I know this isn’t going to be a popular sentence to open with, but I only play Mount & Blade: Warband these days for it’s multiplayer. I know, it’s single player is a well crafted, incredibly deep experience that stands as a testament to it’s minute budget and tiny development team, but I’m forever fascinated with how it has always handled online gaming. Here two teams of up to 100 players each, fight one other with primitive medieval weapons in a series of close knit sword and shield fighting, occasionally interspersed with the odd crossbow bolt and horseback spear. It’s a unique experience, and one that grows with each outing.
With Fire and Sword heralded the introduction of the gunpowder age, bringing with it early muskets, pistols and even hand grenades while still retaining much of the core elements of the Mount & Blade universe. Napoleonic Wars goes one step further, ushering in the 19th century with organised regimental fighting, a stronger emphasis on the mighty gun and the first introduction of usable artillery.
There’s no single player campaign to speak of, which, despite my early statement, is a bit of a disappointment. The prospect of adventuring around a Napoleonic era Europe in what could have been the closest we would have gotten to a role playing version of Empire: Total War, is a still an immensely appealing one, and it’s omission here will likely mean some M&B fans might halt their plans to buy this new DLC outright. It’d be a shame if they did, because by playing to it’s multiplayer only strengths (there is a separate offline skirmish mode as well, but you’ll have to deal with some patchy AI) it presents one of the best iterations of online M&B to date.
A cleaner and easy to understand interface is one of many new improvements. The bizarre economy system of the previous games whereby money was won for each successful kill but lost on your death, has been completely ditched. There’s no option to purchase new weapons or equipment this time but a generous selection of playable regiments for each of the five available factions (Britain, France, Russia, Austria and Prussia) make up for it. Although it’s implied each of these regiments carries different strengths and weaknesses, it’s never really explained what these may be in the otherwise informative menus. Often the choice of which regiment to align with boils down to how colourful and fancy their uniforms look.
Infantry and cavalry combat remain a pivotal part to the game, and the maps themselves are impressive in both number and scale. New here are the engineer and artillery classes. The former sacrifice ranged weapons for the ability to build makeshift fortifications, constructing things such as sandbags to help offer protection for team-mates or sapper charges to chip away at destructible enemy cover. The more creative engineers have even been known to skilfully use their talents to help bypass the defences of the enemy team, digging mounds of earthworks so that friendly soldiers can climb their way up and over past previously inaccessible areas.
Artillerists also lack the ability to engage in soldier-to-soldier fighting. Instead they take charge of a variety of stationary and movable artillery pieces ranging from the standard cannon, through to mortars and even early rocket launchers. Although the best artillerists can carve out huge chunks of infantry with one successful hit, the advent of long range artillery on the battlefield doesn’t sway the balance of the game to these skilful few. Sticking close to the reality of 19th century warfare, loading and firing cannons is a long and difficult process, and scoring perfect hits is never a guarantee. More often than not they become relied on as support, a vital tool to destroy things such as the walls of a fort or a house being used for cover by the enemy, but never something that can dominate the battlefield.
There are other selectable units too. Musicians in the form of flutists, drummers and even bagpipers can march into the chaos of a full blown battle with nothing but a cheery tune to protect them. Absurd you might think, but these soldiers, as well as those who opt to swap a musket for a flag, can offer bonuses for their team-mates that can buff things such as reload speed or aiming. You can almost sort of understand why some people would opt for these roles rather than getting stuck in with the fighting, chiefly because that fighting itself can be very difficult.
Muskets where never known for their accuracy or power, and none too surprisingly, shooting a gun in this game is simply a case of taking aim, pulling the trigger and hoping that the bullet will connect with something. It can be frustrating to begin with, until you realise that everybody faces the exact same problem. This isn’t a game where you’ll be carving up the scoreboard with huge kill streaks, and combined with a reloading time of upwards of 20 seconds, which must be performed while stood absolutely still, combat is a slow process. Oddly however, it can also be quite rewarding.
Most of the time you’ll only ever get one chance to land the kill shot, there’s a tension built up as you line up those sights and pull the trigger, followed by sheer panic and adrenalin fuelled excitement as you lunge in with a bayonet charge. The larger servers play host to huge battles faintly reminiscent of those fought in the time period NW is set, where even strangers seem to work together to get the upper hand. It’s not uncommon to see large groups of players queue themselves up as they prepare for one huge charge against a fortified enemy position, or lines of people hugging the cover of a wall so they can lay down suppressing fire on advancing troops. Something about the limitations of the game actually seem to lend themselves well to instinctive team-play.
As for game modes, there’s quite a bountiful number of them to choose from. Deathmatch, Team-Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and the Battlefield inspired Conquest mode are all fairly standard. Duel is a small scale competitive mode that pits you and another player against one another in a single fight to the death. Battle mode can see up to 200 players fighting to destroy the other team but with only one life per round, turning it into a tense stand off where you value each shot you take as it might end up being your last.
Siege mode has always been a personal favourite. This sees one team with limited lives taking up arms to protect their flag surrounded by fortifications and cannons, while the other team with unlimited lives has to punch their way through to capture it. Artillery becomes a necessity for both, either by softening up attackers as they approach or by toppling the intimidating walls that the defenders are currently camped out on. Battles here can be frantic and bloody, the last stand at the end of a match can turn into a mess of close range bayonet charges and battle cries.
Finally, Commander Battles are a new feature that tend to focus on strategic warfare. This sees each player getting assigned a number of non-playable troops who can be ordered about. There’s a fairly broad and varied range of commands to issue as well, with the ability to use line formations and order troops to fire only on your order. There are some flaws however, such the beginning of each map where every player and the soldiers they command are spawned in the exact same spot, leading to the first few minutes of having to untangle everyone, and the AI isn’t the brightest, sometimes refusing to acknowledge your orders when you need them to, but on the whole, it’s an interesting and more tactical game mode, and a vast difference in style of play from anything else on offer.
Napoleonic Wars certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of ambition, throwing elements into an online game most developers would cringe at if only because they don’t involve the usual (and overused) trappings of the most popular multiplayer games out there. What it does suffer from are teething problems. Bugs and glitches that seem to be a symptom of something that was rushed to release.
These currently range from horrendous lag spikes that can bring the action to a halt for a few seconds, to entire groups of players being randomly teleported to the other side of the map due to some glitch in the destruction physics. There are glitches that prevent bonuses from musicians being used and others that force you to sit and wait when joining a game as it struggles to load everything up. These are by no means critical bugs, they don’t happen often enough to call it a total write off, but they’re problems that persist and dilute what is an exceptionally unique, and quite addictive online game. Teleworlds have been quick to patch some of these problems out though, and with luck should bring the most critical problems under control soon.
But is it worth it in it’s current state? Yes, it is. Personal bias might have a huge effect in that statement give just how enamoured I am with Napoleonic Wars at the moment. Mount & Blade still does online multiplayer gaming in such a unique and interesting way that it’s hard for me to condemn it for the bugs and glitches that currently infect it. Not everyone will be the same however, and as with the series itself, Napoleonic Wars is still very much a niche game that’ll appeal to a niche audience. An audience that will no doubt appreciate and love it in spite of it’s flaws.
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