Mount & Blade (2008, PC)

By Wilbo26 / December 2, 2008

I'll start off by saying this. If you're looking for Oblivion-caliber graphics, voice acting, and anything that resembles a plot and storytelling, run far, far way. Mount & Blade is very open-ended and if you don't enjoy making your own path and using your imagination you won't have fun. That being said, considering the small development team, the graphics are surprisingly good and everything works very well. I originally played this game in an earlier beta stage, and what it lacked in polish it more than made up in the fun category. Combat is absolutely excellent, and larger companies should really take notice of this game, because it shows off what truly excellent combat can do even for a strategy title.
   There is a lot to do in this game, and a lot to describe, so I'll just get going here. The basic idea is that you're a noble of sorts and you go around recruiting soldiers and heroes to build up an army and battle your way through the landscape. As you build up your skills and statistics you can raise larger armies, and in turn get more involved in the politics of the land. There are several factions, each with its own lords and a king. Each of them will offer you quests that range from simple assassination missions to herding cattle to feed a marching army. Performing well in combat will increase your renown and give you more credibility with those you align with, and earn you enemies with those you attack. You can harass caravans, loot and pillage villages, besiege castles, or slaughter bandits and criminals.
   As you do so, your troops and heroes all gain experience with you, so with some effort you can raise a highly skilled force that can take out superior numbers on the battlefield. But everything is balanced very well, and the difficulty is very scalable so things can be as easy or as difficult as you wish. 50 highly trained troops are still toast against an army of 300, so sheer numbers still play a big part in your success. Your stats and abilities set how large an army you can support, so there's a real sense of progression as you fight, gain experience and build larger and larger armies. You have to keep your force fed, and if you constantly get your butt kicked and have no food morale will plummet, which will greatly reduce your effectiveness on the battlefield. The entire system works very well and there's a fantastic sense of accomplishment as you and your allies get stronger and more heavily involved in the politics of the region.

   Do enough missions and make friends with a king, and he'll offer you vassalage, which can grant you lands which you can manage and levy taxes from, but must also defend. You can also earn yourself castles, either by directly besieging and petitioning for control of them, or simply being awarded them by the king if you have fought well and he owes you a favor. Skills such as engineering let you build upgrades for your villages and castles at a faster rate, which in turn give you greater advantages as the game progresses. So there's certainly no shortage of things to do in the game. But it all comes down to one thing:
   Combat. And the game truly excels at it. There is a wide variety of weapons, armor, and even horses that you can purchase, steal, or obtain via combat itself. Horses have speed, armor, and charge ratings that dictate how they perform on the battlefield, as do all the weapons. It all allows you to really specialize in certain areas that let you fight however you want. You can build skills in horse archery and ride circles around your opponent whilst firing accurate shots at them. Or you can build up your polearm skills and charge over enemies with devastating results. And your skills increase as you use them, as well as any boosts you give them when you level up, so you can quickly tailor your own fighting style and exploit it on the battlefield.
   The game truly excels at combat on horseback. Never before has any game I have played done such an excellent job of simulating the advantage mounts give you on the battlefield. A good cavalry force can be the difference between a lopsided victory and a crushing defeat. Yet simply having a mount doesn't make you invulnerable. Horses have hit points and if you just plow into a mass of foot soldiers your mount will quickly die and you'll find yourself in a very bad situation. But using hit and run tactics you can lay waste to many, many foes without taking much damage. And it's all incredibly entertaining as it plays out. You can rush to the aid of an ally, help them win on the battlefield and earn major bonus points with them. You can also sacrifice troops to shield you as you escape if you find yourself up against a superior force, although it can harm your reputation if you flee from a battle. Losing will often get you captured, and you have to wait to be ransomed or escape, and sometimes your party of heroes will scatter and force you to travel about the land rebuilding your army again. Never have I played a game that rewards you so greatly when you win, and punishes you so harshly when you lose without skewing the game balance too sharply. The combat simply must be tried to believe. Compared to the mundane and boring systems of most modern ARPGs like Oblivion or Fable, Mount & Blade truly fights its way into a class all by itself.

   There are little quirks that can damage the experience. For instance, sometimes your friendly king will happily offer you up a castle he overtook deep in enemy territory, only to completely abandon you afterwards. And then because he offered it to you he might refuse to offer you a better piece of land because he has already granted you too much land, even though a 700-man army overran your prize days ago. But even these oddities serve to enhance the experience, as you can get fed up, renounce your oath and go back on the independent warpath until somebody else offers you a better deal. And throughout the land there are claimants to each throne that, provided you have enough renown and a decent army, you can battle and, if you win, eventually get to usurp the rule of a ruler. So if a ruler shafts you enough times and you happen to know where his rival claimant is, you can really deliver the shaft to him if you so desire.
   There are also several other things you can do in the game other than wage war on behalf of a faction, loot and pillage villages, besiege and sack castles, carry out covert operations, scout out territories, etc etc etc etc. Tournaments happen in cities, which you can join, place bets on and attempt to win during a variety of team and solo combat exercises. Tournaments really further the fun of combat because they place you in a variety of situations, with a variety of weapons and coming out on top gives you a great sense of accomplishment, and some nice gold to boot. Although being given nothing but a crossbow to fight off a mounted lancer knight can seem a bit unfair, managing to overcome sometimes poor odds to win a round in the tournament is great fun, and the skills you use there can be directly applied to the battlefield. So it's great practice on top of being a solid way to make some money and earn renown.
   The biggest gripe I have with the game is the castle siege segments. There is a wide variety of castle types and layouts, but no matter what they all end up requiring your entire force to either attack or defend a single point of entry into the castle, which has a nasty habit of making just about every castle attack come down to sheer numbers. It should give the defender a slight advantage, but in the end it still comes down to pure numbers and nothing more. Fortunately it's still great fun to raid a castle or attempt to defend one, and every now and then you get surprises like losing to an inferior force or utterly annihilating a superior one.
   Overall, what Mount & Blade tries to do it does extremely well. No comparable game around today can top it when it comes to combat. They nailed it. You can spend hours parading around the world engaging in battles, and the different ways you can go about dispatching your enemies all work very well. Its only real issue is the sheer open-endedness. Players that don't enjoy the pure ARPG build and progress aspect will get bored or lose interest. But if you enjoy a sandbox that offers excellent medieval combat simulation, tactics, politics and even some light trading, Mount & Blade will probably rock your world.

Mount & Blade is runner-up to Insomnia's 2008 Game of the Year.