The first question to answer with this review is if reviewing this game will actually mean anything. Mount & Blade was technically ‘released’ on the 16th of this month, but I’ve been playing it on a daily basis since last December, and I’m a relative newcomer. Mount & Blade has been “out” for years.
The fact that this game has been essentially in paid beta since 2005 is not the only odd aspect of its development. The developers themselves have taken the criticism and suggestions of an extremely active community from each incremental upgrade for three years, and through that entire time they’ve made their source code available so that the more motivated among the community could make modifications – making Mount & Blade, I think, the first game to get modded before it got released. Many of the features and systems suggested by a forum post or implemented in a mod later ended up in the game. Mount & Blade has thus grown like a voracious weed in all directions completely absent the strict vision control of a commercial product, and what began as a relatively limited horse-mounted combat game is now an ambitious simulation of nearly every aspect of medieval commerce, warfare, diplomacy and politics. “Ambitious” is the key word here. Though the developers have stopped working on the game and have even had the audacity to call the latest version of the beta “1.0,” Mount & Blade is still a half-game masquerading as a full one.
A foot in the stirrup
The core of the game and the part that eats up the most time is the third-person battles between rival hosts of warriors. The player can only create and control a single character, though he can hire dozens of NPC companions and build up a large army, so although the battles do involve some level of tactics, most of the time the player will be concerned with lining up his crossbow shots or impaling an opponent on the end of his lance. Tactical commands in battle are limited to ordering troops to advance, follow, or stand ground, and the AI is competent enough that on lower difficulty levels that’s really all the direction they require. Not that it matters too much, since ordering thirty knights to charge an enemy line and watching them gallop, clank and yell their way into the fray is spectacle enough to satisfy.
It’s more than just swinging a sword, though. Not all battles take place on the same terrain. Sometimes a battle occurs on a flat plain with sparse trees, other times the trees are thick and broad rivers slice their way across the map, and on still others giant mountains and cliffs force combat to take place in narrow valleys and ravines that can give infantry a much-needed edge. Height lets archers send their arrows further and slows down climbing infantry and cavalry, which can take the punch out of any assault. Trees break up large formations of troops and render archers impotent.
The types of troops fighting and their equipment are easily as important as the terrain. There are hundreds of weapons, shields, and suits of armor, and the five distinct factions in the game each have their own signature armor and weaponry. One faction is purely light cavalry, another is purely heavy infantry, and others are more mixed. Some also rely on specific weapons – the curved short bow is the weapon of choice of the light cavalry faction, and the heavy axe and javelin are favored by the heavy infantry group. Troops recruited from different villages retain the style and weapons of the faction where they originated, so it’s possible to be as purebred or mixed as you like with your force composition, and the opportunity to recruit new troops from the prisoners you take after battle means that as the game progresses armies become more and more motley. Troops also undergo development on their own, and gain levels and equipment much like the player’s character. This becomes critical in the later stages of the game, when having a full complement of fully-upgraded units allows a player’s army to roll up much larger enemy armies. It also means that losing even a small amount of these elite units can undo hours of game-time.
There are hundreds of pieces of armor and weapons that can be scavenged from dead troops and sold or used by the player, and each one has special stats that dictate its reach, damage, and speed. Players can only carry four weapons and shields with them at any time, so the selection of the right tool can make a huge difference. Lances are only effective from horseback, for instance, or from the ground against other horses. Swords and axes are good infantry weapons, and bows make sieges easier but without a backup weapon leave archers defenseless.
Sieges are also possible, and every castle in the game is unique, but the tactics required to take one change very little: either siege towers or ladders. This is the first major problem the ‘finished’ version of the game suffers from. Sieges are so frustrating it’s almost worth it to skip them and let the computer auto-resolve the combat. Regardless of the style of assault, it boils down to a mass of ghost-walking soldiers bottlenecking into a tiny break in the battlements and getting slaughtered by enemy soldiers plugging the other side with their spear points. It wouldn’t be so bad if the AI, which works fine in the open, didn’t turn retarded when confronted with a confined space. Of course, the ability to break down walls with catapults or knock down gates or even set multiple siege towers or ladders up against the walls would mitigate all the problems and make sieges a worthy part of the game. As it stands, they’re terrible.
The battles are by far the most detail-rich and “finished” part of the game, with the glaring exception of sieges. Everything works spectacularly, and it’s very much worth it to play every single one all the way from start to finish. The interplay between mounted and dismounted soldiers, archers, knights, and the wide array of possible troops and equipment means that Mount & Blade has some of the coolest, most engrossing combat of any RPG ever.
A view of the world
The other part of the game is basically “everything else” other than the battles. This includes the fief system, the economy, tournaments, the vassal-lord system, quests, the factions, and a billion other things. This is where the most gaping holes in the design are, and it’s where this “released” game feels a lot like the beta it just was last month.
Mount & Blade has a rudimentary vassalage system that allows the player to gain honor and renown and pledge himself to a lord, an act that grants the player a fief (town and surrounding lands) in exchange for the player providing his lord with military power when his lord goes on campaign. The basics are there – you can receive and manage a small town and collect tax revenues from it, the quest system (which is made of up of simple chores and grows old very quickly) allows the player to gain reputation with various lords as well as experience and cash, and there are the outlines of faction governance: players can be elected marshal and command all the troops of their lord, dividing conquests and handing out rewards.
Fief management is absolutely bare-bones, and building a new school or a windmill doesn’t actually change the way your village looks, it just grants abstract bonuses. Castles, when captured, are entirely static and cannot be improved, demolished, or rebuilt. Being able to add murder holes, boiling oil, and spikes or to thicken the walls would make castles an interesting mini-game, but in 1.0 it’s a minor distraction.
The only intrigue in the game is that you can take up the cause of a pretender to the throne of one of the five factions in the game and command the armies of the rebellion to depose the old leader and instate your man on the throne. This is more or less the only option for players wishing to start their own faction. If you try to break away on your own, you just get attacked by everyone until you lose all of your holdings and become an outcast.
Almost all of the locations in the game are made from the same generic cloth. Taverns, weapon dealers, the halls of lords, dungeons, and trader's barns vary only in architecture between the factions. The dialogue, characters present, and even the things which can be accomplished there are all the same regardless of the particular faction. Towns are filled with aimless NPCs walking in all directions in a strange approximation of “daily life.”
The problem with this part of the game isn’t the things that are already there; it’s the things that are missing. It’s a tall order to ask two people to produce a game as complex and involved as Mount & Blade aspires to be in one lifetime, but the point at which they’ve arbitrarily chosen to chop off development and call it “done” leaves many of these grand designs little more than scaffolding and piles of bricks.
This isn’t as important as the other parts of the game we’ve already discussed, but the graphics, animations and sound in Mount & Blade are frozen firmly in 2005. Things used to be a lot worse, but 1.0 reworks a bunch of interface screens and adds new, more convincing animations that make battles less awkward to watch. Still, don’t pick up the game expecting modern graphics, or even anything close to it.
The really frustrating thing about Mount & Blade is that it is doing things no other games have ever even attempted. I can't think of another game with the robust, incredibly smooth and fun combat system like this one, and I can't think of another game that even endeavors to be as complete a simulation of medieval life as this one. I'll be playing Mount & Blade for a long time after this release, just as I've played it a long time before it, because despite all of it's flaws it's still highly addictive and loads of fun in the right areas.
However, half-done, with poor graphics and large parts of its comprehensive simulation in tatters or just not there, Mount & Blade isn’t worth the $40 TaleWorlds is charging. If you already bought the game when it was in beta – I bought it for $18, for instance – then you’re entitled to version 1.0 for free in thanks for your support of the game. If that’s the case, then this game has already pulled you in and it’s definitely worth what you paid for it. Enjoy it.
For the rest of you, it’s a serious balancing act. The promise of modders stepping in and working their magic on this game has already partially been realized: even before the game was finished they were making amazing things. That may help justify paying full price for a game that got pulled out of the oven about a year too early.