Mount And Blade Puts Knights At The Ready!
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Mount & Blade is really something different in the game industry, and given how things are these days, that's saying a lot. It's not a game that you can slide right into, but with a little bit of effort, you will find a true gem hiding just beneath a slightly rough exterior.
It's one of those games that is difficult to classify because it does so much. It's realistic enough that it could be considered a simulation, or a medieval war game, or even a shooter, though the level of detail that goes into your character and followers makes Mount & Blade best described as a role-playing game. That's a bit like saying that a Humvee is a neat sport utility vehicle, as you will soon find out as you play.
You start off the game by designing how you look and answering a bunch of character questions like how you spent your childhood, in a noble court or a thieves den type of thing. This provides basic stats for your character. Then you are taken to the actual character screen and wow, you are going to be blown away by the level of complexity there. It rivals most pen and paper RPGs. You have your basic attributes of course, but then you also have personal skills like persuasion, group skills like training, prisoner management and leadership and your weapon skills like archery, crossbow and polearms. For those of us who like to really fine tune their character to suit our tastes, M&B offers many options.
Before you start you can play a tutorial, though when you start the game you are standing near a training ground which also lets you go though this. The tutorial is actually really good and will help to explain some of the complexity of the game. I highly recommend anyone do both the pre-game tutorials and the one there when you start the game. The in-game one actually awards you experience, so it's a must-do anyway.
Either in the tutorial or in the game, you will quickly learn that the combat engine is quite realistic. Overly simplistic combat was my biggest complaint with my favorite RPG of all time, Oblivion (and was even worse in Morrowind). In terms of the combat engine, M&B is actually better. That is because things are very realistic and also real-time here. If you see an opponent swinging his sword from your left, you better get your blade or shield in position to parry. Because you control your swings and your blocks, you can actually setup realistic combat strategies like making a quick thrust when your opponent gets ready for a huge swing, or launching a counterstrike after a successful block. There is not any artificial feeling to the combat. In many ways it's like a fight in real life, with each person looking for openings and reacting in real time. You can, if you are quick enough, even feint the enemy into blocking in the wrong direction, and then attack them from a different angle, though it's not easy.
But wait, because it gets much, much better. There is also army level combat that is done the same way, only here you have up to a hundred people per side (NPCs other than you) that are trying to do the same things to each other. You can run across the field of battle, trying to help out your men as best you can, or trying to find the enemy leader to engage personally. Here you really need to keep your wits about you because attacks, melee and ranged, can come at you from any side. It's like being in the middle of the huge battle scene from Braveheart, only you are not just watching but trying to survive the battlefield chaos, or even direct it.
You can also fight from the back of a horse with either a bow or a sword. It's a little more difficult to do, but rewarding because you are moving a lot faster, especially against infantry, and if you hit someone while doing a full gallop, you are going to do a ton of damage if not kill them outright. There are skills for riding and archery from horseback that govern how well you perform these tasks.
Thankfully your men will fight for you fairly intelligently and you can give them simple commands along the lines of following you, holding their ground or charging into the fray. Although the battles ran very smoothly on our Pentium 4 test system, you can control how many troops enter the field at one time with a slider bar. This changes the number of troops but not the ratios of them, so if you are outnumbered two to one, you still will be, there will just be less combatants overall, though more will arrive via reinforcement waves. I suppose you could also use the slider bar if you did not like the chaos of huge battles and wanted to make it more manageable, but being there in the thick of things is really a fun experience you don't want to miss if your computer is up to the processing challenge.
One of the coolest aspects of the game is that your followers are all treated like real people in that they too get better with experience. When you first recruit a group of men or women they might be peasants with pitchforks and hoes. But as they gain experience, if they survive it, they can level up. Generally you have the option to control the path they take, be it towards an archer, footman or cavalry soldier. One skill that I would highly recommend you take is called training. Training allows you to impart some experience to your troops every day, even without battle, until your follower's levels match your own. As a good trainer, you can quickly turn your green recruits into seasoned veterans, and keep them alive a lot longer.
There are also NPC characters in the game that can join your army, though only a few. Most NPCs are shopkeepers or guards but a very few have names and will join up. These are kind of like backup characters for you in that their skills contribute to your group's skills, like if you hire a good tracker or merchant with more skill than your player. They also can't be killed (just knocked out) and you can advance them very much like you advance your own character. You can even change out their equipment. And they seem to randomly move around the world from tavern to tavern, so you might find one very early in the game, or perhaps not at all.
When I say "early in the game" I think I should clarify that M&B is very open-ended, another reason why it goes into the RPG category. There is no way to tell where "early in the game" stops. What you do is up to you. There are quests to perform and people who need help, but there is no central thing you need to do like, I don't know, throwing the one ring into a volcano or killing a lich king. You can spend hours just being a peaceful trader if you like, buying low and selling high.
That is not to say there is not stuff to do. The world you find yourself in is ruled by five factions. You can join any of them and fight the others, or simply become someone who roams the countryside and rights injustice or fights in the many arenas in towns. Eventually you can siege castles or be awarded one of your own. Success is what you make it.
The two areas that are getting downgraded in this review are graphics and sound. If you live for eye candy or booming audio effects, you won't find much here. None of the people you meet I have found have voices, which would be forgivable if Oblivion had not shown us that this is possible. And graphically, the game looks a bit dated. Character models are passable with different armor and equipment rendered fairly well, but the world map is pretty poor. Basically it's just a blank field with towns popping up around it. Graphically the game kind of reminds me of an older title called Crusader 1066 A.D. which was published by Sierra On-Line years ago. I loved that game, but the graphics here and then are pretty similar. The in-depth gameplay is more than enough for me to forgive a lukewarm graphical experience, though some people love that eye candy so I thought I would mention it.
One thing that might help put M&B on your list is that there is a huge community of fans who are developing mods for the game. According to some of the mod authors, M&B has been in development for years and people have been playing betas all that time. So at launch there is already a ton of fan-created content with everything from interesting scenarios and quests to the addition of muskets into the game world. Given the already nearly unlimited playability of the game, the addition of these extra mods means you will likely never run out of things to do. Given the game's low $30 price tag, this makes it an astounding value that you could play and replay pretty much forever.
Mount & Blade may not be everyone's cup of tea, but for those who enjoy a good RPG that is nearly a medieval simulation for a great price, it's worth conquering. It earns a very respectable 4 GiN Gems for its treasury.
John Breeden II is the Chief Editor of GiN. While a forward thinking man he admits to a fondness for older video games. You should have seen him at Videotopia. John can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org.