It’s been a long time since I first looked at Mount&Blade. This game was my first review subject here at videolamer over two years ago, and it has held my attention for hundreds of hours. It’s progressed a great deal since its original release and my “review update” for .903, and in fact had its final release some weeks ago. As of this writing, Mount&Blade 1.011 has just been released with a demo on Steam, where I hope many prospective gamers will try it out. It’s currently the #5 seller – it’s selling better than Team Fortress 2! – but that spot is very well-deserved.
The improvements over the previous version I reviewed are myriad. Movement, weaponry, and armor are all much more realistic than they were before, and one of the best additions is a completely revamped soundtrack – with 70+ songs that are almost always played in the right situation – trumpet-filled battle themes that play as you clash with your foes, light melodic tracks while making your way through the countryside, and so on.
“Strategic” AI on the map has been improved, and warring factions in particular are more interesting than they were before. The addition of several heroes with reasonably good backstories help to flesh out the background of Calradia. The latest version is a much more polished game, worthy of retail release. Even if it is still ultimately less detailed than I would expect of a well-funded commercial game, its origins as an indie-developed beta make the current game that much more impressive.
A particular treat in Mount&Blade is accumulating a large group of meatshiel- err, followers.
Mount&Blade’s magnetism is hard to describe. My impression of the most recent version is that it is a medieval-themed version of Pirates!. Sid Meier’s classic has you roaming the Caribbean as a privateer in a freeform world, where cities trade and are raided with or without your influence. In the same vein, Mount&Blade starts you off with a modest bit of equipment and a small amount of money, from which you might raise a small band of mercenaries. From there, you build your way towards joining a faction – or, if you are particularly ambitious, starting your own or launching a rebellion against an existing nation. Once you have joined or created your country, you then work towards crushing its enemies.
Unfortunately, it is the very beginning of a game of Mount&Blade that will most disappoint or intimidate the new player. Much like Pirates!, very little direction is given – after all, you could do just about anything, from searching for heroes or mercenaries to helping a nearby village with its crop shortage. The game is downright cryptic about how some of the mechanics work. While swinging a sword, riding a horse, and blocking your opponents’ attacks are all quite intuitive, there are many non-combat mechanics that can make a huge difference – for example, if you try to visit a merchant at night, there’s a chance you’ll be jumped by bandits hoping to knock you out and steal your money. The skill system is well-explained, but no information is given on how an accompanying hero’s skills affect the party. Although after a few hours with the game you figure these things out on your own, a comprehensive tutorial for the game is sorely lacking. There’s a complaint I thought I would never have regarding an RPG!
Although the first steps of a new game are often harsh reminders of Calradia’s indifference to you, the next ones are much improved. Once you’ve joined a nation, you’ll find it is moderately well-organized…for a bunch of nobles with the intelligence of rocks. In previous versions, your nation’s lords would mindlessly siege castles, but refuse to actually assault the walls even with overwhelming numbers. Now, not only will they do so, your nation will muster an army of several lords to attack multiple enemy positions at a time. Although your commanding general will often ask you to perform ridiculous chores, you can freely refuse them with no repercussions.
This castle siege turned into a simple nobles’ party after all the lords realized they weren’t dressed for the occasion.
No matter whether you are defending or attacking, a castle assault is an intense – if highly unrealistic – experience. Combat is Mount&Blade’s highest point, and sieges are particularly entertaining because there is a set objective (defend or attack). The defenders have to defend at the walls, or suffer through a battle against an often overwhelming opponent. Attackers try their damnedest to break through at the walls, or they could lose despite outnumbering their opponent 3-to-1. The lack of realism comes into play in that there is only “light” clipping on friendly weapons – you cannot actively hit a friendly soldier with a melee weapon, but your blow will “bounce” away from them. Even with this “bounce” effect, the attacker at the top of a siege ladder will often see a whirling, many-armed blob of soldiers wielding three axes, two spears, and a couple of short swords. This lack of melee friendly-fire makes combat against multiple opponents as difficult as it should be, and at the same time ensures you aren’t inadvertently chopping your companions’ heads off. It’s a win-win, but it makes siege battles look awfully strange.
That said, another feature of battle is quite annoying and makes many fights harder than they really should be. Like many an RPG, if your character falls in battle, you lose the skirmish. You can send your troops into battle without the benefit of your leadership if you are too wounded to fight, but the auto-calculation of battles favors numbers more than any other factor. You might have 40 of the best Nordic footsoldiers guarding a castle against 150 farmers, and despite how laughably that battle would normally go, it would resolve in favor of the farmers via autocalc. Thankfully, the auto-calc option is only required if things have gone really poorly – for example, you’ve fallen in two skirmishes in a row – and the game is so forgiving in general that it’s hard to hate. If you lose your entire army, you can get up, dust yourself off, gather your scattered hero companions, and begin building back up wiser than you were before.
The modding scene of Mount&Blade is on the job, and several nice mods, as well as comprehensive guides on how to tweak the most annoying aspects of the game, are already out. Some really great mods are on the horizon, which will no doubt add more entertainment to a game that has already stolen so much of my time. Mount&Blade is the best Action/RPG/Strategy out there this year, and I highly recommend you try the demo out on Steam or on Taleworlds’ own site.