Sunday, April 18, 2010

Mount & Blade: Warband Review

Mount & Blade: Warband, developed by Taleworlds and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Chaotic 64-player multiplayer with seven game modes, shiny new graphics, can become king and marry sexy ladies
The Not So Good: $30?, multiplayer is typically unorganized chaos, no cooperative modes, slower weapon times are frustrating, minor single player enhancements
What say you? This standalone expansion to the excellent mounted role-playing game is $10 too much, despite the occasionally pleasing multiplayer bedlam: 5/8

What drew me towards Mount & Blade was its effective mounted combat, which made the game far more interesting than a traditional role-playing game. Skill-based things are always better than luck and die rolls in my opinion, and the unique aspects of the original game made it one of the very few RPGs I enjoy. Well, it’s time for the publisher (and, to a lesser extent, the developer) to make some money through everyone’s favorite plague: the standalone expansion! Yes, you too can charge an exorbitant price for a couple of new features! What we do get here is sixty-four player online chaos and a revamped single player campaign. This raises a couple of important questions:
  1. Is it worth it for existing owners of Mount & Blade
  2. Is it worth it for newcomers to the series?
  3. Can I get a fancy new hat?
All these questions and more might be answered in the following review!

Mount & Blade: Warband features significant graphical enhancements for a standalone expansion. The textures have gotten an overhaul, upping the detail from the individual soldiers to the landscapes you’ll be battling in. The game map remains largely untouched, though. Mount & Blade: Warband includes all sorts of fancy new processing like HDR (whatever that means), anti-aliasing, soft particles, and tone mapping. Welcome to the future! The game also includes new motion-captured animations for more realistic killing and/or dismemberment. Honestly, I never thought Mount & Blade: Warband was a bad looking game, especially for an independent title, but the added improvements here do let you take advantage of your fancy PC.

Since the general awesomeness of Mount & Blade has been well established, this review shall focus on whether Warband is worth it for new players and existing players. The main addition that Mount & Blade: Warband brings to the table is multiplayer pandemonium for up to sixty-four players (though most of the plentiful dedicated servers support thirty-two). There are a number of game modes to enjoy, from the tradition deathmatch for individuals and teams to more team-oriented events. Battle mode is team deathmatch with no respawn; if there isn’t enough dismemberment, a capturable flag is automatically placed (how nice!). Capture the flag also makes an appearance (you have to dismount to capture, to negate an obvious advantage for mounted individuals), as does conquest (called “assault” here) with control points to capture. Putting the setting to good use are the last two modes: fight and destroy where the defender must protect a catapult and trebuchet, and siege where the defender must protect a castle. Servers support options for random or custom maps, friendly fire, a gold bonus, or time limit. The number of game modes and options is the best part of Mount & Blade: Warband’s multiplayer features.

Each side has access to three classes: infantry, cavalry, and archer. You cannot use weapons outside of your class, but there doesn’t seem to be a restriction to how many players can be in each particular class (everyone could be mounted, for example…sounds sexy!). Mount & Blade: Warband features a cash-based equipment system where you purchase items between rounds: weapons and armor for increasing your stats. The items aren’t linearly balanced: there is almost always a “best” item to choose that balances price and stats, and the most expensive items usually aren’t worth it. Usually you’ll earn enough money to purchase the same equipment every time, as long as you aren’t suckered in by the best stuff. Each class has a weakness: horses can be brought down, ranged units take a long time to reload, and rank-and-file infantry need to be up close to rack up kills. Friendly units are clearly identified with crests floating over their head (they had icons in the Middle Ages, yes?) and you can incorporate bots if you so choose.

Mount & Blade: Warband is much better with an organized group of many people: most matches online devolve into a mess of horses running around, ranged units firing at nothing, and melee units turning around looking for targets. You are almost required to coordinate because of the high effectiveness of shields: you can simply hold down the “block” button and deflect most incoming shots. The only way to kill effectively is to double-team people from opposite sides. Traditional first person shooters get around mandatory teamwork by allowing individuals to successfully kill opponents (you are, of course, more effective by working together, though), but since you must work together in Mount & Blade: Warband, the game’s success depends on how well people are coordinated, and usually they are not. And if one side is coordinated and the other is not, expect quick slaughter. Mount & Blade: Warband can be entertaining if the matches are organized, but this is an uncommon occurrence in my experience.

The single player experience gets some minor adjustments. First off, the map gets an unnecessary makeover: an increase in size that needlessly spreads thing out, requiring much more travel time (and subsequent waiting) between cities with nothing added in between. Despite the addition of multiplayer, the campaign remains a one-person venture. On the good side of things, there are more complicated, multi-step quests added for more role-playing variety. Additionally, Mount & Blade: Warband adds marriage (Marriage? Nooooooo!). Male characters will need to increase their reputation by fighting and learning poetry from traveling characters. Females will attend feasts and kill people for the men to respect you. Pretty much how it works in real life! Successful marriage gives you land and better standing within your faction, so it’s a nice diversion along the usually progression up the character ladder. Trading is more balanced, and the end-game has gotten better since you can now rule an entire faction, get royal underlings, and give allied heroes land for their very own. These additions are nice but nothing spectacular or ground-breaking.

Combat has received some tweaks as well. Soldier morale is included: you will now see units rout during battle, scampering towards the edge of the map in an act of cowardice. You are also given many more specific commands for your troops, but since there are so many to choose from (stay ten paces back, spread out, hold fire, use blunt weapons), it now takes two button presses to issue one order, doubling the amount of time it takes, which may become an issue in the heat of battle. Mount & Blade: Warband features more realistic combat, meaning you swing and reload weapons much more slowly. While this makes for more stately combat, the result is more frustrating battles when you are surrounded by many foes (a common occurance) since you can’t dispose of them as quickly. You will automatically deflect incoming projectiles and you can pick up weapons from fallen soldiers (nice for archers who always used to run out of arrows), and you can throw weapons in close combat (spear in the face!). Still, the combat has gotten slower, which does not lend itself well to the game in my opinion.

The highlight of Mount & Blade: Warband is the multiplayer, and it’s a mixed bag. The game is far more effective when you battle many lesser-skilled opponents in the single-player campaign. But when you are up against similar foes, the powerful combat devolves into a chaotic mess. The game is more enjoyable using coordinated attacks with friends rather than joining a public server where everyone is doing their own thing. That said, there are many instances of satisfying combat to be had, from demounting a riding opponent to picking off enemies from a distance. The blocking system means most one-on-one attacks are impossible to land, leading to a lot of frustration if you don’t work well with others. The game does feature a wide array of multiplayer modes and the class-based combat seems to be balanced where no soldier type of overpowered. The single player game has received subtle, yet negative, changes: the map is bigger (for no reason) requiring more sitting around during transit times and commands require more button presses. But, hey, you can marry (some might consider this a negative, too)! The campaign cannot be played cooperatively, though, and most of the changes actually make the single player game worse. If you play Mount & Blade a lot, you’ll be getting this regardless of what I have to say (thanks for stopping by!). I would feel at lot better if Warband was $20; casual fans should wait until the inevitable Gamer’s Gate or Steam sale to indulge in the enhanced campaign and frenzied multiplayer.