Mount & Blade Warband
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Genre: Fantasy War/Strategy RPG
Release Date: 3/30/2010
When I reviewed Mount & Blade, I was pretty hard on it. I heavily crtiticized the steep learning curve, ridiculously stacked odds against people starting out, and the bugs that were rampant in the early builds of the game. Despite the fact that I enjoyed the game, I felt that these issues overrode things to the point where I had to give the game my below average rating, on the grounds that these issues would prevent a gamer outside the target demographic – namely, myself and people like me – from getting much out of it.
Feedback was voracious, sustained, and about 90% negative. I was criticized for not taking into account the game’s robust and dedicated modding community (admittedly one of the best I’ve seen, though a more casual gamer wouldn’t stick around to find out). I was criticized for hurting the game on its controls (“It’s supposed to be hard! It’s cavalry combat!”). I was criticized for killing the game on bugs (patches did fix a lot of my issues with the Radeon 4870, though I can’t take that into account after the fact). Mostly though, I had my sexuality and competence questioned. This is fine; if you’re going to write about video games for a living, you have to prepare for the possibility that you’re going to piss off a hornet’s nest every now and then.
Over a year after the release of the first game, TellTale put out their standalone expansion, Mount & Blade: Warband. A combination of fixes for the regular game and additions for the new one were promised to justify the $30 price for series veterans. My challenge therefore is threefold: 1) see if this is a more newbie-friendly game than the original was upon first release, 2) see if veterans should drop $30 on something that at first glance doesn’t change enough from the original to justify the price, and 3) take out a new will in case some of the game’s more dedicated fans decide to extract their own justice.
Thankfully for my family and I, I believe the last step will be unnecessary. Enough of the problems that I had with the first game were fixed the second time around to make this a somewhat more positive review, though anyone who’s opposed to any bugs in their PC games should still be cautious.
There’s really not much story to Mount & Blade in any iteration. You are an outsider to the land who has decided to come to the medieval country of Calradia to seek your fortune. Your backstory is filled out in the form of questions after you choose to start a new game, though the story is ineffectual for the most part; this is to fill out your stats. The one question that does truly matter is your birth; if you’re a noble, you have a much easier time getting along with the lords of the realm, whereas a commoner will have to work harder to get into the “in” crowd. If you choose to be a female commoner, you might as well just call that hard mode. Once your story is filled out and you’ve chosen your starting point, you end up getting attacked by a bandit, after which you get to choose to take on a few small quests, in what amounts to a tutorial.
You can choose to start in one of six areas, all of which are inspired by some historical entity; for example, the Swadians are Medieval England, and the Nords are (obviously) based upon the Vikings. The new addition is the Middle Eastern-based Sarranid Sultanate, but in terms of story, none of this matters; there are no personality differences between any particular group. Each lord within each group has their own personality, be it upstanding, easy-going, debauched or what have you, but these personalities are all copy-pasted to other groups, and each person in the game, regardless of origin, says the same thing depending on the situation and their assigned personality. It would have been a lot nicer to have accents based on origin or different speaking styles, but alas.
The only place to get any kind of applicable personality is in the individual characters that you can recruit to be in your party. Each one has a long backstory which they go at lengths to tell you about when you first meet them, and if you recruit them, in addition to fighting alongside you, they fill you in on things such as information about their hometown. If you do something they don’t like, such as raiding a village, they express disappointment with you. They also have interactions with fellow party members, based on their personalities; for example, Nisar the rogue doesn’t get along with Alayen, who fancies himself a chivalrous gentleman who prefers to protect women. Managing these disagreements is key to keeping your party together, though ultimately, a party with too many characters will suffer in the morale department because personalities WILL clash.
The one addition to Warband is the ability to get married. As a male character, this involves a long and drawn out process of courtship, which involves reading poetry that you’ve learned, getting permission to court a woman from that woman’s father, possibly running afoul of her family, and potentially deciding to either elope or piss off a family if it should come to that. In terms of realism, if you want to call it that, courtship and marrying in Warband is strikingly well done when compared to what the process was like in the Middle Ages. A big deal is made of whether you want to marry for the purpose of love or purely for political profit, though considering the aforementioned issue of carbon-copied personalities, marrying for “love” is pointless. If you’re playing as a female, there’s no bones about it: you’re marrying 100% for political impact, as you’re stuck marrying an established lord.
The story bits in Warband are pretty lacking; a lot more attention needs to go into individual personalities to flesh out the different characters in the game. However, the dynamic nature of the game means that no one game will be the same, and though it becomes easier to read each character’s natural inclinations over time, the circumstances will be different each time. The addition of marriage really helps things, though the game feels very vanilla.
Story Rating: Mediocre
I really killed the graphics of the original Mount & Blade when I reviewed it in 2008, but thankfully, a lot of work’s gone into that area. While not outstanding, the game actually looks like a modern PC game now, with improved animations, much better character models, less clipping and tearing, and a steady 60FPS. The textures are still rather plain, and things like grass and regular scenery still look plain compared to top-end PC games, but I’m impressed at how much better the game looks now than it used to; even the original game, after a hefty amount of patches, looks significantly better than it did when I first reviewed it. I will say one huge positive was the way water looks, specifically streams and rivers; the water physics look outstanding, and though there’s no realistic dripping or rusting or anything like that, it was still gorgeous to look at. This somewhat makes up for the fact that characters all look the same, with the same robotic look on their faces regardless of who they are.
Credit has to be given to the developers for getting the most out of a game that doesn’t require a heavy PC to play. The game looks passable on a powerhouse PC like mine (dual core 2.4GHz with a Radeon 4870 graphics card), but on my ancient Dell system running a GeForce 6200 and 2GB of RAM, the game didn’t depreciate too badly in terms of performance. Granted, running on my 6200 made the game look pretty bad – on DirectX7, it was laughable – but the framerate didn’t appreciably dip, which is what matters most in a game heavily based on timing.
Warband doesn’t look great, but it’s a notable improvement over the poor-looking original game.
Graphics Rating: Decent
This is the only area I can think of off the top of my head where nothing’s changed in two years. All of the sound effects and music are the same, which is good in terms of battle effects – which sound good – but not that good in terms of music or voices. The music is the same Braveheart-style dramatic music that played in the previous game, with more mellow music playing on the world map. The music is acceptable for what it is, but it’s ultiamtely forgettable. Voices – what few there are – are still laughably bad, with bandits saying things like “I’ll have your money, or I’ll have my fun” and “LESS TALKING! MORE HATING!”. It’s laugh-out-loud bad, which is funny, but still bad.
I rated sound as “poor” in my last review, and since nothing’s changed, I think that’s fair this time around, too.
Sound Rating: Poor
Control and Gameplay
There are two modes to any Mount & Blade game: in and out of battle. Most of the time spent playing this game will be out of battle, either on the world map or in towns, though all of the consequential action takes place on the battlefield. When I reviewed the first game, I hammered the learning curve to battling, which centres around either regular, mounted, or ranged combat. This time around, I noticed that it was easier to hit enemies, especially in mounted combat, then it was in the first game. I think some of that is attributed to the fact that I’m much more experienced – I never stopped playing Mount & Blade, even after my review went up – but I also think a lot of that is attributed to the added animations, which make swinging weapons a more accurate affair. It’s also a lot easier now to determine exactly how you swing your weapon; you have to gesture your mouse a certain direction, based on your weapon, to tell your avatar to swing a certain way, and though that’s always been the case, controls are more responsive now then they were before. There’s still a learning curve involved, but the starting tutorial missions make things easier in that regard.
Mounted combat isn’t without its issues, though. It’s too easy, when on a horse, to either swing too low (essentially scraping the side of your horse) or swing in a way you didn’t approve of, especially with stabbing weapons. There’s also a very noticeable lag when using polearms, between when you push the button and when your character stabs. This is realistic, but also makes aiming a real pain in the ass, especially in large scale battles. Ultimately, using a horse is good if you have a long weapon, but if you have a one-handed sword or shorter – really, anything below a 130 reach – forget being able to effectively fight on a horse. I think a little more work needs to go into swing mechanics, but TaleWorlds is almost there, and fighting on a horse is more effective – and therefore, more enjoyable – than in the original game.
Archery still requires a lot of effort to get right. It’s possible to go onto the training grounds to learn how to shoot properly, but it’s still not an effective way to fight unless a significant amount of skill points are put into both draw power (to be able to use better bows) and the archery weapon skill, so the balance is a little out of whack there. Horse archery is the same thing, only requiring more skill to be good at (at least three points to be reasonably effective), though it’s exhilarating to be in a horse bow battle against the nomadic Khergits. One issue I have is when I have to shoot behind me; the cursor either disappears, or becomes totally inaccurate, despite the fact that I know I’m aiming properly, so I either have to draw back with the right mouse button or fire and pray. This is an issue that’s been outstanding for two years now, so I’m less patient than I would be otherwise with it. Still, combat is still as fun as it was before, without a lot of the issues that made it such a pain when the game first came out.
Play outside of battle involves both politicizing and a bit of strategy as the game progresses. When starting out, to gain renown and equipment, you’re effectively going to be a gopher, doing odd tasks for towns and/or lords, but eventually, if managed right, you’re going to either become a marshal (meaning, you’re in charge of killing enemies for your lord) or own fiefs. The good news is that you can collect taxes from your fiefs and manage them, building things like manors, schools and the like to improve statistics and/or interactions. The bad news is that you can’t really do much else other than build some things, or protect your fiefs from being raided. Furthermore, getting people together for attacks is slapdash at best; you have to have someone send a message to others to start a campaign, if you’re able to, and your lords will get there whenever they damn feel like it, if at all. Then, if you give them an order, there’s a chance they’ll either get ADD half-way through (potentially leaving you or other lords in a rough spot), or not even follow your order for some reason. It’s not even like they have a legitimate reason most of the time; sometimes, they’ll tell you they need more soldiers, though nothing’s changed for them from the time they started obeying your order. Another thing allied lords love to do is leave you in the middle of a siege; it’s possible to go from over 300 soldiers on a three-day siege to just your own soldiers because your allies decided to go chase a group of 10 bandits that they have no chance of catching. Left to their own devices, your allies are just as stupid. In my main game, I’m king of my own realm, and I’ve spent most of my time going back and forth between my lands to stop bands of roving armies from taking over my castles, raiding my towns and generally making a mess of my realm. Part of the reason I have to be the one doing the babysitting is because my lords – despite having new land – simply refuse to put soldiers in their garrisons, so if I siege and take over a castle I just won back because my lord was too stupid to hold it, I have to now put my own soldiers into the garrison, after which I have to go and recruit more soldiers three to five at a time, because even though I’m King Of The Freaking Land, I can’t draft people and instead have to ride to individual towns and taverns. This heavily slants things out of your favour, because while you can’t have a large army at any time, you could beat an army of five Lords, and those same lords are going to come right back, probably with 100 soldiers each.
The major change to Warband is the ability to become a King, which can happen if you seize a castle by yourself. This makes things fun, in that you can now do whatever you want and are not under the rule of another king (and their flimsy whims, which often include things like “I’m going to call a truce while my marshal is about to conquer the final castle the Khergits own”. Yeah, that one pissed me off), though the management options are just as limited as they are if you just own a fief. One thing you can do as a King is use the prospect of owning land to bring over new lords, though that’s a chance proposition at best. One fun thing you can do is give your own characters land, which gets fun if everyone involved is a commoner. I – a common male – gave Bundik a fief, and pissed off about 70% of the lords in the game for making a commoner a lord. Furthermore, if you’re not a noble yourself, you have to work for your right to rule to be taken seriously, either by using characters to spread rumours or marrying into a lord’s family. Moving too fast in this game can leave you potentially isolated and fighting a multi-front war, so proper political management is both necessary and sometimes impossible. While this is annoying, it’s accurate.
The Notorious M.A.S. said recently that this game was a mix of Elder Scrolls and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The Elder Scrolls elements are more enjoyable than those found in the parent game, though the Three Kingdoms elements are severely lacking and desperately need expansion. For the most part, combat supercedes the management issues.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Decent
There’s both a stunning amount of things to do in a replay and not enough of them, if that makes sense. On the one hand, it’s true that no two games end alike, due to the tremendously dynamic nature of the game. Different groups war at different times, different lords defect and are indicted for treason, and something’s always happening in the world to the point where each day changes the landscape more often than not.
On the other hand, depending on where you are in your individual game, you’re going to get the same quests no matter what. When starting out, you’re gonig to be forced to train the villagers to fight off bandits almost every time through, or herd cattle (a painstaking process). When building relations with lords, you’re going to do the same arduous fetch quests for each lord, regardless of which side they’re on, and when you end up fighting for a lord, you’re going to always end up in the same battle sequences, with the only thing changing being your opponents. The game gives you a huge world, and tells you to paint whatever picture you want, but gives you only the three primary colours to paint with. Sure, you can mix them to make new colours, but sometimes, you have to ask, “can’t I just get brown?”
Replayability Rating: Enjoyable
I had major issues with the balance and learning curve to the original Mount & Blade, and I’m thankful to say that a lot of them have been resolved due to the tutorials at the beginning. However, it’s still very hard to get a foothold in this world, especially if you’ve been handed a setback. If you’re weak, you can guarantee that every bandit across Calradia will be after your ass, and there’s no way you can just run away; if you surrender, you’re going to become a prisoner, and that gets VERY old after awhile. Plus, a lot of time has to be spent finding ways to make enough money to pay your troops, either through the local economies, raiding bandits and selling their wares, or raiding caravans and running afoul of the countries in charge of them. This is one of the few games I can think of where new players getting into the game with cheats is something I would actually encourage, just to be able to survive for awhile. Things are made especially worse by the lack of balance in troop recruitment, especially with how quickly computer controlled lords can rebuild their armies.
Combat also still has a learning curve, especially when it comes to mounted and ranged fighting. It’s realistic to shoot arrows so poorly, but on the other hand, it’s frustrating to learn, and the emphasis on burning level-ups and skill points on becoming proficient with a bow or the crossbow makes ranged fighting something that’s barely worth it unless you’re planning on playing defense in a lot of sieges.
In short, things are better than they were, but this isn’t a game that is welcoming to newcomers.
Balance Rating: Pretty Poor
It’s just for someone who bought Mount & Blade, when looking at this standalone expansion, to ask the question, “what’s in it for me” when thinking of dropping $30. My answer to that question is “not much”. The additions to the game are notable, but not so notable that another $30 should be considered a mandatory purchase for anyone but the most devoted fans. There’s not a whole lot that’s original about this game, at least when compared to the parent game; even the additions are more tweaks than they are groundbreaking changes.
Furthermore, Mount & Blade is so welcoming to mods that I’d be willing to bet, without verifying on TaleWorlds’s forums, that a lot of the changes made in the “vanilla” version of Warband are doable in the original game. The original game had mods that allowed samurai, guns, and even zombies. That is more interesting than “oh look we added Arabians”, but unfortunately, I’m not reviewing the mods.
I was fairly addicted to the original game, despite the fact that I slagged it in the review. This time around? Forget it. The game moves so quickly, and things change so often, that it’s hard to really say “OK, I’ll just go to my home castle, save, and quit”, because by the time you get there, you might be in a new war, or things might have irreparably changed, either for better or for worse… if you haven’t been attacked by an army or bandits on the way. If you like to have things a certain way before quitting, don’t play this game in small bites.
I was – and still am – hopelessly addicted to this game to the point where I make sure to block out a significant portion of my schedule before I allow myself to play it.
Addictiveness Rating: Classic
There’s not exactly a long line of people waiting to pick up a medieval simulator that is as “realistic” as this one. I put “realistic” in quotes there because your average gamer is just going to see a steep learning curve and the fact that archery doesn’t work like an FPS. The mindset of the average gamer works against a game like Mount & Blade.
On the other hand, TaleWorlds has had the benefit of word of mouth working for them for awhile. The original game was available on Steam soon after release, and so far, response to the Steam version has been positive. While I received my copy of the game via GamersGate, Steam is still the de-facto standard for digitally released games, and having it perform well there indicates that there’s a market.
Appeal Factor Rating: Decent
I’ll get the good out of the way first: this game comes with an eight level demo that is outstanding in terms of getting gamers entrenched in the world, and it’s free. There’s no limits (other than the level limit), and I wish more companies would do this to sell their games, instead of eschewing demos or – to me, worse – releasing them months after the initial game was released. Furthermore, I love what the modding community does for this game and the series. There is a dedicated – some (me) would say fanatical – group of people that make the game better, for free, to the point where one has to go into this game assuming that they won’t be spending long playing the vanilla version. That, and I just generally like the game. You hear that, guys? I LIKE THE GAME. Stop calling me names, I’m sensitive.
Now, onto the bad. For one, there is still a ridiculously long list of bugs found in the game. This is the second time out of two that a review of a Mount & Blade game was delayed because issues made it unplayable. I started my game in the beta, and from there tried to continue my game with the full version, but couldn’t because the game locked up in battle. I was able to solve this by playing in a windowed version, but I still couldn’t start a new game because tabbing out of buildings also locked the game up. I had to dance around the issue with my game that I’d started in the beta. Furthermore, there are a large number of script issues that pop up, as if the programming wasn’t cleaned up. These issues popped up through different patches, and it seems like when one issue is fixed up, another one comes about. On the positive side, each new patch adds things that make Warband a new game, practically speaking, so each patch is looked forward to with zeal due to the improvements made upon the formula. Give TaleWorlds credit, they listen to their fans.
Secondly is the biggest addition to the game: online mode. Here, you play standard modes such as deathmatch, team deathmatch, siege, and other modes we’ve seen in other online multiplayer games, only applied to M&B’s unique gameplay mechanics. Each player is given 1,000 denars to start to equip themselves better, and gain more denars as they kill people, while getting killed costs denars, with it being impossible to go below what you went into battle with (example: start with 200 denars, have a 1:10 k:d ratio, leave wtih 200). Unfortunately, it’s that aspect of the game that unbalances things to an extreme. It’s hard to go into a deathmatch where everyone around you has a good lance, a warhorse and top-flight armour and expect to come out ahead, and I spent most of my time online with weapons sticking out of my arse. I’m not going to pretend I’m an exceptional player, but it’s hard to gain a foothold when you’re playing against established players who have top flight equipment. On the other hand, the game supports up to 64 players with modifications making larger numbers possible, so as long as your connection holds up, large-scale battles are possible, encouraged, and highly enjoyable. Online mode is like the rest of the game: hostile to newcomers, but exceptional for those with the patience and skill to see things through.
There’s a lot to like here, but I’m penalizing the amount of bugs heavily here. This engine is two years old now, it is inexcusable for me to be physically unable to play the game at this point, for any amount of time.
Miscellaneous Rating: Poor
Control and Gameplay: Decent
Balance: Pretty Poor
Appeal Factor: Above Average
FINAL SCORE: DECENT GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
Though problems and bugs persist, and though it’s still not the easiest game on newcomers, Mount & Blade Warband shows off the improvement that this series has taken over the past couple of years. TaleWorlds have done a great job of simultaneously working the kinks out of their product involving the community in a way that only a small, independent developer can.
The improvements are to the point where Mount & Blade is no longer a game I personally like but don’t feel I can recommend. Instead, I can recommend this product in good faith to fantasy RPG fans who don’t mind getting arses kicked a few times. It’s like watching a child grow up into adulthood, if that adult still had some behavioural issues.