into parrying too early. As you play, however, you’ll begin to fathom just how much footwork and mastering your weapon’s effective range can help you outwit your opponents in a pinch. Once you start toying with the more advanced techniques, which include strategically finessing your mouse to deliver a blow slightly slower or faster than normal, known as a “drag” or “accel,” respectively, you can really start to get inside your opponent’s head.
That sense that you’re engaging in a test of wills with an opponent — reading their game-plan, anticipating their every move — is Mordhau’s greatest asset, and it’s what keeps me coming back for more. I just wish the game would do more to facilitate that, rather than giving the griefers the key to our pretend kingdom. I plan to keep playing Mordhau as often as I can for the forseeable future, but I have to admit that the thought of dealing with that sort of mindless misbehavior sometimes keeps me from launching it. So here’s hoping the developers add a dedicated duel mode soon. And hey — if they do, maybe we’ll even see Mordhau at EVO next year.