Though my previous reviews, if that’s what you can call my non-sensical and oft-times partially drunken ramblings, have all been about games which I have played on the 360, I am also an avid PC gamer and so I thought, for this one at least, I would move to one of the series’ which have kept me entertained for the most amount of time over these long years of nerd-dom. So let’s take a little trip down the twisted pathways of my very own personal Memory Lane, shall we?
The Mount And Blade series, an open-world, realistic, medieval Action-Adventure RPG, (try saying that quickly after a few drinks) has had a strange life. I first discovered it in 2004, back before the game was actually released. This is where I put on my thick-rimmed glasses, a chequered shirt and look haughtily down my nose at you, because I like M&B before it was cool. PC gaming hipster, FTW.
Back then, you could download a very basic trial which allowed you to play until your character reached level 7, when your save would be locked unless you paid to enter into the Beta. Now, you could level to that in perhaps an hour of playing, often even less. And yet, I went without buying the game for almost a year, simply replaying the game until I reached level 7, then starting again.
This was back when there were only two factions in the game, (the Swadians and the Vaegirs) if you discounted the neutral starting city (Zendar), which sadly disappeared from the eventual release. Since then, though great advances have been made, particularly in the quality of the graphics (which are still not as good as other, more professionally produced games), the options of equipment which are made available, the dialogue between yourself and NPC characters, the locations you can visit and the soldiers you can command, there are two aspects to this game which have, thankfully, remained the same and kept me coming back for more.
The first is simply the core gameplay, which has remained more or less unchanged over the years. The game is split into two “theatres” if you will allow me the pretension of such a term. The first is the campaign map (amazing how many terrains can be fit in a world which you can cross in a little over a day, in game time), allowing you and your party to travel across the land of Calradia (seriously, it leads from snow to Mongolian-esque plains, to deserts, to mountains, the verdant grass lands and back around again), visiting towns and villages, meeting allies and recruiting soldiers, finding quests and pursuing (or running away from) your enemies.
You can join a faction, as a Lord capable of taking, and holding, land in your King’s name, or you can try to form your own faction but, without friends and allies, you will be seen as nothing more than an outlaw with a Castle. It is often heart-breaking to build a new faction, recruiting soldiers, mercenaries and any Lords you can persuade to you side as your own vassals, before a massed horde of the nearest faction appears at your gate, with a desire to use your head as a wine cup and your banner as a rag for their dishes. Though I do profess a love for this, more strategic, element of the game, it is in the battles themselves that M&B truly shines.
The melee combat is quick and simple to master, particularly depending on which difficulty settings you have enabled, such as auto-block which will automatically have your character defend from the direction the attack is coming, but it works. The Directional attacks are an amazingly simple mechanic, with you moving your mouse a little in any direction before you attack to make your attack come from that direction. Simple enough, but when they each have different speeds and damages, depending on the enemy’s armour, the weapon’s strength and your own character’s skills.
Ranged combat is trickier, especially when mounted. You will need a high skill in whatever ranged weapon you are using to have a good chance of hitting an opponent who is more than the length of the arrow away. However, once you do manage to get a high enough skill with it, you can send your arrows through the eye slits in enemy King’s helmets without breaking a sweat.
Weapons come in one of six (or seven in some of the later games) basic types.
Single-handed weapons, such as swords, hatchets, clubs, daggers which, unsurprisingly, are fast and often strong, allowing the use of a shield in your other hand.
Throwing weapons also allow the use of a shield, and are definitely the weakest type of weapon you can use, even when you gain skill in their use. This includes throwing knives, javelins (which are different from throwing spears, God only knows why), throwing axes and, perhaps most dangerous of all, rocks. You’d think I’m being sarcastic there, but early on in the game, when Looters or bandits are your main enemy, I’ve lost count of the times a thrown rock has flown out of a melee and knocked my character out.
Two-Handed weapons include Great Swords, War Axes, Mauls and some Hammers and, surprise, surprise once more, are normally stronger but slower than one-handed weapons.
Crossbows and Bows are simply a matter of the player’s taste rather than much difference in the gameplay. Bows, including Shortbows, Longbows and Hunting bows, are faster than crossbows, but are weaker, and cannot shoot as great a difference.
Polearms can include Spears, Halberds and Lances, many of which are best used on horseback. Lances specifically give a couched damage boost when you reach a certain speed, making a coherent cavalry charge one of the most devastating attacks in the game. Some are able to be used with a shield, often Lances and Spears rather than Halberds.
Some weapons however, can be used is multiple weapon styles, such as Bastard Swords, my own particular favourite, which can be used with either a shield or not.
Both many mods and the latest game Fire & Sword added firearms as an option but, as they are only the early style of firearm, flintlock weapons for the most part, the can still be outshot by a Bow or Crossbow, though they are typically much stronger than either of the two.
Refreshingly for a medieval setting, magic, or whatever synonym is used to explain it without sounding quite so nerdy, makes absolutely no appearance. In fact, you could almost say it makes a negative appearance, so intent where the developers in keeping the game realistic, that even any form of religion has been ignored.
Fortunately, (in a completely fitting and natural segway) this leads me to the second reason I am still a huge fan of this series, the modding community.
Though I feel the mods have become less imaginative over time, around the release of the original game (pre-Warband, Fire and Sword and Napoleonic Wars). I remember playing Pirate mods, where people had made naval battles, mods based off of Lord of the Rings, The Hundred Years War and even the start of one based on George R.R Martin’s Game of Thrones. My own favourites are the Native Expansion, which adds more variations of enemies and allies alike, more weapons and better back stories for several of your Companion characters and Freelancer, which allows you to join up with other Lords as less than a Mercenary Captain, instead as a foot soldier whom earns wages and promotions the more you prove yourself in that Lord’s battles.
With the addition of Mount & Blade: Warband, the multiplayer aspect drew in an even greater audience to an already great game. It wasn’t particularly how I imagined it, I was hoping for the Campaign to be made co-operative or with the ability for others to drop into your game. Instead it took the form of several modes, Deathmatches (if I have to explain what a Deathmatch is at this point, you’ve made some serious mistakes with your gaming life), Battles, which are much larger Deathmatches with no respawns (YOLO, right?), the typical Capture The Flags and the like but, the mode in which the game shines for me is Siege Mode.
It’s simple enough, one team defends a castle, and the other has to capture it (come on, you know sieges work, you aren’t stupid). I love this mode because, if you’re the defender, it often seems to be a desperate melee to hold the besiegers away from the small area they need to capture and as the attackers it is a tense, often time’s gradual, push to even get inside the castle gates or to take any significant patch of the walls and, this is the hard part, hold it long enough for those your team lost in taking it to respawn.
Each match takes place between two factions, which are chosen by the voting majority, and allows you to spawn as a soldier of that faction. For example, if the battle was between the Nords (a faction formed out of Vikings, for the most part) and the Khergit Khanate (a horde of Mongolian wannabes) you could spawn as a Nordic Huskarl, Archer or Scout on one side, or a Khergit Lancer or Horse Archer, each with different weapons, armour and mounts to choose from.
You start off with an allocated set of funds which you use to redeem your starting equipment therefore, the better equipment you have, the more money it will cost you to respawn with the same equipment. Therefore, the only way to maintain your quality of equipment, or even upgrade it, is to gain more money via completing objectives and killing your enemies.
Unfortunately, there are no ranks or stats which carry over, so every game you will start off with a minimal amount of funds, compared to the amount you may have ended the previous game with, which kind of gives you the feeling that you are just killing time, rather than working towards any particular goal.
Fire & Sword was, for me at least, a disappointment. I was excited for the addition of firearms and a few of the extra features which were brought in, like the ability to build caravan forts though, practically, (they were never of any use to me), but they weren’t enough to hold my attention. I also found the Campaign map bland compared to the Calradia I had loved for the last few iterations of the game. I played the game for a few hours, but I uninstalled it quickly and returned to my true love within the series, Warband.
If I had to recommend any single game of the series, it would definitely be Warband, perhaps with the addition of downloading the Native Expansion, just to add a little more variation to the gameplay. It can be a little unforgiving, especially for new players, and the graphics may look like Taleworlds put as much effort into the textures as I did in my last exam, but don’t let that perturb you. The game is definitely worth a go, so at least download the trial, which still gives you full access to the game, but you can only play with a low-level character, but if you have any sense at all, you’ll become just as obsessed as I am over the series.