Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mount&Blade Review

By Zeus Poplar, Official Out of Eight Adventure and RPG Correspondent

Mount&Blade, developed by TaleWorlds and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Sandbox gameplay grants you total freedom, elegant mounted combat, strategy and trading aspects set this apart from other action RPGs, one of the most addictive games I have ever played
The Not So Good: Occasionally choppy, there should have been more reason to explore towns
What say you? An awesome open-world epic in the tradition of Darklands and Sid Meier's Pirates! 8/8

Mount&Blade is a unique blend of action, role-playing and strategy set in the medieval (not fantasy) land of Calradia. Independently developed by a husband-and-wife team from Turkey, the game features something sorely lacking from most titles: mounted combat. While it's often described as a "medieval war simulator," that makes it sound too much like Dynasty Warriors. Mount&Blade is really an action RPG that just happens to have large scale battles and a world map that would fit at home in a strategy title. But as you'll soon read, there's a lot more to it than just simulating war.

This game's faded, high fantasy palette has the look of a Tolkien art book. You can visit crowded markets and torch-lit castles or ride though snowy mountain passes and witness the chaos of a forest skirmish under the light of a full moon. Combat is visceral and brutally animated: wait until you whack someone over the head with a mace or cause their horse to tumble and roll over its rider (no horses were harmed in the making of this review). While the graphics aren't the best I've seen, they more than do the job. Mount&Blade is also DX7-compatible, a miracle for those with older computers. The voice acting is cheesy, but in a good way. There's no painful, drawn-out monologues: just Sea Raiders shouting threats in an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent. Each kingdom has its own map, town and battle theme music, which perfectly set the mood for adventure.

Mount&Blade has a character creation system similar to Oblivion, with Ultima-esque questions to help flesh out your history and determine base statistics. After creating a character, you begin the game on the zoomed-out map screen, similar to a strategic war game. Armies (represented by a single leader), caravans and farmers move between castles and towns in real time, though the second you stop walking, the game pauses. The first thing to do is raise an army. Just stop by the first village you see and recruit a few farm boys. They start out wielding pitchforks, but as they gain levels, they transform into archers, infantry or cavalry; each of the five kingdoms of Calradia has its own specialty, so you're better off turning Khergit recruits into cavalry, and so on.

From there you can do whatever you want. You can be a valiant knight, swear an oath to a kingdom and woo the ladies of the court. Or you can be Robin Hood, hire a few Merry Men and ambush caravans in the forest, using archers to pick off their overpriced muscle one by one. You can lay siege to a castle and ride into the fray on a mighty steed... or become an apolitical traveling merchant who buys fur in snowy mountain outposts and sells it in the lowlands. But don't forget to hire some guards, or you'll be robbed by the swift-as-heck Khergit raiding parties. There's a variety of quests to accept: Village Elders need help delivering wine and rounding up cattle, while nobles tend to be a bit more sinister, asking you to hunt down criminals and collect taxes (risking a peasant revolt). You don't even have to personally fight your own battles, just send your troops off to die while you sit on the sidelines sipping tea. If a certain king rubs you the wrong way, find a challenger to his throne. Yes, you can actually start a civil war and overthrow an entire kingdom, just for kicks.

Mounted combat is obviously the game's claim to fame. When you encounter an enemy on the map screen (or are randomly ambushed in town) the game shifts to a first-or-third-person real time battleground. The thrill of excitement as you ride into battle with your weapon held high is like nothing else. From horseback (or on foot) you can swing a sword, throw a hatchet, or fire arrows. Each weapon has its own unique style: swords and axes are best held to the side for gallop-by-headsplittings, while the lance is held dead-on and only effective at high speed. Basic commands such as "Charge!" or "Hold Position" are available via function keys, and can be directed either at infantry, cavalry, or your whole army. Each side can have well over a hundred troops (with reinforcements rushing to aid from outside the battle), though they come in waves with a maximum limit set in the options menu to ease strain on your CPU.

Heroes lend the game a much-needed human element. They can be found in taverns throughout the land, hired for a song (and $300), and outfitted just like your own character. Heroes also learn the same skills, which range from Surgery, which keeps troops from dying, to my personal favorite, Leadership, which simultaneously lowers salaries while raising morale. Each Hero has their own unique personality. Sometimes they even fall for one another, but don't be surprised if an Engineer objects to sharing quarters with a pretty young thief, or if the career soldier complains she's being rudely treated by a nobleman. You wind up playing peacekeeper a lot, but it helps define your party. (One of these days, I'm going to hire nothing but cutthroats and scoundrels.)

The most unique thing about this game, aside from the mounted combat, is the lack of plot. You aren't the chosen one; there's no great evil to topple. You're just a guy (or gal) in a medieval world, free to do whatever you like. It's unbelievably liberating to be able to load up a game and mess around without feeling like you're shirking your duties as Grand Savior of the Planet. As much as I love epic storylines, sometimes they're at odds with open-world gameplay: see Penny Arcade's hilarious take on Shenmue. Just as in SimCity or Master of Magic, the lack of an epic storyline didn't bother me one bit.

As with any game, there are some problems. Battles were sometimes choppy, even though the settings were auto-detected to scale to my modest graphics card. Towns also felt a bit vacant: except for Heroes and merchants, the people walking about don't have much to say. Thanks in part to an almost overly convenient menu that pops up asking where you'd like to go before you even enter a town, there's not much incentive to personally walk the streets yourself. And that's a shame, since towns are nicely designed and always gave me something to look at on the rare occasions I explored them out of necessity.

I feel as if I've only scratched the surface of what this game has to offer. Have I mentioned that if you use blunt weapons, you can capture prisoners and ransom them to their families or sell them to a slaver (try doing that in a mainstream game!)? Or that you can build a home and fortify your village against attack? Or that when I was given my village by the king, it actually pissed off some local baron who considered the town his own (he hated me, even though we were sworn to the same king!)?

My thumb aches with pain. I've got Gamer's Claw from clutching the mouse for too long. Usually, I begin writing these things days in advance, but this time, I didn't get started until the day of the deadline. Even as I tried to write this review, I had to stop and load up the game -- just to check out the official name of the Claimants, I swear! Twenty minutes later, I pried myself away, but only after training 19 Spearmen. Without a doubt, Mount&Blade is one of the most addictive games I have ever played. There's a scene in Ghostbusters where Peter Venkman says, "I guess they just don't make them like they used to." "No!" Ray snaps. "Nobody ever made them like this!" That quote kept playing through my head as I clocked in hour after hour of Mount&Blade. As much as it has in common with classics like Darklands, Elite and Sid Meier's Pirates! (don't blame me for the exclamation mark, blame Sid), Mount&Blade is very much its own thing. The scope of this game is amazing. It hearkens back to games of the yesteryear, when, free of things like hundred man high-rez art teams and Hollywood screenwriters, RPGs were as vast and limitless as modern titles are minutely detailed.