Mount and Blade: Warband (The Friend of Art is Limitation)

When I reviewed the original Mount and Blade back in 2008, I was quite taken with the unique action/RPG. It offered a fresh take on the sort of free-form adventuring offered by a game like Sid Meier’s Pirates! Except, instead of exchanging broadsides in battles on the high seas, you took your fight to the turf; commanding armies, vying with your opponent for control over the chaos of swords, shields, arrows, and horses all slamming into each other. It was a quirky but fascinating product of a tiny Turkish development studio and, while it wasn’t much to look at, it demonstrated what a handful of creative people can accomplish with scarce resources and a fresh perspective. If the enemy of art is the absence of limitation, Mount and Blade was an example of, arguably, what a powerful creative catalyst limitation can be.

One thing you should remember about Mount and Blade: Warband: it is a stand-alone expansion to the original — not a sequel. It does not re-invent the original in any way, but builds on it incrementally. Warband brings updates, additions and tweaks. While they’re all very welcome, few of them change the game in any significant way.

Warband brings some new graphical tricks, such as improved textures and HDR lighting, but it still isn’t a contender for any beauty pageants. To be blunt, the game looks ten years old, at least. It’s at its best when the visuals are minimal; on a battlefield in the plains, steppes and deserts of the world, Warband doesn’t look so bad. The draw distance goes on for what feels like miles and the hills, mountains, rivers, and woods lend good credibility and variation to the terrain.

Villages and towns, however, look like they were made from toy blocks and just stuck on the ground. Some sense of life is attempted as random NPCs move about in the streets, but their wandering — which is either completely aimless or guided by pre-determined routes — only enhance the static feel of the game’s urban environments.

Of course, being an action/RPG, you’ll spend most of your time looking at people. Unfortunately, the people look like poorly-carved wooden dolls. Mount and Blade is one of those games that would benefit from a stylized art style that doesn’t rely strictly on graphical fidelity. Unfortunately, the game insists on striving for, for lack of a better term, a realistic look. Consequently, and unfortunately, its graphical limitations are likely the first thing you’ll notice.

And it is unfortunate, because underneath that unattractive appearance is a unique and sound open-world RPG. Warband introduces a new faction to the world of Calradia — which previously consisted of five factions built on real-world archetypes — in the form of the Arab-inspired Saranid Sultinate. With them, the world itself has been re-designed to allow for a new desert region and some more natural landscaping.

I want to make the comparison to Sid Meier’s Pirates! once again, because it’s an accurate one. Like that series, Mount and Blade doesn’t feature much of a pre-scripted plot (or any, for that matter).

Warband drops you into the world and tells you to go do whatever you want, whenever you want, and carve out your own personal narrative. You can work as a mercenary, hunting outlaws and selling your sword to the various factions; pledge your allegiance to one of the six factions and fight as a lord of the realm; become an outlaw and terrorize the smallfolk; raise a rebel army to conquer a faction, restoring its rightful ruler or claiming that title for yourself; or just be a humble merchant trader and make a fortune by taking advantage of the game’s rich economy.

Warband gives you the chance to marry into prominent families, gaining renown, power and favor. With a whole lot of patience and tenacity, you can even form your own faction and become a king, with the power to wage wars and conquer all of Calradia for yourself.

Fighting those wars is where the Mount and Blade games set themselves apart with their robust, physics-based combat. Different weapons deal different kinds of damage, which in turn can be determined by how they’re used. Blunt weapons are good for destroying shields, but can only be swung. On the other hand, a sword can be swung or thrust, delivering slashing or piercing damage, respectively.

Your speed and movement get factored into the equation, as well. When charging an opponent on horseback, a backswing isn’t going to be very useful since you aren’t taking advantage of your momentum; a thrusting attack could be devastating, with all that force behind it, but that’s assuming it connects; similarly, a regular swing benefits from the added force of your movement and has a wide arc. The weight of your weapon, the length of your weapon, the direction your opponent is moving, the direction you’re moving, your distance from your target, how quickly you swing…there’s a lot to consider. It sounds so much more complicated when put on paper but feels very natural in practice.

Warband makes some small but very welcome changes to combat. Shields now block arrows even when unequipped, which has become an extremely effective form of defense in multiplayer (but more on that later). Arrows, bolts and thrown weapons can now be recovered and used on the battlefield, keeping you in the game if face-to-face knife fights aren’t your thing. The most noticeable change, however, is how thrown weapons, such as javelins, can now be used as melee weapons in a pinch. None of these tweaks are significant changes but they help strengthen a few of the weaker layers of combat from the original.

In truth, the only frustration I felt in combat didn’t stem from its mechanics so much as the artificial intelligence of your opponents. Enemies are always extremely aggressive, charging you, constantly pressing their attack and swinging their weapons frantically. They never fight carefully which means that you rarely can yourself.

This frantic reality of combat sucks because the depth of the system seems to want to encourage careful, tactical thinking, yet the A.I. never gives you the chance. In battle, on horseback, this shortfall isn’t a huge deal because there’s so much going on. But in smaller conflicts or one-on-one fights, I often found that the best strategy was to simply flail wildly. Unfortunately, this nagging issue is just as it was in the original game. If Warband had added a windmill attack, it would be impenetrable.

The biggest (and most advertised) addition to Warband is the new multiplayer mode. Multiplayer in Warband consists of the basic combat from the main game in map-based competition, played out in usual FPS modes such as deathmatch variations and capture the flag, and more tailored faire like siege, wherein one team attacks a fortified castle while another defends.

Before and during each game, players can choose one of three pre-determined loadouts (archer, infantry or cavalry) and customize them with better equipment using money gained from eliminating other players. Basically, it’s Counterstrike with swords.

Despite being a major addition to the expansion, multiplayer feels underwhelming. There’s fun to be had fighting other humans with the game’s robust combat system, but by falling back on familiar competitive multiplayer tropes, it just feels like only a small fraction of the singleplayer experience. What’s sad is that the singleplayer provides such a good model for multiplayer.

Multiplayer would be so much more interesting not simply fighting other human players in single combat, but going up against each other with armies, conquering towns and castles on smaller overworld maps with the chance to really cooperate and coordinate with your teammates. As the multiplayer currently exists, it’s an interesting experiment, but I would think the core game would have benefited more from the resources spent making it.

Currently, Warband’s most glaring flaw is that it may or may not be unfinished. Upon starting the game, I encountered content that wasn’t complete. One early example is when I took a quest to rescue a captured noble.

I was presented with three options: lay siege to the city, fight my way through the prison or negotiate a ransom. Since my army was still small and I wasn’t confident in my personal combat abilities, I opted to negotiate. But when I did so, the game bluntly stated, “Ransom option not yet implemented.”

As of this writing, the game has been patched to remove those options, but references to the missing content still exist and the content itself has not yet been implemented. Whether it will be in the future is a mystery, but it’s inexcusable that any game would be released at retail in such a state.

Arguably, the best thing that Mount and Blade: Warband has going for it is longevity. The game is so multi-layered that I couldn’t even cover it all above. In addition to the deep combat and freedom, there’s a dynamic economy and political system; factions go to war, conquer territory, form treaties and alliances, and struggle internally with betrayals and uprisings with or without your influence.

Hardcore RPG fans get numbers to crunch in the forms of basic stats, weapon proficiencies and various skills that range from the personal (stronger attacks, faster movement, persuasion, etc.) to the slightly more meta (treating your soldiers’ wounds, training them for bonus experience, increased army size). Loot seekers and lovers of the paper-doll effect (seeing your avatar in shiny new clothes) will find a staggering amount of armor and clothing with which to customize you and your companions.

The learning curve can become steep and managing your armies in real-time can be overwhelming, but Warband’s robustness (since that seems to be the word of the day) even extends to its difficulty settings, which allow for a great degree of customization to ease you into things at your own speed. If you can get past its aesthetic shortcomings, Mount and Blade: Warband isn’t a game you’ll want to miss. Likewise, if you were a fan of the original, Warband offers just enough to warrant a trip back to war-torn Calradia.

Leave a comment

Filed under Review

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s