Mount&Blade: Warband is from Paradox Interactive, and is the sequel to the original Mount&Blade. It’s a sort of simulation strategy action RPG-thing set in a fictional medieval world. This may strike you, dear reader, as an unhelpful description. For someone like me, who came into Mount&Blade: Warband without knowing anything other than being told, “You should play this. It’s good,” sorting the game into a neat genre box is not an easy task.
Starting at the character screen, the first glance makes it it seems like an action RPG: there are a range of statistics and skills to choose from, such as weapon proficiencies, looting, athletics, horse archery and so on. Upon looking a little more closely, other things seem to jump out. Skills such as Prisoner Management, which allows you to take (more) prisoners and Leadership, which allows you to command more troops (or as I like to call units under my command in any game, minions). The term “more troops” immediately appealed to me, so with my first character I put quite a few points into this one. You can also design your character’s appearance and create a background from a pretty interesting set of choices.
Once past the character screen, it again seemed like it could just be an action RPG: training (tutorial) on how to properly wield my weapons and shield. Already at this point I could tell that the combat had slightly more depth than some other RPGs played from first-person perspective, such as Oblivion, and that was before I got to fight whilst riding a horse. It seems a terrible shame that now, in 2011 (or 2010, when Mount&Blade:Warband came out), when computer games have been coming out for a good few decades, fighting on a horse in a medieval or fantasy RPG is something unusual, but that’s the state we’re at. Let me tell you, though, fighting on a horse feels damn good, even though I had to ride past a training dummy half a dozen times before I was able to hit it – controlling both horse and character isn’t the easiest thing in the world.
Once you can successfully beat up a few trainers and pepper some training dummies with arrows without riding into fences, more standard action RPG fare awaits: kill a bandit, talk to a guy. Then, however, something changes. You aren’t asked to go off and kill some nobody bandit and return for another quest, but instead, you have to recruit minions, and only then can you go off and kill people.
This seems like no difference at all, except that the scale is suddenly much larger than you and your horse. Your army of minions can be recruited from peasants in villages or from mercenary bands. All of them are proper troops in their own right, and they level up through several tiers, from recruit to footman to knight – all depending on the area of the world/faction you recruit them from.
In battle, your troops can be given general orders such as “Follow me” or “Charge” (although you can separate troops into different control groups to allow you to split your army up effectively), and you only have direct control over your own character, so it very much feels like you are a soldier in charge of a personal entourage rather than an omnipresent floating hand directing units with divine will. The combat is, as hinted at before, quite a lot of fun. Actually, it may be the best part of the game, as not only are the actual mechanics of combat more engaging than fiddling about with skills on an action bar in a good sequence, but being part of a full battle gives a good tactical element. Not only do you have to be mindful of the particular enemies you want to stick with your pointy end, but also their relative positions as part of their own military forces, and you to yours. Then, of course, there’s the visceral fun to be had by charging down your enemy with your own army following at your back.
Given that you fight with your minions battle after battle, the army management that occurs elsewhere has a far greater impact. Upgrading troops is noticeable in your next battle, and you can feel the effectiveness growing continuously. Battles are all the more satisfying, as you can directly see the effect of each battle taking place, and it’s not just a hack-and-slash affair.
These minions require wages, of course, so more bandits need to be hunted down, or letters carried to Lords in distant castles, or caravans escorted. Like you, these Lords and bandits and caravans are actual figures moving about the map – the Lords are characters just like you, with their own armies, all over the world. This is important, because not only are they like you, but you can become like them and take over a village or castle, and you can be a Lord.
Perhaps as a result of the transitory nature of the Lords, villagers and the like, I found the characters I interacted with rather flat. Each Lord, Lady, or Village Elder seems basically the same as the last. Any Lord who asks you to perform a task for them seems like any other Lord who asks you to perform a similar task, and they all seem to have pretty similar motivations to each other – even when some of them are called Counts, some of them Emirs and some of them Kings. In some ways this is not surprising, as there are a great many of them, but it does make me feel like I’m living in a world full of third-rate actors. Despite them going about their own business, visiting towns, raiding bandits and fighting wars, they don’t seem to have any purpose or motivation about them.
Consequently, I don’t feel any motivation to help or hinder any of them – they might as well be pin-up notes on a tavern message board asking me to do things. To rectify this, I might create several lists of personality traits to randomly assign in combinations to different people about the world, such as aggressive, generous, unhelpful, scared of travelling, can’t talk properly, only talks through the medium of a designated chamberlain, etc. Not all of these even have to have any effect upon their actions in the game, merely change how the player perceives and interacts with them.
If you’ve made it this far, you may have taken a look at some of the screenshots and can tell for yourself that the graphics in Mount&Blade: Warband aren’t the prettiest out there. In fact, they’re probably the worst attribute of Warband for a game that came out in 2010, although for an indie game they’re pretty good. If you really want a game that will make you look at the horizon in awe (before you notice the horde of enemies that is on it), this one is probably not for you.
With the minor scathing out of the way, if this doesn’t scare you off at the formative stages, the lack of pixelcrack really is not as much as problem as some might have you believe. Whilst they’re not spectacular, they are also not blocky, pixelated or in any other way distracting or a hindrance when trying to target a specific foe. They’re also not just plain ugly, so you never find yourself looking at a character’s face and thinking that it doesn’t really resemble a human. Additionally, the fact that they are not highly intensive on a graphics card means that fighting in a massive battle doesn’t cause stuttering or FPS issues, and plays perfectly smoothly.
The two dimensional artwork is also quite appealing where present, such as on health bars and for city/village screens.
I think the most damning comment about the audio in Mount&Blade: Warband is that I didn’t really notice it. There are no voice-overs, and the music didn’t grab me, but nor was it noticeably bad or jarring. The sound effects when hitting people seemed perfectly fine, however, which is probably the main thing.
In terms of appearance, the UI does quite well in being unobtrusive and handy for various bits of information that I wanted to know at a glance. The controls have a steep learning curve, however, and I have yet to manage my horse properly in combat. I think it’s mainly a matter of practice, but it’s certainly not intuitive.
As an illustration of this, controlling the direction/nature of your attack (e.g. overhead swing or a thrust) or block is done by moving the mouse slightly whilst attacking. Naturally, a first-person perspective makes aiming whilst doing this much easier. On horseback, the keyboard controls the direction and speed of your mount, allowing you to simultaneously control both mount and weaponry. Directing a horse is easier in third-person, however, due to being able to see more clearly where your horse is. Until this movement is mastered, there is an awkward phase created where neither perspective feels comfortable when in combat. On top of that, weapon swings don’t land immediately, making timing and aiming that much more important when performing attacks on the move.
For all of the awkwardness present, it does allow very precise control over movement and combat, and I have yet to scream at the game that my character did something I didn’t mean to do. There’s also a certain satisfaction to knowing that I wreaked havoc, and not merely my game’s auto-aim.
As you may have guessed by now, Mount&Blade: Warband is an incredibly open game. After starting off as a nobody, you and your army can go in a great many directions and there is an awful lot open to you. As you may have guessed, this is quite daunting, and there’s not much direction. If you like tracks to follow, or even just a quest marker here or there, Warband will feel a lot like going for a relaxing swim at the local pool and finding yourself with scuba gear on a boat off the barrier reef. Oh, and you need to put that gear on quickly, as you’re diving in 5 minutes, ready or not.
This game is overwhelming, but if you persevere and it manages to grab you, you will reveal an extremely well made sand box game.