Ardwulf’s Game of the Year 2010: Mount & Blade: Warband

SynCaine has a post up today gushing about Mount & Blade: Warband, even going so far as to (half-jokingly) state that he’d be covering M&B:W instead of MMOs from here on out. And so that brings me to my pick for Game of the Year for 2010.

It happens that Mount & Blade: Warband is a title worth gushing over, especially to an MMO audience. Both I and the readers of Ardwulf’s Lair are in that audience, and it’s won me over for that reason. The sandbox features that some of us want, and which attracted us to MMOs in the first place, seem largely absent from the recent MMO offerings as well as those currently on the horizon, and it’s left to non-MMO indie titles like M&B:W, which were developed on a shoestring, to push the boundaries of the sandbox forward.

Mount & Blade: Warband is a significant extension of 2008′s Mount & Blade; it adds a multiplayer mode, enhances the game’s graphics significantly, and makes a lot of iterative improvements to various elements of gameplay. It, like the original, is set in a world of squabbling kingdoms (Warband adds a couple of new ones,) fantasy only in the sense that it’s not a historical millieu; there’s no magic in the game out of the box. At the start of the game you’re a fighter of no fixed abode, set to make your way in the world, which you can do by recruiting warriors to your cause and setting them upon various enemies. You can also dabble in trading, deal with the local nobility, root out bandits, terrorize villages, rustle cattle, hire yourself out to various nobles for missions of varying length and difficulty, build manors and establish fiefs, marry into noble families… it’s one of the best and broadest sandboxes I’ve seen in the true sense: Here is a world. Here are its rules. Have at it.

The M&B:W sandbox is its most notable feature, but probably at least as important is that the combat is both skill-based and actually fun in its own right. SynCaine understandably compares it to Darkfall’s combat, but I thought DF’s clumsy control scheme and awkward switching of perspectives made up one of that game’s significant flaws, although I’m guessing that dedicated players got used to them. M&B:W combat feels of a piece, unified and with its own internal logic applied to both the elegant controls and the results.

You can fight mounted or afoot, at range or up close, and the full array of medieval weaponry is available to you, from crossbows and javelins to flails and war axes (which play like historical two-handed war axes do, and not like gaming’s traditional “Dwarven Lumberjack” axe.) The mounted combat is the best I’ve ever seen, and manages to be realistic (horses do not stop or turn on a dime, or suddenly set out at full speed with no acceleration) but not frustrating. And it’s challenging – stuff from horseback, particularly archery, especially so, but rewarding when you master it, because a skilled guy in heavy armor with a lance is a titan astride the battlefield. As somebody who occasionally puts on armor, picks up a sword and participates in full-speed re-enactment combat, M&B:W feels right to me.

I will say that M&B:W’s multiplayer mode, one of the most notable enhancements Warband made to the original Mount & Blade, is not all it could be out of the box, being essentially just a big arena with pregens. There are mods that address this, notably C-RPG, which adds persistent characters to the mix, but you’re still not getting a multiplayer version of the full M&B experience.

Graphically, M&B:W looks good but not phenomenal. It represents a significant improvement over its predecessor, however, and for my money it looks just as good as Oblivion (from what little I’ve played of it.) The menus and text screens could be more sharply designed, but the world look works, so I think it’s a minor quibble. Controls range from functional to brilliant (in the combat controls specifically.)

The M&B:W mod community is also noteworthy; it’s one of those games that modders have really taken a shine to, and you can apply all sorts of customization to your experience, from enhancements to diplomacy or character development and the addition of late-period arms and armors to the game, to total conversions for various historical periods including Anglo-Saxon England, Byzantine Eastern Europe, the War of the Roses, Roman Empire, the inevitable Zombie Apocalypse, various fantasy packages… even the Russo-Finnish “Winter War” of World War II.

Now I’m gushing, too. But like I say, Mount & Blade: Warband is worth gushing about, and one of the finest RPG/sandbox experiences around. The possibilities in each game are probably not literally limitless, but they are so great as to be uncountable, and that’s just with the Native (mod-free) version of the game.

The runner up for Game of the Year is Mass Effect 2, which as far as I’m concerned perfected the cinematic gaming experience. I waffled back and forth on this, but good as it is (I enjoyed it tremendously, and ME3 is my most-anticipated title of 2011,) Mount & Blade: Warband edges it out on the basis of sheer replayability. I personally could see playing through ME2 a couple more times. M&B:W I will put hundreds of hours into over the coming year, and still won’t exhaust its possibilities.

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.

Mount & Blade: Warband Key Snafu Causes Rage, Tears

Those folks who bought Mount & Blade: Warband on sale from Steam over the last day or so, and who expected to be able to be playing it now are disappointed, as it turns out. Including myself.

M&B:W is one of the few titles sold through Steam that requires you to enter a CD key to activate it; normally, you buy something, install it and it just works. In this case, alas, Steam is sending out a 5×5 key for a game that’s asking for a 4×4 key. It may be that they’ve run out of valid keys, or it may be just some kind of goofy problem.

I am, of course, one of those affected. While Steam customer support isn’t really what I’d call agile on… well, any issue, really, I do expect that things will work out and that stuff will be fixed at some point on Monday.

As you’d expect, people are overreacting HERE and HERE. Some are blaming steam, others Taleworlds. Some are ragequitting, which I think is hilarious given that they bought the thing on Sunday of a holiday weekend, and are furious because it wasn’t fixed in a matter of minutes. Mind, I too am annoyed by the situation. But flipping out doesn’t really help.

Who’s to blame? On the one hand, you’d think that Steam would be prepared when they made ready to put the game on sale. On the other, why does Taleworlds even need an extra DRM step, beyond that DRM which Steam provides to any game?

Doorbuster Pickups

I’m not much for dedicating blog posts to random holiday well-wishes. But I figure random holiday sales might be worth a mention.

In what should be the first wave of late-year specials on Steam, I’ve picked up the following:

  • Counter-Strike: Source, on which I am very late to the party. I’ve pretty much been waiting for it to go on sale. Paid $5.00.
  • Supreme Commander 2, which as far as I’m concerned right now is the last traditional RTS I will ever need to buy. Paid $3.75.
  • Mount & Blade: Warband. I’d been holding off on playing the original more or less because I’d known Warband was coming. I look forward to spending more time with this in December. Paid $7.50 – the combo with the original is only $10, but I already had it. Besides, Warband is more or less the only one you need of the two.

The other things I am specifcally looking out for a deep sale price on are Mass Effect 2 and the Dragon Age Ultimate pack. Looks like those won’t get hit in this bunch of sales, but doubtless we’ll be seeing Steam specials all month. (Yes, I know the DA package is on sale on Impulse – I prefer to stick with a single content delivery service/client, and Steam is it.) I was tempted by CoD4, but the price wasn’t good enough to get me to pull the trigger. At this point I’m almost glad this batch of sales is ending – my wallet could use the break.

For those still shopping, M&B: Warband is still on sale until 1 PM tomorrow (EST.) And the Orange Box is up for $7.50, so if you’re one of the two lunatics that doesn’t have it yet for some unfathomable reason, now’s the time.