Posted by: L1H | June 1, 2009

Mount and Blade: Late to the War(Party)

I spent hours – way too long if you ask me, writing a very detailed review of Taleworld’s medieval combat simulator Mount and Blade.  However, after it was written I hesitated to click the “publish” button.

See, the wiki entry describing the particulars of this little indy title covers everything that I could say: only better and with more brevity.  If you want a proper, game journalist review, then all you have to do is google it and read up on M&B’s meta-score.

Lots of folks have described M&B’s game-play and major features, written guides, but the elephant in the room, the reason this game features such a robust community of modders and fans, is love.  The game was made with loving hands and you can feel it every second you play it.  It’s as real as mom’s home cooking.  It’s an indy game, a labor of love, and I love M&B back.

This game surprises you like a blind date.  You wake up the next day and realize the hollow pain in your chest is love.  I haven’t felt this much passion and excitement about a single player game in years.

I’m on my third play-through now, so I’m well aware of M&B’s flaws: some dated graphics, a few half-baked game-play elements, minor bugs.  All of these things get a pass, mostly ignored, because the majority of the time you’re totally engulfed in the moment.  M&B is stocked full of surprises and what it lacks in AAA studio polish it makes up for in charm and character and depth.

Everyone talks about the combat, and well, because it is amazing.  Depending on the difficulty settings of the game (I play on 97% Difficulty – read 3% less than “Normal”), your character is as vulnerable to an arrow to the head as the foot soldier next to you.  There are moments in M&B that are filled with so much intense violence I had to walk away from my computer for 15 minutes to catch my breath.  This is a testament to the game’s realism.  The physics of the combat engine takes into account weapon speed, damage types vs armor types, relative speed of your target, weapon arc, distance, gravity, weather, it’s just a lot to wrap your head around.  The realism doesn’t trump the game-play, it’s all happening under the hood, for all you know you’re just having fun.

I should comment here about the gore, because most people associate realism with flying limbs and gallons of blood.  M&B has blood, it gets caked on your armor and weapon if the fighting is prolonged, but mostly it’s implied through sound design and not actually displayed: the gore is never gratuitous and if it was, frankly, it would have been too much for me since the actual “fighting” is so intense and personal.

Have you ever wanted to ride down an enemy with a heavy war-horse?  Shoot an arrow into the unprotected leg of an armored opponent?  “Couch” a jousting lance under your arm and spur your horse to charge?  Climb your way up a siege tower and onto a castle, fighting along the parapets as you and your men take control of the walls?  Crush an enemy shield into splinters on his arm?  Cripple a cavalry charge with a wall of pikes?

M&B’s combat physics allows for all of the above and more.  It’s simple and then suddenly complex, opening up breakthroughs and revelations as you, the player, learn and grow alongside your character.

This is something that really stood out for me.  In most games you are limited by your avatar (in-game statistics, gear, etc…), but in M&B the inverse is more true: your in-game skills enhance your RL abilities.

This synergy between you and the game is one of the reasons I love M&B’s combat.  It reminds me of the original Tomb Raider (in essence only).  Tomb Raider on the PS1 featured a totally new control scheme that required you, the player, to develop a specialized set of skills and timing for navigating Lara Croft around the game-world.  Next thing you knew you were hanging from cliffs, springing off walls, and expressing yourself freely with the controls, not fighting them.

This progression feels so right in M&B because the combat is so utterly real.  At first you’re getting knocked around, run through, and cut down, but with each knock on the head you learn.  You learn to time your parries, to feint, to step into the direction of your strikes for added damage, and the next thing you know you’re a god on the battlefield – and this has little to do with any level or skill progression, it’s pure blood and bone and muscle: you’ve leveled up in RL.

If you’ve ever tried to melee in Oblivion then you know how “off” it felt.  In 1st person mode your character felt like a floating head with arms springing out of it – the sense of spatial distance never really clicked.  Most games try to solve this problem by taking you into 3rd person view and bringing the camera back 10′ the moment you equip a melee weapon.  Fallout 3 is an example of a game that uses this solution.  The problem here is that most character animations look half-baked in these FPS games, not to mention the camera doesn’t seem anchored in the right position and you’re left fighting the camera and the controls while trying to navigate your character.

M&B not only solves this problem by offering a hybrid camera view: somewhere between 1st person and 3rd person.  Somehow M&B pulls you into your character without losing the perspective benefit of a “chase” camera.

I struggled with the shoulder height “hybrid” camera for a few minutes during the tutorial, but then it just magically clicked.  See in M&B you have to be able to see your opponent as well as yourself: he’s heaving his arms up for an overhead strike – now you have to quickly set up your horizontal parry, or side step, or execute a quick forward lunge!

M&B exists on two different tiers.  You’ve got the “first few hours” of game-play where you’re figuring things out, learning the ropes, getting comfortable with the controls, and on the surface some of the game’s systems seem overly simple.

Sometime around mid-game you start to ask yourself questions (why do crossbows suck in the rain) and peek under-the-hood and realize that M&B is very complex – much deeper than your first glance revealed.  See, M&B cleverly allows you to experience this layered game by not overwhelming a new player but then rewarding experienced players with complexity and nuisance.

Even something simple like moving across the world map has a lot of math going on behind-the-scenes: the average speed of units in your army, the speed of your slowest unit in your army, amount of trade goods in your inventory, extra pack horses, terrain, time of day, morale of your party, etc …  M&B doesn’t “show its work”, like a elementary math teacher would say, but the more you play the more you become aware of the underground river beneath your feet.  This is true both of the combat and non-combat game-play.

I don’t want to list all the wonderful “a-ha” moments I experienced in M&B because their discovery is part of the game’s experience.  I know some jaded gamers would complain that all these little nuggets of wisdom should be in the manual, and some of them are, but part of the value of games like M&B is “figuring it out”, and I believe you’ll thank me later.

What’s makes this mini-review timely is that an expansion for M&B is due out in the next few months that’s going to feature updated graphics, enhanced game-play, and a multi-player mode.  The game began as an indy project headed by a couple from Turkey.  The final release version of M&B is our generation’s definitive medieval (mounted) combat simulator – it has no peers, no equal, and if you missed it, like I did, download it today!  You can find it on Steam or get it directly from Taleworlds website.

Anyone interested in Darkfall or the upcoming Mortal Online should visit the land of Calradia.  If you enjoy the idea of fantasy combat that mixes RPG elements with FPS twitch skills then M&B is a title you should check out.

I will say this, and this is coming from a MMO player, that single player games feel a little lonely these days.

I want to share this world, this experience, with my friends.  I want to look down a line of infantry soldiers, all controlled by real people, no AI, and look at each of them in their polygon faces and say, “Hold the line!”.  The coming M&B expansion will help (32+ multi-player), but I can’t help but ask: what if?

What if Pirates of the Burning Sea had M&B’s avatar combat?  Yoda would wisely say, “A perfect game, it would be.”

Anyway, check it out and post a comment if you have any M&B game-play questions.

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