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Mount & Blade

Platform(s): PC
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: TaleWorlds Entertainment

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PC Review - 'Mount & Blade'

by Richard Poskozim on May 23, 2009 @ 8:32 a.m. PDT

Mount & Blade is a single-player, third- or first-person action/role-playing game with a focus on medieval combat. The game enables players to roam the map freely in a medieval world that offers options ranging from hunting down bandits, trading for profit in the game's deep economical system and becoming a commander and taking part in the wars ultimately becoming a great lord of the realm.

Genre: Action/RPG
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Taleworlds
Release Date: September 16, 2008

Mount & Blade is a game that wants to be much, much more than it is. All over its packaging and promotions, it proclaims choice, freedom and excitement in a wide-open medieval landscape. It practically strains and froths at the mouth trying to be the next Fallout 3 or Grand Theft Auto and claim its title as king in a newfound realm of medieval sandbox play. Unfortunately, it falls just short of the throne, but it has an interesting and, for some, compelling journey along the way.

You start the game by loading up a menu that looks like parchment paper, and you have the option of starting a new game, loading a game, playing a tutorial or fighting in a quick skirmish. If you make the mistake of clicking on a new game, you'll be answering a few questions to flesh out a cookie-cutter backstory and provide you with starter stats, and then you're suddenly dropped in a field with no idea of what to do, how to control your character, what your objectives might be or what the game is about. It takes the sandbox concept and stretches it to nothing short of parental neglect. You're left to play in your box full of poisonous snakes, fire ants and lurking kidnappers while mommy goes off to flirt with the man on the bench.

It's helpful if you go into the tutorial and learn the basics of movement and combat before you get into things, but it by no means prepares you for the actual experience. In the tutorial, you can get the hang of the standard WASD directional controls, as well as some archery and swordplay experience. Swordplay is the most interesting aspect of M&B's action, although it hinges on very simple controls. Holding your left-click will raise your weapon in one of four attack positions (right, left, overhead and stab), and releasing it carries out the attack. Then you get to use your right-click, which either raises an equipped shield or sets up a parry. The parry motion prepares a defense against whatever stance your enemy is in, so if he's about to attack from the left, you'll defend in that direction. However, if he changes his stance and suddenly stabs you, you're going to get hit.

It's a really cool dynamic, but it's something that doesn't see much use. Once you get into the battles that make up the heart of the game, you're going to find yourself wishing you had more arms than a spider to parry the dozens of soldiers who will swarm as soon as you get into close-range combat. Any melee fighter worth his salt is going to grab a fine shield or just stay on horseback and find a safe place to practice archery.

Horseback riding and combat, M&B's titular actions, are simple, intuitive and fun. Horses move like tanks, going forward with W and turning with A and D. While you're embarking on equine adventures, you can slash to either side of the horse with melee weapons or take potshots with crossbows, bows or throwing weapons (i.e., javelins, knives, rocks). You have control over how your character develops, so he can become better at riding or do more damage and have better aim. Most of the time, you're going to be fighting groups, so you'll constantly be utilizing your horseback skills, gathering momentum to deliver crippling blows to enemies or speeding up to get away from enemies. The damage calculations are very complex and about as realistic as an RPG can get, with headshots usually being fatal and all-out horse charges being crippling or worse. You can also make things a little less or more realistic, depending on your taste, with the difficulty sliders in the options menu, which allow you to increase or decrease damage taken by your character as well as increasing the number of opponents on the battlefield at one time and improving their AI.

The only real problem is getting into combat because there's that messy sandbox thing. Wherever you begin is dangerous. Raiders, bandits and deserters roam the land in packs that are large enough to overwhelm you in a flash. You see the world from a simplified overhead map that can be zoomed in and out to great effect, and the world is paused when you're not moving, so you can look around the map with ease. Unfortunately, until you reach a village and shell out some cash on recruiting troops, you'll find that your party of one isn't much of a match for parties of five, 10 or 256. There's no real instruction or goal from here on out, so you're left to wander and find ways to make money, buy food and figure out what there is to do in the kingdom of Calradia.

What you can do is a whole lot of the same thing. You need money to make money, and even then, there are only a few options. You get money by winning fights against raiders and criminals, or by beating the crap out of strangers in the risk-free arena battles. Even when you get enough money to start raking in the big chips, you can only do that by working as a caravan and hauling expensive goods from one town to sell in another. If you're really good at battle, you can also score big by taking down castles or joining in raids against large groups of enemies. Beyond that, there isn't a set story or set of quests that will bring you fame and fortune. Quest assignments are randomly spread out between village elders and lords, so you can wander the overhead map and talk to strangers in castles and villages in the hopes of improving your relationship with a kingdom. You try to get enough renown to be invited on sieges and fight in the ever-present wars.

All this choice is merely an illusion, though, because it all amounts to the same thing and leads to the same place. Fighting is what M&B is good at, and it's no surprise that there are really no other options than to fight. Every quest action you complete or unique party member you recruit is good for only one thing, and that's battle. All but one of the skills you learn help you out during, before or after a big fight, and the purpose of making money is to hire more troops for the next war. Even the reason to fight is to increase your renown and money so you can increase your party capacity and bring on more troops to fill the newly opened spots. It's a vicious loop.

It might not be so bad if your abilities in battle were clear and detailed either in the game or in an instruction manual, but all of the intricacies of combat have to be found by chance or experimentation. A wiki told me that I could issue commands and formations for troops with the F buttons, and chance let me figure out how to zoom in to perfect headshots. It took until I had nearly hundreds of troops to realize that you can choose which soldiers go into battle first by their placement on the party screen. There are all sorts of tactical actions and modifications you can make, but the game never goes out of its way to tell you how to do anything more than charge into battle and get your troops killed en masse while you slice and dice from horseback.

The RPG elements of M&B are about the only clear things from the outset. The inventory and party management screens are clean and simple, with a few buttons to look at prisoners, upgrade generic units, and manage individual units' equipment and stats. Your own stats are handled through a simple Dungeons and Dragons-like sheet, with four main stats that determine how much you can raise skills and skills that determine how much you can raise individual weapon skills. The skills are split between personal skills, party skills and leader skills, and having teammates can help you increase party skills and improve your loot, prisoner capacity and training. Personal skills are mostly battle skills, and leader skills are things that allow you to become a more capable leader, such as prisoner management. Every bit of information you could need is explained in detail on the character screen

The saving grace of this game is its community. Wikis and forums are the tip of the iceberg, representing only a fraction of the community that has cropped up around this game and made it a lot better than it originally was. There are lots of modders and tweakers and strategizers who have changed the game from a simple, slightly buggy and repetitive mess into a game-by-community experiment. There are screenshots of mods replacing some of the overhead map textures to look more realistic. Something about this game has entranced people, and it's become a better game than the simple wander-and-siege-fest that it was, providing some of that choice it flaunts to those looking for it.

It's not surprising that people are futzing with the statistics and presentation. This game looks and feels like it belongs to another era. It wouldn't feel out of place five years ago, with its blocky and hideous character models and laughably bad and sparse voice acting. The game can show just how ugly a woman can be, and changing equipment completely alters the body model, which can effectively make an ugly woman an ugly man, or vice versa. Blood effects look no better than the spray paint tool in Microsoft Paint. There is no voice-acted dialogue, but there are some hilarious moments at the beginning of raider battles when a gruff voice that sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger shouts, "That's a nice head you have on your shoulders." It never gets old hearing a deranged Austrian/German accent screaming that it will "drink from your skull." The battle sounds are as grating as repetitive, with the most forgivable sound effect being the slashes and bow release, and the worst being the hundreds of identical grunts and shouts from every man on the battle field. Even the victory cry is like barbarians shouting obscenities into your ear.

The written dialogue isn't a whole lot better, since it's so generic that it feels like it came from a cookie cutter. You walk up to a lord, and you have four dialogue options. You can find out where other lords are, ask for a quest, ask to pledge allegiance to them or leave. If you're talking to an enemy captain mid-siege, you get to say, "I leave now," as your parting remark. There is no dynamic conversation system and only a very rare chance to use your persuasion skills to alter the course of the dialogue. Once again, it all goes back to battle. You're finding lords in the field so you can help them fight, or you're taking quests so you'll gain favor and get to go fight with more lords. Again, there are really no options at all. After you've played long enough, you can go off on your own and create your own kingdom, but that just reduces your options from little to none.

Mount & Blade boasts solid battles and the eventual freedom to fight whoever and whenever you want while maintaining a kingdom, and it's a powerful draw. Some people with an inclination toward Civilization-era strategy and a well-honed trigger finger will find a lot of joy in conquering the lands of Calradia. The community surrounding the game proves that, and thanks to them, most people can conquer the otherwise impossible learning curve present at the beginning of the title. It's a concept with a lot of flaws and not much in the way of variety, but an indefinable charm spurs you to continue improving your character and roaming the land.

Score: 7.5/10


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