For the past decade or so, I have engulfed myself in a secret life. To my friends, I was simply Adam Tingle, mild mannered and easy going. However, little did they know that as night fell and we retreated back into our respective abodes, I transformed and I evolved. From my squeaky reclining leather chair and in the glow of my monitor, I directed, dictated and commanded. As the years progressed, so did my subjects: first came the Samurai, then medieval minions of war, followed by Romans and finally Imperial conquest. Of course, I am talking about the Total War series, a game which brings about armchair generals and heroics. So why am I babbling about my secret love for Real Time Tactical (RTT) on a website devoted to RPGs? The answer is simple: Mount and Blade: Warband — a game which merges two great genres in the name of creative vision.
The original Mount and Blade (to which Warband is a stand-alone expansion) was released in 2008 by Turkish indie developers TaleWorlds. It was an ambitious game filled to the brim with ideas and creativity, but ultimately it was also filled with shortcomings. The original game had a great premise, but due to numerous bugs, gameplay decisions and a woeful lack of multiplayer, it was neglected by many. In the two years following its release, though, TaleWorlds’ labor and toil has finally delivered on the promise shown by the first game. Mount and Blade: Warband successfully marries the RPG genre with the RTS, and the result is a game filled with hours of entertainment and fun.
In Mount and Blade, you take on the role of a knight and set off into the world to forge a name (and indeed a legacy) for yourself. The game will seem familiar to those who played Sid Meier’s Pirates!, in that there is a huge game world and the player is given the choice to pursue whatever goals they wish. You can mold your character to match your preferred play style, and after an extensive creation process in which you must select a background, motive and class, you begin your adventure. You will gain experience in the game by questing or battling, distributing points to whichever skill you choose as you gain levels. The system leads to a great sense of progression, but it also lends itself to a great deal of variation. Will you play a simple warrior, adept in riding, or an archer with a penchant for tactics? Mount and Blade is all about choice, and its character progression does not disappoint.
Once you have settled on a character, you will find yourself roaming the land in search for something to do. This is perhaps the greatest flaw of the game: the opening experience is simply daunting. You will find yourself thrown into the world map without much of a clue as to what you should do. My first experiences were of being chased by bandits and ultimately being caught, becoming a prisoner, and being dragged around the world map for a few minutes. There doesn’t seem much direction to the game and while this suits many experienced players, it can be unnerving to the newcomer. After a few hours of aimless wandering, you will start to get to grips with the mechanics of the game and start to gather a small band of followers who you can command into bloody battle, which is where the game really starts to shine.
Combat in Mount & Blade is handled not unlike the Total War series: you are taken to a battle map and you must fight there until bloody victory or cowardly routing. Combat with melee weapons is handled with swings of the mouse — upwards for vertical strikes, sideways for wild swings. The control is visceral, comfortable and intense. Rather than a series of bashful clicks, the player must learn a degree of skill to attack, and many battles can be won through your expertise on the mouse and keyboard. The battles in Mount & Blade are easily the most entertaining element of the game, and they showcase the developer’s achievements. The only negative is the rather tired graphical engine they use. Textures are plain and uninspired, character models look a little blocky, and overall the visuals leave the game with an overwhelmingly low-budget feel. If you are willing to overlook this, however, Mount and Blade will have you returning time and time again for bloody skirmishes.
There are a great many things to do in Mount & Blade, and the game is very multi-layered in its offerings. You can muster an army together and task yourself with allying with nations or conquering them. There are tournaments to enter (arena-style affairs), quests, equipment to buy and even a system of supply-and-demand trading in which certain resources fetch better prices in certain regions. Mount & Blade is extremely ambitious and accomplished — a game that will keep you occupied for hours on end… but I still have a tiny complaint. The game is ultimately directionless. There is no real goal to achieve or a set path to follow. Unlike Sid Meier’s Pirates!, there is no end goal toward which you can really direct your adventure, and rather than finishing this game in satisfaction, you will simply play it less as your interest peters out. I am not saying that Mount & Blade is at all boring or pointless; it just feels that without an overall story arc or primary goal, the game lacks structure. While this issue is always present, it will be a long time before it stops you from enjoying this game.
On the other hand, one element of game play which will have you returning time and time again is the multiplayer. The enthralling battles of single player only become more joyous as you engage in virtual slaughter with friends and relative strangers. The staples of death match, capture the flag etc. are here, but also included is the great Siege mode, in which players must attack or defend a fort. The multiplayer is challenging, tense and great fun. Perhaps the game’s greatest achievement is that it requires a degree of expertise. There is no one shot kill or simple button mashing; one succeeds through cunning and through skillful mouse dragging. The good news is that the servers are generally well-populated, and you can find a game with relative ease. Sadly, the lack of a co-operative take on the single player experience is a missed opportunity.
Happily, the online element to Mount and Blade doesn’t stop at multiplayer. The first game was supported by a very enthusiastic modding community, and Warband is no different. Players can choose to play with the game’s native skins or opt for one of the many player-made skins sets — expect to see Roman centurions as well as characters from Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings among many others. Indeed, Mount and Blade is one game that will have you playing long after you initially part with your cash.
All in all, Mount and Blade: Warband is a great game, even despite its flaws. The overall concept is satisfying, and with a more heavyweight publisher behind the team at TaleWorlds, this is one game that could be absolutely great. The graphical engine is simply passable, but given its indie roots, that isn’t difficult to look past. Of course, one upside to the limited graphics is the fact the game has limited technical requirements, allowing you to achieve your virtual conquest on the go. As it stands, Mount & Blade strikes a somewhat balanced approach between RPG and RTT, and it successfully bundles hours of fun into a package of medieval slaughter and wanderlust. It may not be enough to really appeal to die-hards of either genre, but it certainly packs an entertaining punch if you are willing to forgive the game one or two shortcomings.