Review by: Jordan Thomas
Published: April 7, 1998
You know it, and you’ve felt it. It is the phenomenon that courses through our veins as gamers, and propels us to deny food, sleep, and sometimes even more sundry indulgences for the pursuit of the next challenge. For some, it is the next level, with the ludicrously tough opponents and the heavy-caliber powerups. For others, it is the drive to conquer a puzzle or complete an impossible mission objective. And for still another breed, it is bloodlust; the thrill of battle. I am one of these.
Last weekend, I sacrificed my prime work hours, from about six p.m. to three or four in the morning. Something was driving me on, burning my mind deep into the night. That sensation came from a kind of obsessive enjoyment I’ve only derived from rare works of creativity. A smattering of novels here, and a precious few games there. The reason for my binge? I was dueling with horrendous beasts, immersed in the most realistic melee combat system I’ve ever experienced. And of course, the title that so possessed me was Die by the Sword.
I could go off about the glories of the VSIM system for hours, but I will refrain from ranting for a moment, to explain the way it works. Die by the Sword has all of the technical complexity of an arcade fighting game, but achieves that thrill through a far more elegant means. The VSIM engine allows you to engineer your moves in real-time, rendering the animations frame-by-frame in accordance with the maneuvers that you control directly. By keyboard, joystick, or — my personal favorite — the mouse, you are able to directly manipulate the motions of your character’s arm and weapon in 3D space. The result? Brutal, chaotic swordfights that appear and behave realistically, down to tangled weapons, severed limbs, and wrenching re-direction of attacks.
This game is about visceral melee duels, spread through a third-person adventure mode as well as a diverse arena. The beauty of the physics engine is that it was designed specifically with these bloody combat encounters in mind. Within the same completely customizable control set, you can execute a huge variety of your own stylistic attacks. Furthermore, you learn to angle your weapon to parry the strikes of your cunning opponents as well. And finally, you’re granted four hotkey-driven custom move slots, so that your particular battle attitude is reflected directly onscreen. A simple arcade-style method of control is available, for beginning players who find the complexity of VSIM confusing. But die hard melee enthusiasts will settle for nothing less than the smooth, albeit initially unfamiliar beauty of mouse control.
I played with my left hand controlling body movements such as running, dodging, and jumping, and my right sliding the mouse gracefully into deadly sword-arcs onscreen. I found myself simply riveted by the feel of actual collision and force. Speaking of force, I tried the title with my new force-feedback MS Sidewinder stick, and while I still prefer the mouse, the tactile effect was astonishing! You can feel the weight and collision of the blade. Definitely worth experiencing. The interface has a lot of separate controls, so be prepared to configure it into your preferred set. But once you’ve established your own hardware link with the VSIM architecture, complete freedom of control is yours to enjoy.