Mount & Blade is one of those gloriously simple ideas, that on paper sounds fantastic. In fact, in practise, it’s also fantastic. If you’ve yet to play it, it can be described in short as ‘You get to be Mel Gibson in Braveheart, but without the slushy romance, faux-Scottish nationalism and sticky disembowelment’. Though nominally an RPG, Mount & Blade is really about the battles, racing across a battlefield cutting up anyone foolish enough to stray into your path with a big axe. Well, that’s how I play it anyway, but you are limited not only to axes, but swords, lances, bows and a whole host of other medieval weaponry. The main game is largely sandbox, you can join a kingdom, take part in some quests or trade, all the while levelling both your character and your army as you become a force to be reckoned with. The graphics in Mount & Blade aren’t the prettiest, but they’re functional and once you’re in the midst of battle you’ll hardly notice.
Warband is the expansion to Mount & Blade, that gives the players the one feature they’ve clamoured for since day one – multiplayer… well it has other fixes like AI, politics and lighting effects, but the online modes are the real meat of the expansion.
To ease the passage of multiplayer into the game, developers Taleworlds have pretty much dispensed with the RPG trappings of the single player game. Gone are levelling, stats and skills, instead you simply pick a faction and a troop (read character class), with slightly different equip depending on the faction. For instance the Viking-influenced Nords, use throwing axes to devastating advantage, while the Mongol-esque Khergit have their intensely annoying signature horse archers. Earning gold from your kills, you can upgrade and customise your equipment once a battle has started, with plenty of shields, horses and upgraded weapons on offer.
Though the game is still in Beta and balance issues are being ironed out with a series of regular patches, the joyous essence of the game has survived the transition. The satisfaction of cutting down your foolish enemies has only increased, now that those foolish enemies are controlled by human counterparts, though you can’t simply expect to wade into battle and cut everyone down. You can try of course, but chances are you’ll be stabbed, poked, prodded, filled full of arrows then stabbed again, until your freshly made corpse resembles some kind of giant red hedgehog wearing a hat. A much more measured and team based approach is required for success in Warband, with cavalry charges, shield formations and well position ranged troops being the order of the day. That said, you still see quite a few naked berserkers with massive axes charging recklessly to certain death, bless ’em.
Warband’s multiplayer lets you choose from a number of different game types, such as death-match, team deathmatch, the domination styled conquest, as well as castle sieges, not so clever now are you horse archers? Like to see you try riding your little horsie up a big bloody ladder! Ahem.. Battle mode basically describes itself, two teams face off for a fight, with no respawns and can involve some stirring cavalry charges and clever tactical play.
Whichever game mode you play though, the result is fairly similar, epic medieval warfare, with corpses littering the battlefield, arrows flying from all directions and death lurking around every corner. With up to 64 players on a server the game has the potential for some truly astounding brawls, especially when those fighting are well co-ordinated and throw a little strategy into the mixer.
The biggest problem so far from the Beta is longevity, without levelling and without persistence the game may struggle to capture the player’s attention in the long term. A sense of progression and a sense of having your own unique character have become central to the multiplayer arena in recent years. So for Taleworlds to remove something that was key to the singleplayer game from the online version seems a little counter-intuitive
But then again, one of the joys of Beta is that nothing is set in stone, and the developers seem to be pretty darn good at listening to their players. Recent woes regarding throwing axes for instance have culminated in a price increase, resulting in many Nord players crying into their beards, before remembering they’re supposed to be big rugged axe wielding mentalists and happily reverting to type. Lets hope Taleworlds can find the perfect blend of medieval violence and instil it with a sense of achievement and progression before Warband releases early next year.