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.