Sunday, January 6, 2019

Mount & Blade (PC) - Review

Be the hero the land deserves

When I was but a wee lass, I played a shareware game called Escape Velocity on my Mac and I absolutely loved it. I know I've mentioned it a couple of times before. In it you play as the captain of a spaceship, with all of space at your feet. How you want your space-story to unfold is pretty much up to you. You can stick around in the safer regions of space and get rich by trading (like I used to play it as a kid) or you can get yourself an armada and go kick some space-pirate behind. Or become a space-pirate yourself. Either way, it's a game that opens up by giving you free reigns and slowly but suredly you discover your way through it. But why am I talking about Escape Velocity when this is a review of Mount & Blade? Because Mount & Blade is essentially Escape Velocity, but in a feudal-medieval setting instead.

I know that comparison probably won't help anyone understand how fun Mount & Blade game is, since I don't think anyone has played EV but me, but it was such a pleasant surprise for me when I started playing Mount & Blade. M&B is one of those games I at some point decided to play pretty much based solely on someone else's recommendation of it. I can't even remember who it was or where it was, but I read such a passionate tale of M&B (albeit the Warband edition) that I felt like I just needed to give it a shot. I am glad I didn't read up more on the game beforehand, because I normally avoid sandbox-style games without a storyline. M&B is a sandbox game that tricks you into thinking there is a storyline.

World map doesn't offer much to feast your eyes on

You start out as a person with a horse and some money (and I suspect I only got the horse because of some character creation option I chose in the beginning). Around you is land, villages and cities. No one tells you what to do, so you probably head to the nearest village to see what there is to do. Once there you learn that you can recruit fighters, talk with the village elder or for instance do some trading. You've got nothing to trade so you decide to recruit some fighters, unsure what for yet. You leave and get attacked by some bandits hiding in the nearby forest. You and your new crew of scrubs meet them head-on in a glorious battle and win. You get some loot. Your recruits get some experience and become better fighters. You decide to go sell some of the loot and buy some better gear for yourself. You recruit more fighters. You fight more bandits. You decide to help some village elders with their quests, like bringing food or cattle. You level and gain the ability to take prisoners. You come across a big faction fight at a castle, decide to join in with your now sizeable group of trained and veteran warriors and manage to take a nobleman captive. People offer you a lot of money in ransom for him. You decide to join one of the factions in their war against another faction, in the hope to gain more experience, gear, warriors, glory and so on...

The above short-story is pretty much how my game went on. I didn't mention the occasional setback I had, like when I got attacked by a much bigger army from the opposing faction, and stubbornly decided to grind my entire group of fighters down against it instead of taking my losses and flee. I was too proud and my men had to pay the price. How your story would unfold in M&B could and probably would be completely different, at least to some extent.

Inventory screen couldn't be more clear

Something I found very refreshing about M&B is that it favours the bold. While you start out as an absolutely newb with no knowledge of anything, the game quickly rewards your curiosity. Taking calculated chances often pays off. While the game may come off as obtuse the first hour, when you know nothing about the gameplay and might feel deterred by its openness, it unfolds itself so brilliantly in front of you that it's easy and fun to take the next step and the next. While I had to look up a few things (like how to herd the damn cattle), most things are discovered simply by trying and I absolutely love a game that can pull that off in a satisfying way. Throughout your game you will see terms and items and wonder what they do or how you use them and before long, just by trying, you will figure it out. It takes me right back to how games used to be played twenty years ago, when walkthroughs weren't readily available and we had all the time in the world to experiment and try ourselves. M&B managed to pull this off with someone like me, who has limited time to play and endless options if I get bored.

M&B is the kind of game that puts its eggs in all the right baskets. Don't get me wrong, it is ugleh and the area you run around in would be considered tiny by today's standards (and even by 2008's standards, as that was the year we got GTA IV and Fallout 3). It also basically has no music (unless I had unknowingly unticked some box somewhere). Instead, it focuses entirely on fun, well designed and especially deep gameplay, proving at the same time that in the end that is basically all that matters. A good example is the combat, that range from you vs a few ambushers and your army vs some other dudes army. Some times you've got what feels like hundreds of people fighting at the same time (but is closer to dozens, still impressive). While the fights aren't pretty to look at they just feel so right. While I have never actually ridden a horse in real life, if I were to venture a guess it must feel exactly like it does in M&B. When I first got to try it, I was completely blown away by how some ugly pixels on a screen could make it feel so real. You can decide yourself if you want to cowardly swing at your enemies from a horseback like me, run into battle with a spear or master horseback archery, to mention just a few options. Riding into battle and striking down your foes is so fun and satisfying it's never once gotten boring over the course of my so far 17 hours played, whether I was fighting five lost forest bandits or the 100-man strong army of an enemy lord.

People are surprisingly willing to risk their lives to join your cause

Like mentioned, M&B nails the joy of discovery and learning, making sure to throw you another curve ball just when you thought you knew what there was to do. Then you discover that you can recruit named characters, and that they level up with stats like you do. They even have their own personalities, that can clash, or jive, with other named characters in your group. You discover that you can put endless hours just into becoming a master of trade, because some people will pay a lot more for wool than you paid for it. You'll get missions like sneaking into cities, capture noblemen or just deliver messages. You wonder whether the lord of the land will hunt you down if you raid a village for supplies, or attack a merchant caravan. You discover that you have it in you to become a cruel tax collector, squeezing the farmers for their last pennies just to make your lord proud. I read somewhere you can even own your own land and castle, but I hadn't gotten that far when I decided to write this review.

It employs a "move when you move"-principle, meaning that time stands still when you do. Around you, as you move around the map, others agents such as lords, caravans, deserters and bandits will roam around with their own goals. You'll see that so-and-so has fled a battle or been taken captive, or that a certain city is under siege (allowing you to come join the fun if you feel up to it). A lord who has given you a mission will rarely stay around for you to come back and claim your reward, he has his own life to live and I've had to hunt certain people for (in-game) days before I could find where they had run off to next. The world around you feels alive and it doesn't feel scripted (except maybe the village elders who stand out waiting for you 24/7). It feels like everyone you meet couldn't care less whether you lived or died, you are not the hero of this story unless you make yourself the hero. And you don't have to. You can probably get very far just being a dang good trader in a little corner of the map, if that is your cup of tea.

The village elder is always the old guy who stands around outdoors, day and night

And I am no expert on sandbox games, seeing as I tend to avoid them, but I am pretty sure that is one of the defining factors - allowing you to go big or small, finding your own way through and not only allowing you, but enticing you to experiment and rewarding you when you do.

To be fair, if you were to seek this game out it's probably better to go straight to the Warband expansion, which as I understood it is Mount & Blade but with a lot of enhancements. In fact, I found it hard to find information or images that aren't from Warband, because I guess only idiots like me play it Vanilla nowadays. I am also happy to hear that there is a proper sequel in the works - Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord. That's a sandbox game I am definitely not going to miss out on.

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