Review: Mount & Blade (PC)

Mount & Blade
Developer: TaleWorlds
Publisher: Paradox Entertainment
Genre: Fantasy RPG
Release Date: 09/16/2008

If someone did the math, I think I’d come across as the reviewer with the lowest average score at Diehard GameFAN. I don’t know why; I’ve only handled one unequivocal stinker (though that’s the worst game this site has ever seen), and though a few other games have scored poorly, I wouldn’t say that I’m some fire breathing demon that gets off on hammering games. There are times when giving games a low review score sucks. I can see the efforts within, can understand the plight of a small developer going into a crowded market that eats it’s young, or just enjoy a game that I know won’t appeal to the masses.

Enter Mount & Blade.

I know this game is going to score poorly: there’re too many bugs, too many control issues, the graphics are bad, and there’re too many coding issues dealing with ATI cards for me to give this game a score of even Mediocre. And yet, my heart aches. You see, I enjoy playing the game, even if I can’t imagine one other person I know that would. The development team, Turkish developer TaleWorlds, is so tiny that I’ve heard it described as, “basically three guys in their garage”;.” The fact that a team that has no support staff (All support is via the community, as if it was open source) and barely any QA staff managed to get a game out that’s this coherent is an accomplishment in itself.

Still, if you want to play with the big boys, you have to learn to take your shots along the way, and this game has enough legitimate problems to take shots that would floor a moose.

Mount & Blade starts out like most other role playing games. You’re asked to create a character, generate a face for said character (similar to what you’ve seen in Oblivion), and provide a background for the character, which plays like a game of Mad Libs, sounding something similar to, “You are the son of a __________________, and as you grew up, you took on duties as a _____________________, but as life wore on, you became a ______________________, and threw that away because of _________________________! Congrats, you’re now an adventurer!”. It sounds corny, but it doesn’t have to win a Pulitzer. The purpose of all of this is to develop your character’s starting statistics and skill points, to which you can add more. There are three sets of statistics; there’s your character’s base stats, which take into account strength, intelligence and the like, skill points, which are loosely related to their relevant base stats, and weapon proficiency, which typically determines weapon damage along with strength. The stats are actually well balanced, and gaining stats is balanced in itself; you can’t get too high in skills if the relevant base stats isn’t high enough, meaning that you can’t have more than 3 Leadership points if you have fewer than 10 CHA (charm) points. This is one of the best made parts of the game.

After the game starts in earnest, it drops you right by a training ground. At this point, you’re able to practice your weapon skills, your horse riding, or your archery. Weapon fighting is simple, yet effective; hold the left mouse button to build some power, release to swing, defence with the right button, and depending on your use of a shield or just the weapon, you might need to time your defence to make sure you parry the shot. Depending on which way you have the mouse pointing, you swing your weapon differently (example, if you look up, you do an overhead strike). Weapon fighting on foot is simple, yet very effective, even if it’s relatively easy, even with the difficulty put up a bit, to win one-on-one fights.

Fighting from a horse is another matter altogether. You can ride with the WASD keys, where W makes you speed up, S makes you slow down, stop or reverse, and A and D turn left or right. While doing this, you can use the mouse to look around you, as this is separate from the horse’s movement. This is actually pretty nice, until it comes time to actually hitting something with your weapon. Depending on what way you’re looking, again, you do a different swing; look to the right to swing with a forehand strike (Your character is always right handed), to the left for a backhand, or straight to stab, though the last part is basically done whenever the game feels like it. What’s hard about this is that there’s no really appreciable way to draw distance; you essentially have to guess your timing right, and make sure you swing at the right point while passing by. That’s very hard to do in a pitched battle, and by the time you figure it out, you could be in a heap of trouble. Furthermore, it’s very hard to see exactly which way you’re actually going to swing; I can’t remember the amount of times I got ready to swing, only to go, “No, no, no backhand! Forehand! Swing from the right! Dammit!”. Trying to explicitly line this up is a cause for headache, especially when there’s bodies flying around you. You can call it realistic want, but I say this is 2008, and it would have been really, really nice to be able to map specific sword/spear motions to other buttons on the mouse. I use a Logitech G5, I have the buttons to map, so I should be able to use one for forehands, one for backhands, and maybe the left mouse button for stabs.

Then there’s archery, or as I like to call it, “You missed again.” When you have a crossbow or arrow equipped, you’re able to draw back, and move the cursor around to aim. As you do this, the circle closes, shrinking your available accuracy range, so the smaller the circle, the better the shot, and once you adjust for distance (the arrow starts going down almost immediately after release), you can release. This all sounds good in theory, but the controls weren’t really thought out well. For one, it’s not like a first person shooter; too often, the cursor has nothing to do with where your mouse actually is, so getting a really good bead on someone is very hard at times. Furthermore, there’re absolutely NO tips to help you aim outside of the aiming circle, so hitting more difficult shots is exceptionally hard. It’s doable, but takes a ton of practice to get it to the point where you can become consistent with it. Finally, you’re able to do this from horseback, but the circle, if you’re shooting to the side, has a habit of disappearing off screen during the process of aiming. I often had to turn my horse directly towards what I was aiming at to get it back, which kinda defeats the purpose of hit-and-run tactics when you’re riding straight at what you’d prefer to pass. The control scheme in this game really needed to cook, and I still, after MANY hours of playtime, only really feel comfortable fighting on foot.

After you’re done training and gaining experience, you can go to one of the areas in this game. The kingdom is broken up into multiple parts, with different factions fighting for control. They all have their own history, but all you really need to know is which one you’re having to do jobs for at a particular time. You can go to large castles, small castles (usually resting points for armies), and small little villages, usually of poor wealth. While there, you can either do jobs for the citizens, introduce yourself to the lords, or gather volunteers for your army. In the villages, you can gain volunteers of low rank to start for no fee, or you can buy mercenaries of high skill, and high wages, in the big towns to build your little mercenary army. In the big towns, you can also recruit NPCs that almost serve like ranking officers, though they’ll often be the first ones to get wounded in battle unless they’re strong enough to take a hit. Some serve different jobs, you can have people that act as trackers of footprints, and ironically, some get along better than others. For example, my first recruit was a swordsman who talked about discipline of the men a lot; he was a good fighter. Then, later, I happened to pick up some chick who just wanted to get away from an arranged marriage; terrible fighter, but she had some potential. Eventually, they ended up coming to me with their problems, and their problems were… each other! She didn’t like his inhumane treatment of his men, he didn’t like her interfering with his unit discipline. That’s a nice little touch, to be honest, though I haven’t seen it interfere with gameplay much; as long as you don’t keep getting captured, you’ll keep your people.

Unfortunately, early in the game, you will get captured. Frequently. The problem isn’t the random armies in the game, it’s the raiders and other hooligans you find running around the map. Oft-times, you will be attacked by small, roving bands of thugs. This doesn’t sound bad, until you realize that starting out, your army is going to be either small and under-ranked, or non-existent, and these raiding parties can get as big as 20-deep. One-on-twenty are never good odds, and this game is no different. In these battles, you have two choices: fight or surrender. Missing in any of this is the option to “run like hell.” I start with a decent horse, can’t I fashion an attempt? I can, by running off map and confirming, but then, you go right back to battle preparations, which is where you started. There is no way to escape a battle: you either win, or you’re captured. Let me stress this: when getting captured is sometimes the better of your two choices, we call that a bad design decision.

And since the enemy moves as fast as you on the map, it’s easy to be caught and stuck in battles you don’t want any part of, meaning you are going to get captured often at the beginning part of the game whether you like it or not. This is a double-whammy, as when this happens, you lose all of your money, a couple days and a few key items, not to mention that over the course of battling the brigands, any soldiers you have are likely to get killed. I spent an awful lot of time at the beginning of my game trying to get some traction so I could get a decent army going, and it got to the point where, with a review needing to be done and me having a freaking life, I decided to hell with integrity, break out the cheats! This is one of the few games I can actually legitimately recommend cheats for (they’re easy; Ctrl-X is all you need), if only so you can get some money to buy a few decent soldiers.

Winning battles, against raiders or actual armies, nets you weapons and armour that you can either use or sell, making raiding trips the best way to raise capital early in the game. You can also take in hostages, which you can either release, or sell to slave traders for a profit. There’s no morality penalty, so don’t feel one ounce of shame for slave trading. You can battle armies by yourself, if you’re daft, or you can sell yourself on a contract to a local force. This is a great way to eventually get your own fief if you do well enough, but it exposes some problems, because this is where you’re going to enter large battles. Let’s say you enter a battle with your battalion, which is added onto your allies, and the numbers are 400-350, in your favour. You win, killing 70 enemies, and taking 30 casualties on your side. It’s time for another round of battle, where all of a sudden, the numbers are… 391-335? This is something I can only call a bug; it’s not like reinforcements joined in after that round of fighting, so why the numbers are so skewed, I do not know. Furthermore, if you’re knocked out of a big battle, you can actually come back for another round (though at severely reduced health), which somewhat eliminates the urgency to stay healthy. Don’t get me wrong; battles are fun, especially when you’re in a large one, though if the tides turns against you, it’s hard to move around because you have 20 people trying to hack you to pieces, and all you can do is back up while swinging your weapon to take as many of them out as you can. I do have to say, however, that archery is virtually useless. I had problems doing serious damage with arrows or bolts , as even headshots don’t take much damage! Loading bolts into the crossbow takes so long that by the time you have it loaded, which you have to stop to do as apparently, you can’t ride/walk and load at the same time, as if you were chewing gum, you’re picking metal out of your torso.

You can also do random errands for local lords and villages, whether it’s training villagers, rounding up cattle, sending messages, or even defending the honour of a lord’s wife, there’s always something to do should you want it. However, some of the quests are obscenely lengthy due to the geography of the nation; I’ve had more than one quest that’s sent me across the entire bloody continent to complete the quest, just to come all the way back, at which time I could be attacked by any number of raiders for unavoidable combat, and there’s no way to check the location of where you’re going before taking the quest. Since going back and saying you can’t do it gives you a relationship penalty with the lord or village in question, that’s not a good thing. Also, I have one quest in my game where I’ve had to defend the honour of a particular lady. I did it, no problem, but now, I am being told that I have to go back to claim my prize. One problem: no one tells me where. The rest of the quests say, explicitly, that I have to go back to X town, or Y lord, to claim a prize, but for this one, since she’s not linked in any of the lord pages, doesn’t show up as a separate character, and the quest page doesn’t give specifics as to where she is, I am essentially riding around like an idiot looking for this woman. This aspect of the game is similar to some others I’ve seen, in that a little more time in development would have been great, though there’s consistently updates made to the core game itself, and some of them are quite large. It’s possible this could be an effectively different game in a month or so, because some past updates changed the rules entirely.

All said, M+B has a tonne of gameplay; there’s a LOT to do, and from what I’ve seen, all the time in the world to do it. The game is as deep as the player wants to make it, for better or worse, and for me, that’s great. If some of the controls were a little more intuitive, and the playability of the game as a whole streamlined, it would be something I could recommend for a lot more people. However, there’s some significant problems that have to be addressed: the BUGS.

I type the following section understanding that the developers are a very small team, and obviously can miss things. That’s OK, I understand. However this game should have been reviewed weeks ago, by another reviewer. The reason it wasn’t is because they couldn’t get the game to actually do anything, as it constantly crashed. That person couldn’t do anything with it, so I had to take the review last minute, after a couple weeks had passed. I could write that off as something obscure, possibly having to do with this person’s own PC if it wasn’t for my own experiences, the most significant of which are the way the game rendered graphics on my graphics card. I use an ATI Radeon HD 4870 graphics card in my system; absolute top of the current crop of cards. So I was a bit surprised to find this occurring. See the red outfits (hint; they’re supposed to be brown)? See the polygonal tearing in the ground (that’s not a lake)? See the mountains in the back? Now take all of that, and imagine things like the ground looking like a mirrored sky, landscapes randomly disappearing and reappearing, and other glitches. That’s horribly sloppy code, and what is telling to me is that I didn’t get this issue on my old PC, which runs an nVidia GeForce 6200. It seems like the developers built entirely around nVidia cards, and it’s possible they don’t even have ATI cards to test with, considering the size of the company; that’s understandable, but creates very sloppy results. I was personally able to solve my problem by rendering in DirectX7 instead of DirectX9, but that cut the graphical quality of the game down a bit.

Cutting down the graphics of this game is a problem because coming out of the chute, with optimized settings, the game is not pretty. Some of the landscapes look good, and still photographs of the scenery look OK, but then you see characters move, and see the blocky polygons, and the clipping issues, and realize just what you’re looking at. There’s also not much sound to talk about; there’s a moving, Braveheart-like theme that plays while you battle, but that’s about it. There’s a few voice overs, usually when you’re running into raiders, and they’re so bad they’re funny. “I’m going to drink from your skull!” made me laugh out loud for minutes on end. All said, M+B is not aesthetically pleasing.

Overall, it hurts to slag the game like I have, because while all of this happened, I actually enjoy playing Mount & Blade; I was able to look past the game’s very obvious and damaging flaws and enjoy myself, and judging from player reviews and the community of the game itself, it seems like I’m not the only one that believes that, as the game has a small, yet very dedicated core of players. However, I’m this game’s target niche; people that like to play combat oriented games in a medieval fantasy setting, and like open-ended, western RPGs. I can’t really say definitively that I know anyone else that would like the game, but thankfully, there’s a try-and-buy demo version that lets you play up to getting your character to level 8; anyone that’s hedging on picking up this highly affordable ($20) game is encouraged to try it out to see if it’s their cup of tea, and also to see how their system handles it. Thankfully, due to the low end graphics and ability to render everything in DX7, the system requirements for this game are comparatively low when put alongside other games in this genre; it’s not a GPU killer like Oblivion.

The Scores:
Story/Modes: Bad
Graphics: Bad
Sound: Poor
Control and Gameplay: Poor
Replayability: Good
Balance: Bad
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Poor
Miscellaneous: Pretty Poor
FINAL SCORE: BELOW AVERAGE GAME


Short Attention Span Summary

As I stated in the beginning of this review, this score hurts to give, and though it scored poorly, I enjoyed it, and will continue to enjoy it after I’m done with this. However, I’m also likely the exception; I cannot look past awkward controls and crushing bugs to recommend this game to other people that I know.

My recommendation is to try the demo. It’s only 480MB – not even big enough to fill a CD-ROM – and that lets you decide for yourself if the game is worth it or not, and if you buy it, you can continue your current game with no issues. Failing that, I find it hard to recommend Mount & Blade to anyone but the most devoted fantasy RPG fans.

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