Saddle Up and Watch Your Back
My young outcast nobleman out for revenge didn’t have much to start out. He rounded up a gang of five Swadian recruits, as the merchant of Praven instructed, and performed a daring rescue the merchant’s kidnapped brother. Before long, my outcast was ready to start recruiting more and more troops. Before I knew it he around 50 able bodied soldiers itching for action and all demanding their weekly pay. Plus food. He needed to find work, and fast. So, signing up with one of the local nobles for their on going military campaign sounded like a great idea. It promised to be easy coin for the duration of the war with the Vaegirs. Of course he renewed the contract when the time came; he ran a few small message deliveries between noblemen, and it easily paid the cost of his troops.
At least, until the war against the Nords started.
Mount & Blade: Warband is the 2010 game that just won’t die. Released on MacOS and Linux in 2014 and then on Xbox One and PS4 in 2016. No upgrades on graphics, just a straight-up vanilla version of the game. No sign of the expansion DLC either. Why is a game that hasn’t been updated being still pushed on consoles today? Is it that good? Come take a trip to me to the world of Calradia – where the game mechanics are only a little more stable that the political borders.
Raise the Troops, Raise the Flags
You start out making a character by choosing backgrounds, skills, and appearance. Make no mistake, skills are important. Not all of them will be vital to your playstyle, but there are enough different skills to always make you wish you had extra points. Differences in character build can be compensated by the recruitment of elite named followers, whose advancement you can guide similar to that of your main character. Still, it can take a little while to find those named followers, so putting a little thought into how you want to play your character can pay dividends down the road.
Once you get into the game proper, you have an overworld map where you are represented by a small person with a horse. There is a number near your horse animation that shows how many troops you have. Moving your merry band around to various landmarks, dwellings, or other groups of characters, you will find a large variety of ways to interact. NPCs will give you a wide variety of quests appropriate for their station, ranging from tax collection to rounding up cattle for commoners.
When combat breaks out, that is when the game comes alive. The controls are simple to use but hard to master. I highly advise anyone getting this game to make use of the tutorials or find a good video online explaining how it is done. Most combats you will be on the battlefield with any number of your troops. They will clash with enemy forces and you will need to control your own character directly. Sometimes this means finding an out-of-the-way place so you can take the time to bring up the battlemap and give specific orders to your troops, other times it means personally breaking a line of archers to keep them off your advancing footmen.
Combat is brutal. Leave your shield down at the wrong second, turn your back to the wrong foe, or just miss a beat when parrying your enemies blade, and it can be all over. Defeat in battle can mean complete destruction of your carefully crafted warband to temporary imprisonment. And no one likes to sit around and play the waiting game. So with battle, remember every enemy strike has the potential to destroy your shield or knock you from full hitpoints to unconscious.
Joust One Second!
The game’s handling of horseback fighting and cavalry deserves praise. Mount & Blade handles these things better than most games I’ve played. In so many RPGs or FPS games mounted combat is a side thought. In Mount & Blade it is core and king. Jousting was given proper attention, so too was armour and shield mechanics. Not to mention a wide variety of horses to purchase, all serving different mechanical functions.
Of course, this is speaking as a player. In terms of AI-driven NPCs, things get a bit spottier. The enemies in the game can be pretty darn stupid, particularly when on horseback. This is most evident at tournaments when multiple contestants are given horse and lance. You will often have a cluster of three or four mounted knights with lances, limply stabbing each other off in a corner. Stabbing, at close range, with a lance. You just feel bad for charging in every few moments and knocking one off their horse. Taking the winner’s purse once you’re finished with them does a lot to assuage the guilt, mind.
No fictional medieval society would be complete without the all-important tavern. A trip to the tavern lets your meet elite named npcs, buy drinks to make a settlement like you more, and recruit specialist troops in to your army. More importantly, sometimes the Ransom brokers will be there, which allows you to sell off your hard-won prisoners of war – an important source of income for any warband leader.
It is vitally important to get the named NPCs into your party. While they all have a variety of different opinions, and some of them do not like each other at all, their skills make finding and recruiting them worthwhile. Pathfinding, Tracking, various Healing skills, not to mention Looting, will all be massively helpful to any playthrough – particularly if you skimped out on them in character creation. Keep important NPCS happy so they can keep your army well maintained.
Lead or Follow
This game has large faults in aged graphics, shoddy AI, and frustrating (and sometimes bugged) quests. But it gives you lots of freedom right out the gate, which is a huge selling point for me. Being able to do what I want, whether it’s run around as a bandit, scrimping from small jobs to become a business mogul, or doing the tournament circuits to make a name for myself are all viable options. Your level of involvement in the political backdrop is completely up to you.
Everything is up to you.
That level of freedom is fantastic, and gives you lots of great stories and a seriously high replay value. The game has its faults for sure, but it makes up for it in freedom and agency. What the game needs is an earnest update.
Or maybe the long-awaited sequel.
Taleworlds parted ways from Paradox some time ago and have been promising Bannerlord ever since. The sequel would build on the elements that made Mount & Blade: Warband so good, add new things to play with (like siege weapons and destructible castles), and not take away from the overall control the player had to tell their own story. Or it would, that is, if it ever comes out. While they have a slightly informative Dev Blog, the information about things like Alpha, Beta or full releases on the dream sequel are sparse to non-existent.
Riding Off into the Sunset
So for now, we are stuck with an amazing game trying to break out of its old shell. The game is kept alive by the love and attention of the modding community. Several mods add new layers or tweaks to the game, while others overhaul it completely – there’s even a massive Star Wars mod for those who go looking, and after the misery of the Nord war, my poor noble-in-exile would probably welcome a vacation in space.
The constant demands of the Lord Marshal of our armies, caused my noble outcast to run haplessly behind the main host, desperately trying to deliver this message or that spy report. Finally after a particularly dangerous mission, before he could even return with the information, the war was over. He was far from home, with no food, and just the sack of taxes that belonged to the king… Taxes he collected, but had not been able to give due to the war. He tried to earn a bit of scrap in the local town, but instead of a busy merchant district, the roar of the tournament greeted him. He was good with a variety of weapons, hit like a mule, and could take a hit.
So, he signed up. He bet almost all the Kings taxes on his winning, and was richly rewarded. With coin back in his pocket he dropped off the money he owed the king, sold some captured enemies to the local ransom broker, and contemplated his next move. War was unlikely, his contract about to expire again, and he heard there was going to be another tournament in the Sultanate.
Sure, why not? After all that time in the land of the Nords, I figured he could use a little sun.
A strong game that needs a bit of a upgrade to reach true greatness. Fingers crossed for the in-development sequel
Review by Old Man Mordaith
Edited by Jesse Roberts