Mount and Blade: Warband, published in 2010, is ostensibly a sequel to the original M&B by TaleWorlds Entertainment (along with Paradox). The reality is that with an only modified gameplay features, map and factions, Warband is more an expansion to the original game than a whole new game in its own right. One might wonder then why we don’t simply review M&B itself, however the answer is simple. There were two “sequels” to Mount and Blade, each rather distinct from the other: Warband and With Fire and Sword. Warband itself even had a few expansions. However, the vanilla experience of Warband, is practically unarguably the best of the entire series, garnering higher reviews than the original, which in turn actually did a good deal better than the subsequent WFAS. With a PROPER sequel to M&B in the works (Mount and Blade 2: Bannerlords) I figured it made some sense to write a review for the best of the original series so that we can establish that we too have fallen under the game’s spell.
In Warband you take on the role of an unknown hero, arriving in the land of Calradia, once a great Empire but now a divided and squabbling hodge-podge of smaller nation states. Each nation has its own “style”: the Arabian desert troops of the Sarranids, the feudal central European based Swadia, the Mongolian hordes of the Khergits, the Viking armies of the Nords, the Slavic Vaegirs and Italian Rhodoks. Arriving in this land you are told that you are seeking to make your name and your fortune and you are given a few quick options to provide your character with a name and short backstory. Following this and a completely optional tutorial, the game brushes its hands together and goes “right, off you go then!”
Where the norm of video games is to be spoon-fed exposition and plot and railroaded along a discrete path (with varying degrees of severity and subtlety depending on what game you are playing) it is a rather wonderful and refreshing change to suddenly be handed the reigns and told to do whatever takes your fancy. Of course, I’m not saying that this is an entirely perfect situation, nor would it fit every game made. After all, with complete freedom of choice in what to do, one often ends up with no idea where to start or what to do at all. Even in the mid- to late-game one can find oneself wandering around the map without any clear goal in mind, giving the game an occasionally aimless feel. While the intermittent nudge might have been welcome, in truth the lack of clear direction rather suits Warband, and is a very obvious part of its charm. It’s dynamic, emergent and always interesting.
In-game one travels around the map, a small representation of your character galloping madly across mountains, snowy wastes and deserts, doing whatever one’s heart desires. At the simplest level though as you travel past cities and castles and villages you slowly recruit villagers from various different nations and train them gradually into an elite fighting force who travel with you, levelling them from villagers and tribesmen to knights, crossbowmen and elite footsoldiers. With this band of troops you engage in first-person combat against everything from bandits and deserters in the wilderness to full blown armies besieging cities and walls.
The combat is a large part of what makes the game so successful. Every time you load into the map (and it is the player’s prerogative whether you use the third or first person view) you and your men, and allies, spawn on one side of the map, your enemies on the other and then you charge at each other. Weapons are swung, men are killed in a brutal and mindless fashion, reinforcements arrive and eventually only one side is left standing. Because you can buy and loot equipment it is entirely up to you whether you will be a footman with a gigantic battleaxe, a knight with a lance, a horse-archer or some mix of everything and then you are just given leave to go nuts on dozens of enemies. The melees are absolute clusterfucks with any sense of order or strategy disappearing out the window as soon as the two lines converge, quickly turning into a mess of men swinging weapons blindly. You can direct your own attacks using the movement of the mouse and clicking simultaneously, allowing you to skillfully dart around shields (should that be your sort of thing) but in the end even you will just end up mashing buttons and yelling obscenities.
This is not to say there is no tactical thinking. In fact, while it may be difficult to utilise properly, there are distinct advantages to carefully positioning and organising your troops in battle rather than simply blindly charging in yelling “Tally-ho! Pip pip!” Even if “pip-pip-ing” is perhaps the most amusing and straightforward way of obtaining victory. Inevitably though, because of the system used, this will likely end up being used by only a very small and serious minority of players.
But you know what? It’s absolutely fantastic. The combat is marvelously designed and despite the occasional issue with hitboxes and the rather comical ways a man can die, ragdolling and crumpling wherever they happen to be, it is simply mindlessly good fun. I personally choose to use a lance when on horseback, switching back and forth between that and a one-handed axe for when the going gets tough, and I have to say there is no satisfaction quite like charging across a map, lining up the tip of your lance and smashing it into an enemy at a hundred miles-per-hour, killing them instantly.
As the game progresses and you slowly not only train your peasants into an elite fighting force, one slowly also comes to terms with several other important facts about the game. First, the end all aim of the game is to unite the whole map under one banner, recreating the Calradian Empire. This is a big task and extremely difficult to achieve in that it requires many hours put into the game to do so. Second, you very quickly realise that every other King in the game wants to do the same thing. War is a constant factor of Calradia, each of the six factions usually at war with at least one of the others. As each faction fields in between 15 and 30 lords (or so) and each one of them can theoretically train up an army of troops of their own, this can mean that one might occasionally see pitched battles between hundreds of men on either side. Border castles and cities change hands relatively frequently, giving the surrounding lands and their tithes to new lords, the King of the conquering land dividing up the spoils between his nobles.
It is up to you how you progress through the game, but the end goal is fairly clear. Achieving it, however, is a time-consuming task. Theoretically one could besiege a castle, or even the more heavily defended cities, on your own and take it if your character and his troops are at a high enough level. But without allies this is the easiest way to piss off an entire nation and end up with thousands of troops knocking on the gates of your 50-man garrison. The simplest way to go about your mission is to swear vassalage to one of the six Kings, alternatively one could seek to overthrow one of the existing Kings with one of the various pretenders which exist for each throne, which likely would add another interesting dynamic. Then, from within your allied nation, one slowly builds up a small collection of holdings before breaking off to form your own, new Kingdom.
Even this has its challenges though. In order to swear vassalage, one has to already have a certain level of renown, and in order to receive territories from your King one needs to be liked not only by the King but by his lords as well. Much of the work for this can be done when you are a roving mercenary. You can perform quests for each Lord, speak to each of them, you can gain renown by fighting battles and clearing out bandits, escorting caravans and helping villagers. You can win tournaments and woo noble ladies. You can trade goods across the map, because the trade spectrum and value of goods is as dynamic as the owners of each castle, and you can build profitable enterprises within cities to provide you with a supplement for the income you make selling loot and from your own domain. You can hire followers and train them into true heroes, micromanaging their equipment and skills as well as your own before telling them that they ought to spread the good word of your ruling prestige. Some of them will even get on each other’s nerves, injecting tension into your party which might already have a low morale because they haven’t been fed or paid in a week.
In short, the game, which at first seems so basic and directionless seems to branch out further and further the deeper one explores. There is always options for what to do with your time and one can eventually come to the realisation that you don’t know what to do, not because the game doesn’t tell you what to do, but because you have so many options you don’t know where to start.
That said, as one progresses the issues with a lack of direction do start becoming clearer. By the mid-game, once you have holdings of your own (from a village to a city), a lot of your time will be spent in busy-work, I.e. keeping others from raiding your people. Because you are more-or-less self-sufficient by this stage one finds that quests are fewer than normal and only when you are at war do you really get given anything interesting to do.
Also once you have levelled up a significant portion of your force, pitched battles become surprisingly trivial. Where early game one might be very careful about engaging any army that outnumbers you, for fear of losing all the progress you have made, once you have several of the highest-tier units in your band then you suddenly find you are capable of taking on a good deal more than you had previously.
This is especially true if one pays attention to what units are the strongest and builds ones army according to that. For example, the near-unarguably strongest cavalry unit in the game are Swadian Knights, and one finds that once you have a few of them in your army you are able to ride down literal armies of enemies with surprisingly little effort. With ~15 of these top tier units in my army I have literally destroyed forces which outnumbered me 3 to 1. True, one finds that a more interesting and tougher test of ones forces is in a siege (either attacking or defending) but once you have passed the threshold of having mostly mid-level troops to mostly having high-level troops then even these will often go your way.
At this stage then one tends to find oneself mostly embroiled in busy-work. Attempting to keep away small roving bands of raiders, doing quests to TRY and keep your citizens happy. Overall the game does lose some of its lustre.
End-game could probably be described as when one branches off from one’s parent kingdom to form your own and would likely inject a healthy dose of vigour back into the game as you are forced to control your own Kingdom, Lords and deal with enemies. The only real major issue with the vitality it might inject is simply the amount of time you have to put in before reaching it, after pouring a good 90+ hours into the game I am at a stage where I could feasibly branch off from my parent Kingdom, but even then there is no guarantee that I hold what I have. By branching off you inevitably upset your previous allies, and you also tend to be considered weak and easy pickings for other Kingdoms. Therefore an important factor to creating your own Kingdom is that one has to grind up enough of the best troops so that you can safely garrison your holdings.
I feel that one of the best ways to improve the game would be to add more variety to the mid-game so that it feels like less of a grind. More and more varied quests in particular would be excellent, and I believe that many of the mods are focused around just that.
This brings me to my final point about M&B. Even if one finds oneself growing bored of the game then you will be pleased to know that the game has an active and prolific modding community which could easily allow you to extend your playtime from dozens of hours up towards the hundreds.
Despite repetitive elements and a distinct lack of progression in the middle stages of the game I feel that I cannot recommend Warband enough simply for how well it can embroil you in a medieval world of battle and questing.
|· Entirely open-world provides the feeling of genuinely being a roving medieval mercenary company
· Combat is a good mixture of fun with room for it to be challenging and tactical
· Numerous options and things to do will mean that you are always striving to complete one thing or another
· A very clear and obvious method and sense of progression, which is only made more satisfying by the initial challenge in achieving it
· Customisable character, companions and troop composition provides lots to think about for the best army
|· Hand-in-hand with a “free” style of play is a complete absence of narrative and direction beyond that which you make yourself
· Setting up tactical approaches other than “everyone charge” to combat is, at best, a massive chore without mods
· While early/mid game challenges and play is extremely satisfying, achieving any kind of “end-game” will inevitably require an extremely repetitive grind