Impressions: Mount & Blade: Warband

A long time ago I said I’d write up my impressions of Mount & Blade. But I’d been a bit late to that particular party and Warband was already on the horizon, so I never did anything other than dabble. Yesterday, with Warband installed (and working,) I did more than dabble.

Mount & Blade: Warband is billed as a standalone expansion to the original, but it’s really not. Nor is it a sequel; rather, it is an improved iteration of the original game, with better graphics, bugs quashed and a much-desired multiplayer mode added. At this point there’s really no reason to invest in the original anymore.

The game is an overland sandbox set in a fictional world with six squabbling kingdoms and no obvious fantasy elements. You take the role of an itinerant adventurer of some sort, with the ability to recruit followers and secure lands… among many other things. You can also take jobs (quests) from various NPCs or accept mercenary contracts, strongarm peasants into giving you money and supplies, become a pit fighter or compete in a tournament, rustle cattle, stamp out bandits, raid towns, romance the daughters of powerful lords, and more. I admittedly haven’t gotten to some of this stuff yet, but in two or so hours of playing I did get to quite a few of them. Eventually you can establish your own fief and besiege the holdings of others.

You can move around and encounter stuff on the overland map, and zoom into a third-person, over-the-shoulder view (with an optional first-person mode,) when you’re tooling around a town or castle or in combat. Even in third person, though, Warband plays like an FPS.

It’s the combat that is the game’s most remarkable feature. I’ve seen medieval combat attempted in FPSes before (notably in the Source mod Age of Chivalry,) but never this well. It’s tricky to get used to the controls, and doing stuff while mounted is even harder, Everything is directional, which you manage by flicking the mouse in one direction or another as you click to block, swing or whatever. It’s hard to master, but it’s also fun, unlike the roughly analagous tact8ical battles in the Total War series.

There’s a bland tutorial which is one of the few things that I think was better in the original Mount & Blade. Character creation is pretty customizable, on a level with many MMOs, and the characters produced tend to look appropriately medieval rather than heroic. After that, you’re dropped into a stock situation in one of a number of preset starting locations involving an attacking bandit and a fellow who’ll give you a starting mission; after that short chain, you’re pretty much on your own.

The missions are pretty predictable and look to have been generated procedurally, which I can believe given the game’s incredibly small hard drive footprint (about 800 MB.) Thus far I’ve run messages for a king to one of his nobles, tracked down and killed a murderer, rousted out some bandits and cleaned out their hideout, and collected taxes for another local lordling, from peasants who eventually got angry and decided they had to fight back. I’ve also amassed a 40-strong warband, ridden into a neighboring kingdom to do a little cattle rustling and extortion, and fought in a few arena melees. Right at the end of my playtime I took service as a mercenary captain with another noble. Maybe I’ll be called upon to fight in the ongoing war, but meanwhile I plan to roam around that neighboring kingdom raiding caravans and harassing local merchants.

Graphically, the game looks okay but can best be described as “nothing special.” Warband definitely looks better than its predecessor, but I don’t think anyone is playing it due to its stunning visuals. But the gameplay I’ve seen so far is both fun and compelling. All in all, Mount & Blade: Warband is keeping me interested, and it certainly has a lot of potential. I’m looking forward to playing more of it during the upcoming holiday break.

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