RPG Review: Mount&Blade;

If you’re like me, it’s not enough to just watch those epic war movies like Braveheart, Gladiator or 300. You wish you could live it, minus the risk to life and limb, of course. You watch a scene from a movie like Kingdom of Heaven where brave Balian of Ibelin, with a handful of knights, charges headlong to certain defeat against an army many times larger than his own. Or maybe you’re a phenomenal nerd like me who actually has the You Tube video of the classic “Ride of the Rohirrim” scene from Lord of The Rings: Return of the King saved in your browser’s favorites folder so that with just a couple clicks you can bathe yourself in all the glory and rapture of a massive cavalry charge, the fate of the whole world lying in the balance.

When you play Mount Blade; for the first time, your battles won’t be nearly as grandiose as all this. You are, after all, alone in a strange land with nothing but your horse, a rusty sword and a few denars (the fictional currency in the fictional world of Calradia). At this point in the game you’ll be observing your avatar from an isometric, strategy map perspective. Frankly, you’ll be decidedly unimpressed. There’s not much in the way of impressive graphics or eye candy here, but the map is clear and easy to navigate. Pretty soon you’ll discover a village (according to the game’s text files which I use to mod Mount Blade; until my heart’s content, there are 18 towns, 40 castles and 90 villages to discover in the world of Calradia as of version 1.011). When you enter the village, you’ll be treated to an idyllic medieval setting complete with peasants trudging about, fields of wheat, ponds, hovels and fresh blood stains on the ground, presumably where some animal has been slaughtered for the roast. Again, those of you who are accustomed to cutting edge graphics from the likes of Fallout 3 or Oblivion, might be disappointed here. Personally, I was not. The objects in Mount Blade; may not have the highest polygon count in the gaming industry, but the textures are realistic and convincingly gritty, just as I imagine the medieval world to be. In every village there’s an elder who will give you randomly generated quests, allow you to purchase goods, or let you recruit a handful of men to your cause. When starting out, you’ll definitely want to gather a few of these men.

Now you have a small group at your disposal and you can take them to a training field to prepare them (and yourself) for the battles ahead. Or you can just have at it and find the first party of roaming looters to cut down with sword and axe. With each kill you’ll earn experience, as will your men. Leveling up opens a list of attributes to improve such as the customary Strength, Agility, Intelligence and Charisma, but also a detailed and extensive list of skills, such as Ironflesh, Power Strike, Weapon Master, Shield, Riding, Horse Archery, Path-finding, Surgery, Leadership and many more. In the spirit of old-school RPG’s, Mount Blade; truly allows you to tweak your character in a near-infinite number of ways.

As you earn more money and prestige through fighting and completing quests, you’ll be able to hire more and better troops. Eventually your little band of men will become a proper company, complete with cavalry, archers and infantry. Play long enough and you might even have enough men under your command to call yourself an army (if 100 to 200+ qualifies).

But what exactly are you doing with this army, you ask? Obviously, you’re fighting, but I don’t mean the kind of strategic view-from-above fighting that’s won so many awards for The Creative Assembly and their Total War series (of which I’m a big fan, by the way). I mean you’re fighting alongside them, right there in the thick of it, like Balian and his men or the proud Horse Lords of Rohan. You’re fighting in first or third person, so close that the blood would actually splash into your eyes, if the blood actually splashed – which it doesn’t, sadly. Every bone-crunching swing of a mace, every deadly thrust of a spear, all the twangs of the bows releasing their ammunition into the sky are there, and if you happen to be on the receiving end of these thrusts and swings and twangs, you’re going to get hurt. I’m embarrassed to say that on many occasions, white knuckles clenching my mouse and eyes fixed on the screen in a frightened hypnosis, I’ve actually physically jerked my head to avoid an oncoming arrow. In the subtitle to this article I called Mount Blade; a simulator, and of course it’s technically listed as a role-playing game. But just as various military and police organizations around the world have used a modified version of Bohemia Interactive’s Operation Flashpoint for training purposes, I truly believe if they had modern computers in the Age of Chivalry, some duke or king might’ve gotten the bright idea to use Mount Blade; to help prepare his soldiers for the rigors of warfare.

Okay, I say that in jest. Truthfully, Mount Blade; isn’t perfect. In fact, from a tactical standpoint, it has huge problems. The main beef for me is the fact that there really aren’t any tactics to speak of whatsoever. The fighting itself is almost flawless, but the way the computer sets up their attacks leaves much to be desired. As you charge your enemy, for instance, they’ll just kind of lump together – archers, cavalry, infantry – with no definable order or method. You, of course, have complete control over each unit type. You can command your archers to stand on a hill and pepper the enemy with arrows while your foot soldiers march toward the front and you lead the cavalry in a rear flanking maneuver (think Gladiator: “Hold the line!”). So to revise my previous claim, let me say a medieval king might use Mount Blade; to train his men if he knew he’d be going up against a rather daft opponent without any working knowledge of the most basic aspects of warfare. Which is not to say the game isn’t challenging. In fact, one of the first things you’ll notice is that it’s very easy to die in Mount Blade; (technically, you’re only injured, and with enough time and some surgical skills for good measure, you’ll be back fighting in a day or so). If you’re accustomed to a typical role-playing game where it takes thirty whacks to kill someone, you’ll be in for a shock as you charge the enemy, miscalculate your swing, and find that he’s put a spear into your abdomen, ending your participation in that particular battle before it really even begins. Every movement of your weapon and that of your opponents looks and feels incredibly realistic, supported by convincing physics and multiple ways to deliver your blow (overhand, side-arm, thrust, etc.). Not only that, but at any given time you might be attacked by several enemies at once. If that’s the case, it doesn’t matter if you’re a level 40 knight in full plate armor and the three guys assaulting you are raw recruits with pitchforks and hides strewn across their chests. They very well might take you down: just too many things whacking you at once and no time to get a good hit in. And you’ll breathe a sigh of relief when, from out of no where, one of your men on horseback swoops into the picture and delivers a killing blow on one of them, evening the odds. The game is filled with these “Oh my God” moments, stuff plucked right from the films, and because none of it is scripted, since all of it is happening in real time in accordance with the game’s superb combat AI, you’ll find yourself telling your friends and family the most riveting war stories; just like a real soldier might have done eight hundred years ago, perhaps by the firelight with the sound of a flute wafting through the night air.

Better armor, more skills and plenty of actual practice will help increase your life span in battle. And I can’t stress the “practice” part enough. Mount Blade; does allow you to scale the difficulty, and when you first sit down to play, you’ll probably want to make it a little easier for yourself and maybe try a tutorial or two. As you get better, you’ll increase the difficulty level and with it, your sense of pride and accomplishment.

But Mount Blade; isn’t just about battles. There’s also a lot of political depth. While there’s no storyline to speak of, you’re free to write your own story amid a deep and satisfying game world where five kingdoms vie for control of Calradia. You can ally yourself with any of them, and in this regard, Mount Blade; is reminiscent of Sid Meier’s classic Pirates! in terms of flow and focus. Do quests for one of the many dozens of lords in the game and you might be rewarded with an invitation from the king to fight with his armies. He’ll even give you a village to call your own and you can collect taxes from the peasants. You can also make war with everyone, looting and burning villages, taking castles in bloody hectic siege battles or, if your force is large enough, an entire town. You’ll meet claimants who believe they’re the rightful heirs to one of the thrones, then embark on a massive campaign to put them there. If fighting isn’t your thing, you can make a fortune trading goods between the towns (but keep your blade sharp, as someone will always try to take what you have). You can play as a noble knight on a heavy mailed warhorse. You can play as an archer and become a virtual Robin Hood. With spear in hand, you can form a wall of infantry and stand firm against a charging cavalry. You can emulate the Mongol style of warfare with a bow and a swift steppe horse. If you’ve seen it in a movie or read about it in a book, chances are you can do it in Mount Blade.; All this plus a huge, thriving modding community (you can find it at their forums by following the link at the end of this article) means Mount Blade; has some considerable replay value.

Although the game’s musical score is epic in its own right, I often prefer to play the soundtrack from one of the aforementioned films as I ride down the last opponent in a battle, hundreds of fallen soldiers, horses and equipment strewn across the battlefield. And though I realize I’ve got my genres a bit mixed up, sometimes, after I’ve dealt the last fatal blow and survey the battlefield, I can’t help but belt out the occasional “Roma Victa!”

It feels that real.

Some have criticized Mount Blade; as being a mere “battle simulator”, and yes, it is that. But if you thrust yourself into the political intrigue, truly play the role of your character, do the occasional quests and, in your mind, believe you’re fighting for a cause, you really will feel like a virtual Balian of Ibelin, an armchair Maximus or a later-day Leonidas. You’ll feel like the hero (or the villain) that you are. Then, the battles will have that much more meaning and emotional impact. And believe me, like Balian’s hopeless charge, you’ll find yourself in situations from which there is no escape. And sometimes, with nothing but sheer determination and the help of your loyal brothers and sisters at arms, you’ll snatch victory from your enemies, step back from the computer, wipe your brow and say to yourself: “Wow. Nothing could be sweeter than that.”

Mount Blade; will run on a wide range of Windows-based PCs. Check their web site for specifications and ordering information. Also, although multiplayer is not supported in the version reviewed for this article, an expansion is in the works which will allow multiplayer battles.