Run Them Through!
Total freedom in an expansive virtual world can be a wonderful thing, especially if you’ve got a sword, a shield, a mount, some henchmen, and a desire to inflict massive quantities of mayhem upon the general civilian populace. However, realistic medieval combat is only part of the equation necessary for a compelling adventure. Without a solid reason to pillage villages, enter into diplomatic alliances, cave in the heads of brigands, and eventually create a massive army to conquer the land, what good are the actions themselves?
TaleWorlds Entertainment’s Mount & Blade is as equally enthralling as it is disappointing. For every great thing the game has going for it, there’s something else that weighs it down substantially. Despite being highly playable, and even capable of occupying a significant portion of your time and energy, it has an unfinished feel to it that detracts from “ye old” experience to be had. The few aspects of medieval life and warfare TaleWorlds does manage to nail down solidly are impressive, so it’s not a total loss. There’s definitely a good game in here somewhere, but it requires players to overlook some sizeable barriers in order to properly enjoy it.
While most games situated in a medieval setting typically incorporate all-too-familiar elements like orcs, mythical beasts, elves, magical weapons, fire-breathing dragons, undead wizards, and the like, Mount & Blade completely bags any semblance of pandering to the fantasy crowd. Instead, it takes a more purist approach; you won’t find anything in the game that wouldn’t have existed back in those times. This means there are no goblins, no “Axe of Violent Wounding” +12, no magic spells, no haunted ruins, and absolutely no flying serpents. It’s actually quite refreshing.
After creating a character – by answering a series of broadly ranged questions about their possible backgrounds, fine-tuning their appearance, and assigning points to various stats and attributes – players are unceremoniously dumped into an open world and given free reign to control their own destiny. The huge overworld map featuring clusters of different kingdom factions scattered about for you to explore, and there are plenty of brigands roaming the landscape to test your mettle in battle. The unspoken goal is to improve your character’s skill and renown in the land, recruit and maintain your own faithful army, stake claim to a castle and some villages, and carve out your own niche in the realm. How you choose to go about accomplishing this is completely up to you.
There’s much to do while zigzagging your way across the countryside, but the game doesn’t instill a real sense of purpose to your plight. Sure, the voluminous hills, mountains, and rolling plains of Calradia are full of warring factions and bustling country towns containing plentiful opportunities for battle, riches, and danger, but the game simply drops you in the middle of all of it with no direction whatsoever. In this way, it feels like a very bare-bones medieval simulation instead of an adventure game.
Without any substantive story here, there’s really nothing present to tie your actions into a bigger picture. Quests tend to be more about running lame errands for nearby lords and choosing sides to fight for – or amassing your own legion to lay waste to the region – than rallying behind some grandiose cause or venturing off on some engaging personal crusade. The freedom afforded by the open-ended, sandbox-style gameplay is great, yet the lack of story direction makes it hard to connect to the realm and its many inhabitants on a deeper level. The only force driving your actions is your own personal whimsy; at the end of the day, that’s not going to be enough for many players.
It also doesn’t help that Calradia’s inhabitants aren’t the most attractive lot. While the character designs are suitable for gameplay, they look outdated on closer inspection. It’s a nice touch to see changes in any equipment and armor are reflected in characters’ appearances, but they don’t look so hot to begin with. Mount & Blade’s visuals are a mixed bag in other areas as well. Even with the graphical settings maxed out, the game fails to impress. There are some pleasant effects, like the realistically designed castles and the pretty sunsets, but most of the game just isn’t that great to look at.
If there is any reason at all to ignore the bulk of Mount & Blade’s crappier moments, it’s the game’s highly advanced combat system. A shining beacon of excellence awash in a sea of gray, medieval haze, the battle system is simply awesome. More often than not, you’ll find yourself recruiting local peasants into your militia and steering the whole lot head-on into encounter after encounter just to split some skulls. It’s that fun. Combat occurs both on foot and from the back of your trusty mount. In either case, there are some particularly interesting elements at play. Most encounters are against large numbers of foes, and you’ll ride into battle with you own A.I.-controlled troops to clash on the fields in a bloody mess.
In on-the-ground melee, you’ll go at your opponents with an array of grisly weapons, including bows and crossbows, axes, swords, maces, staffs, spears, knives, throwing daggers, and much more – depending on what you have equipped. The trajectory of each attack is determined by where you mouse is located in relation to your character when you click it. With well-timed right-clicks of the mouse, you can also block incoming attacks with your weapon or hold up a shield if equipped. The latter is great for deflecting incoming arrows and other projectiles, which will lodge themselves into your shield or your body with a hefty thunk and remain there for the duration of the encounter.
Foes aren’t typically very hard to dispatch, but they do put up a good fight and block your attacks frequently. They’ll also try to take advantage of moments when your guard is down, or they’ll fire off missile weapons in your direction if you move far enough out of melee range. Mounted combat is even more interesting, as your attacks increase in effectiveness depending on the speed of your mount. Fighting from horseback is a lot of fun, and it’s particularly satisfying to violently cut down a troublesome opponent while passing by at a full gallop. Though it brings some level of guilt, cutting enemies’ horses out from beneath them is a surprisingly efficient tactic as well. Battles can range from relatively small skirmishes to large-scale sieges involving dozens of troops. No matter how much other areas of Mount & Blade disappoint, I kept finding myself returning to the battlefield for more guts and glory.
Mount & Blade’s strong RPG elements, in-depth army management aspects, and amazingly addictive combat system balance out its mediocre quests and half-baked sandbox gameplay. The lack of a story is unforgiveable, but it’s hard to not concede the game is still worth playing after all – even if only to repeatedly brightly stain your swords with the blood of your fallen enemies.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.0 Graphics
Dated visuals have a few high points and plenty of lows. 4.0 Control
Awesome combat system is easy to use and fun as hell to dig into. 4.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Excellent music. The battle sounds, from sword clanks to the screams of folks getting mauled by your blade, are particularly good. 3.4 Play Value
Lack of story and boring quests makes the sandbox gameplay seem lackluster. On the other hand, battle is surprisingly addictive. 3.5 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.