This is a first; I’m sitting here with a huge amount of notes and screenshots for a game that I have been playing — perhaps far longer than I should be — and I don’t have a clue what to write. At the same time, I just can’t stop playing it. Mount & Blade is one of those games that has a ridiculous amount of potential, and some of the best gameplay I’ve seen. But it is made by an independent developer and has some obvious budget-related shortcomings.
When I first saw the write up and screenshots for Mount & Blade, my impressions were that this could be an awesome single-player role-playing game. Enter the character creation screen and customize your character, develop a back story and assign your own statistics; things are looking good. Immediately you might notice the game has some rough edges; the hair on your character looks like it was drawn with crayons, the menus are a bit clunky and the map you get dumped to isn’t the prettiest, but it works. The minute you exit character creation, all RPG elements pretty much disappear. You are dumped onto the world map with no direction, no story and no real clue what to do.
Being a person who loves a good story in any game, it always presents a problem when developers let that part of the game rot. As I already mentioned, when you are dumped into the world map, you are given no directions and no story — nothing but some beginner equipment. This isn’t a fault with just the beginning of Mount & Blade; this is present throughout the whole game. If you head to a training camp, you’ll find a little to do, but you will quickly advance past the challenges there. You can find some local bandits and get your first taste of combat, ride to a village, town or castle, and see who there is to talk to. While it always seems like there would be something to do, there really isn’t. The village may need some help, but it’ll be one of three quests. The cities are very similar, and the castles may have Lords resting there who have a different set of quests. However, the completing of quests has no real continuity. Very little happens (in almost all cases) because you accomplished something in the world. A quest basically is a method to help you gain favor with a village, city, lord or faction.
This is the fourth paragraph, and I haven’t even mentioned what type of game Mount & Blade is because RPG doesn’t fit. Mount & Blade is a first-/third-person combat game set in the medieval period. We’ve been here and done that before, haven’t we? Medieval games can be a dime a dozen, but this is different and very unique from the others.
As a beginning hero, you’ll be ill-equipped to handle what is in the rough lands of Calradia. Being alone will paint a large target on your back; you’ll be hunted by bandits and deserters of armies with little hope of escape. Your first task is to find allies — not that the game has told you to do this, you just sorta kinda need to know. In the cities dotted around the world, you can visit taverns to find other heroes (they’ll never die; they’ll just be knocked out in combat), you can recruit mercenaries from taverns, rescue prisoners from bandits or recruit villagers (who start very weak but can grow into specialized forces) to fight alongside you. As you increase your party size, you start to take on larger and/or stronger enemies and eventually have them run away from you! As you loot better gear and earn money, you can equip yourself and your party. But grow too fast, and you’ll have problems with large salaries and quickly depleted party morale. A lot of this won’t mean much until we get into the real meat of Mount & Blade, and that is real-time, full 3D combat taking place in many scenarios around the world.
Chances are your first combat situation will be you, alone, on a slow subpar horse with a rusty weapon, little skill with said weapon and no real armor facing a small group of looters. Those looters might just be your stepping stone to becoming a seasoned, world-renowned warrior commanding hundreds of troops in full plate armor, sieging a castle, capable of killing in a single blow or firing projectiles with extreme accuracy. I know it’s your dream to make Legolas look like a chump. Don’t worry. It is quite a jump from the beginning of the game, and one of the largest learning curves I’ve seen in any game. The massive learning curve means you’ll need to start on the easiest difficulty setting and work your way up to taking full damage.
I’m having quite a difficult time finding a place to start in describing the combat. Although most games are pretty basic, Mount & Blade is very detailed and covers a large variety of situations. Even Youtube videos are a poor reference. They are almost exclusively beta-era videos and just don’t have the same feel at all. Your safest location is almost always on horseback, because being outnumbered is dangerous on foot (at least to start), and your speed will help you cause more damage but potentially take more as well. There is something very satisfying about slashing the legs of your enemy or smashing their face and watching them fall to their knees holding it, or hitting another rider with a arrow or crossbow bolt and watching as they fall off and thud to the ground.
Like most games Mount & Blade contains the basic infantry, archer and cavalry type of troops. That is where the generics end, because each troop has very real differences. Khergit lancers or horse archers are light cavalry and are better suited for light strikes at other cavalry rather than mowing down armored infantry. Swadian Knights are a heavy lance/sword welding cavalry unit that can mow down troops while on horseback, but they lack a lot of speed for finer operations. You can have light fast archers or skilled archers that can hold their own in melee combats. Or you can opt for a Rhodok crossbowman who is far better at defending themselves but fire slow lethal bolts. There are many selections and variations — too many to list — but the key is how you use them. Your tactical ability is what separates you from the AI and is crucial to having your forces win while suffering few deaths (as rebuilding your army takes time you might not have). If you face cavalry and have archers you might be in trouble if they just charged out, finding a hill or forested area will help. Move your infantry in front to cover them, or try to find a river, because a horse can’t gallop through there. A slow moving horse is a handicap to a rider. Like before, there are so many situations among the rivers, mountains, rain, fog, snow, hills, plains, siege towers, siege ladders, nighttime combat and more that you can’t just repeat the same tactic over and over.
As you advance in levels, you’ll gain access to better gear, which you can find on some enemies or purchase from the cities. There are numerous types of armor that varies in protection and encumbrance. The quality of the pieces themselves will change the value of protection. Horses vary on speed, maneuverability, armor, hit points and the ability to trample troops. Weapons are the most varied items; including bows, crossbows, lances, pole arms, hammers, swords, axes, hammers, maces, clubs and some others I’ve forgotten. They vary in damage, reach, speed and damage type, but the hidden feature for those weapons is the real sweet spot.
How you equip yourself and your troops depends on your combat style. To be a fast foot soldier, you can’t wear plate mail because you’ll never be able to get away from others. A shield will allow you to take the lead and have few worries, but a two-handed weapon will cause death faster and have long reaches.. If you choose to stay on horseback, you can wear heavy armor in an attempt to dull the pain from the increased speeds you’ll be hit with, but it will cost you in foot speed and a whole lot of money. All this equipment means little when you head into a tournament. The best way to make money and increase your fame pits you against warriors and other famous heroes with training equipment in team versus team battles. You can bet on yourself and make a lot of cash, but the trick is you never know what the battle will be like, how many teams and members there are, and most importantly which equipment you will have. You have to be very, very good to survive as a defenseless foot archer in a battle with 32 contestants.
Advancing in levels gives you one statistical point, one point for a skill and 10 points to weapon skills. Any heroes you hire will be similarly controlled. You can specialize them in fighting skills or to hold specific party skills. Party skills deal with your whole party, and any one member can have the highest skill, from medical skills, to tracking and movement, looting and trading skills. They’ll help you advance faster. Some heroes (24 in total) will conflict with each other, so you need to be choosy about who you invite to your party or risk losing an important asset — say, your medic — right before a large battle.
Another difficult task is attempting to describe how much more detailed the combat mechanics are in Mount & Blade. There are simple left, overhead and right attacks. The same is for parrying, and you can hold up a shield. You can jump and move in all directions, like most games. The kicker is taking and dealing damage. Combat is all about your relative speed. Two horses charging each other and swinging weapons will cause massive damage, where someone with their back turned running away might receive no damage. In a siege, when you and your troops are packed like sardines, pushing down the castle walls, everything changes. You can’t just swing your weapon like normal. You’ll never hit a thing, and you also have to look out for the backswing of enemy weapons. The combat system uses real physics to figure out how much damage you inflict and take, so you have to learn the tricks of swinging your body while attacking to hit for more and timing your attacks to bypass the enemies defenses. The larger the shield and weapon, the slower most troops will be in using them. Just like in the larger-scale battles, tactics are everything! Charge in swinging, you’ll find yourself on your back, just the same way you’ll find yourself if you charge blindly into an enemy Lord’s defensive line on the battlefield.
Sooner or later a faction king will ask you to become one of his vassals. He’ll give you a village in return. You are expected to help defend his lands and join his attacks when he calls. You also can work as a mercenary but won’t get the rewards as a vassal. The five factions in Calradia seem to always be at war with someone, so the action doesn’t let up; enemy lords pillage your villages and siege your towns and castles regularly. Want to make some money? Find enemy caravans and intercept them, or find a well-equipped lord and get his gear, take him prisoner ransom off his troops. Or just sell the troops as slaves. If you do enough, become well-liked and famous, you can become the faction marshal, able to rally the nations’ troops to go on an offensive with you.
Sieging enemy cities and castles is a whole other game, and whatever option you choose, you need to make sure you bring enough food and have a high enough morale to keep your soldiers going. Some cities will require a siege tower to help you break into. You’ll have to wait as your troops push the tower to the wall. What is your strategy here? Take archers and fire back, take knights and shield yourself from the inevitable volley of incoming arrows? Some towns will be accessible with ladders, though climbing one puts you at risk of getting an arrow in your side. Once you break through the front line and make way for your troops to pour through cities is all about getting into the town and taking out their troops on equal ground. Castles on the other hand vary greatly in design. After a breakthrough, you might just find yourself completely surrounded by fortified archers on opposing walls with mounds of enemy troops blocking your path. If you clear the outer defenses, you’ll head inside to the keeps to clear out the last few and possibly have your own castle or city.
Villages, cities and castles allow you to construct buildings to improve their attitude, wealth and defenses,or to construct prisoner towers to hold lords. Depending on your standing and current holdings, the King might reward you with a city or castle of your own. But what if you are not allowed to keep it? You can keep it anyway, rebel against the unjust King and belong to no faction — a very dangerous situation. You can accept the lack of reward for your sacrifice and help your faction conquer the map, or you can rebel, or even find another applicant to the thrown of a faction and help them gain power.
There are a number of points worth mentioning on the technical aspect of the game. The graphics are really varied, from some crude menus and poor details around the world, to great animations, models and textures. The menus feel clunky and basic, especially in towns where you can just click the clunky menu or wander and go to vendors in real time. I’m sure the lower budget has to do with the poor graphics, but while blazing along on a horse, you don’t notice so much. What budget the developers did have was spent on customizing each village, castle and city to have a new combat experience each time. The music is basic, but it works, and the sound effects for weapon strikes and combat in general are all timed well and really promote an immersion to the battle. Unfortunately there is no voice acting at all, but since there is no story, that somewhat fits. For performance, I have no slow downs even in the largest battles of 80 to 100 people on the field at a time (you can get larger with mods), but I do have some major issues around trees, where the performance goes to crap. There also are a couple of bugs in combat. Maybe calling them bugs is incorrect; they might be more of a limitation in the AI.
I’ve already written way too much and haven’t covered nearly all of the aspects of the game. Although there is no story, the combat is extremely well-rounded, very detailed and something that must be experienced. Mount & Blade was designed to be modded, from mods that improve the combat, add new weapons and features, and add in new tactics and troops, all the way to completely overhauling the game into something different. Maybe, in time, there might be a couple out there that adds in a good story. Each time I’ve tried to describe what a battle is like, it just feels wrong. There are too many aspects to write about, so just go and try it! If you like first-person combat, medieval combat or even RPG-style leveling systems, you’ll go crazy for the detailed, fast-paced action in Mount & Blade. But what I’ve been trying to write this whole time without being too blunt is that horse-mounted combat is absolutely incredible and must be tried. This is by far the most fun I’ve had in combat in any game to date, and I really can’t stop playing it. Plus, why not support an independent developer?