Sunday, February 15, 2009
Mount and Blade (MB) is one of the few non-fantasy medieval games I've come across. In it you can play as the leader of a mercenary band, a merchant, or a vassal to a king. MB is the open ended flagship title of Tale Worlds, a independent game developer. The game has been in various semi released beta versions over the years, finally hitting 1.0 in late '08. As a result of its unusual development cycle, MB already has a longstanding community of players and modders. It may have won a cult following, but does this open ended, over the shoulder game deserve your attention?
MB is an action RPG, with a heavy emphasis on the action. It delivers a much greater degree of control than gamers have seen in a long time. The player controls melee attacks based on the cursors relationship to enemies. For example; by aiming a melee attack above your foes head, you implement a chopping type of strike. Blocking with a weapon uses the same system. It's one of few melee combat systems that requires skill. Learning to interact with the world map is not well explained. It is fortunately, fairly intuitive. So seasoned gamers will have no trouble.
During your time with MB you'll escort merchants, transport trade goods, act as a bounty hunter, and pillage towns. A big part of this game's appeal is its sandbox approach to game play, its intentional lack of structure. You're dropped into a huge world with no quests, alliances, and little in the way of direction. Wars are being waged, cities are besieged, trade caravans traverse the map, all in utter indifference to you. What the player does in MB is up to him, there's no storyline and no evil doer. It's refreshing.
MB sounds good. When riding a horse you hear its hooves beating the ground. Towns sound alive with well done ambient noise. The musical scores are beautiful, perfectly fitting the game world. Battles are alive with the clash of swords, and the death cries of friend, foe, and beast. Arrows shriek through the air. Very rarely does a sound repeat too often. Like most RPG's the "level up" noise quickly becomes dear.
MB will appeal most to a certain type of gamer. Those who enjoy being part of a world, rather than its focus, are most likely to have fun. Any gamer will enjoy the directional melee controls, challenging archery, and engaging mounted combat. Some aspects of this title are missing the level of polish gamers have come to expect, but that omission does not condemn it. MB is what a game should be: ridiculous amounts of fun.
The old adage "Don't judge a book by its cover," holds true here. The cities and towns can feel unfinished, the world map is merely utilitarian. Lighting effects are lackluster and many objects look crude. None of that matters when you're on your horse riding down enemy infantrymen. There are areas that have received more attention, and those spots are beautiful. Smoke rising from fire shifts in the wind, ragdoll effects are applied to all combatants (including horses). Mud is kicked up when riding your horse in rain. The graphics engine is good enough. Hand designing such a massive game world must have been a enormous task, but I hope the upcoming expansion addresses the sore spots.
MB is a game of choice. I have now played as an archer, mounted knight, and cowardly merchant. All of these character types were well balanced, and the game is designed to allow a great many play styles. You can ally yourself with any kingdom, and each kingdom provides different troop types. It is also possible to remain an independent adventurer. I found roaming the world's cities, and fighting in tournaments unnaturally addictive. The game has unlimited quests, so work is always available. A dedicated modding community (encouraged by Tale Worlds) adds even more replayability.
Games like MB don't come along very often. Many who try the demo can't help but fall under its spell. With a good RPG system, ingenious combat mechanics, and inspired sandbox design, it's easy to recommend. That MB lacks polish might discourage some, but those who try it will find it has nearly perfect game play fundamentals.