Mount & Blade: Warband was originally released on the PC in March 2010, itself a re-imagining of the original Mount & Blade, which was published on September 16th 2007. Exactly nine years to the day after the very first title in the series, the Warband edition has been re-released on the Xbox One and PS4.
There’s a certain amount of animosity surrounding the eighth generation of consoles concerning remasters. It seems that for every original title, there’s an older game which has been ever so slightly tinkered with and relaunched at near to full price. Well, Mount & Blade isn’t full price. It’s only £15.99. It’s also not a remaster – it’s the exact same experience as you had on your PC some 78 months ago. It doesn’t come with it’s Napoleonic or Viking expansions, or any graphical upgrades. It also doesn’t support mods on either console, arguably the element which elevated the mediocre vanilla experience to something which could be considered great. It does still support multiplayer, though. Limited to isolated battles of course, like the original. Bearing all of that in mind, let’s start at the beginning.
Mount & Blade: Warband is a roleplaying game set in a medieval land named Calradia. The focus here is on the medieval life as you would expect it to be: There are no fantasy elements, no spells to wield and no monsters to slay. You create any character you wish, male or female, young or old, with status or without. Following this, you’re dropped into the world at a location determined by the choices you make during creation. There is something of a storyline to follow at this point, but it’s very vague, as the main draw of M&B is it’s open-ended gameplay in an open world.
You can join and work for six different factions, or even start-up your own should you see fit to ransack a town and take it over. You can marry into love, or into wealth to meet your business needs. You can quest for the factions or the politicians of the land, and you can ultimately become King or Queen of Calradia should you so desire. It takes more work to get there if you start as, say, the daughter of a penniless urchin instead of the son of an aristocrat, but it’s possible – and that kind of open flexibility is what makes the game really interesting to play. But there’s some work involved to get to that point too, as for the first three or four hours you’ll likely be feeling as though you’ve stepped back in time, and straight into a huge turd.
When Warband was released on the PC in 2010, it looked bad. Untouched in 2016 on the Xbox One and PS4, it’s abhorrent. It doesn’t just look bad; it’s awful. Not in that original Deus Ex way bad, or Tomb Raider, where it’s aged as you would expect. It’s a terrible looking game. The sound is something of a nuisance too, with combat-style music blaring out even when you’re casually walking through a town. If you turn the music off, you’re treated to dull and badly sampled grunts and clangs, which also don’t go far to allaying fears of wasting your hard-earned cash on the game. The switchable first / third person view points are both as equally unwieldy, and it has the made-for-mouse-and-keyboard feel when playing with a controller. If you can get beyond all of that – the visual, aural and mechanical atrocities – there is, incredulously, a decent and interesting game underneath. I stop short of calling it fun, because it really isn’t, but it can be an engaging experience.
Whilst pursuing whatever goal you have in mind for your created character, you travel from town to town on horseback recruiting your Warband. You can forgo this, but you’ll not last long without taking the time to build up a small army as your entourage. Travelling takes place on the world map, a zoomed out view of the land of Calradia, with towns and other locations shown as a representation, rather than to scale. As you travel, you’ll be stalked by bandits and other such misfits in real-time, and you can assess your warband’s power in comparison to theirs thanks to handy numbers displayed by the groups. The more people you have in tow, the more ‘persuasive’ you can afford to be with these ne’er do wells.
When you ride into a location or meet up with groups on the map, that area is loaded in as a separate, independent playing area, where you can see all of your army and yourself up close. In towns, this largely consists of you walking around, asking the people of the area about their history and beliefs, and visiting persons of importance who you can use to further your own goals. In the field, you may find yourself entangled in small to large-scale combat, with a particular focus on fighting from horseback. It’s here where, back in the day, the unique and tactical melees made people take notice of the game – where it elevated it’s status above mediocre and into something better. It all seems rather slow and clunky now: Block an incoming attack by pushing a direction and your.block button, then press your attack button while moving in any direction to attack around the enemy’s person. Personally, with the stiffness of the animations, I much prefer to use the default hit-block-and-the-game-chooses-the-best-place-to-put-your-shield setting, while still having control over my characters attacks. In a post Dark Souls era, this gives you the best combination of useful tactics and decent gameplay, as timing your attacks takes precedence. This is undoubtedly where Mount & Blade shines the most, and it’s a good job, because some of the larger battles can be quite lengthy and punishing, and if you don’t use your cavalry and archers properly, expect high casualties. Even if the graphics and sound are lacking, the tactics play quite realistically, and it provides an experience that is only equalled by Creative Assembly’s Total War series.
Siege battles are quite something to behold, too. Now, we’re not quite talking Rome: Total War, but they are tactical and hold a certain amount of spectacle, especially if you’re the aggressor. It’s important to plan the siege properly too, making sure you have your shield men up front, with the archers behind them as you attempt to storm the castle walls.
After spending a good few hours exploring the land, taking on quests, growing your personal army and forging relationships with the games various factions, the process suddenly clicks, and you find yourself drawn in to the world, with it’s changing economy and fragile politics. It takes a lot of perseverance to reach this point, and it’s accurate to say the more you learn about the mechanics of the world you live in, the more you’ll enjoy the medieval simulation. If you do reach this point, you’ll be happy that you did, I’m sure. If you like the idea but can’t get past the horrendous presentation, you may be interested to know a sequel is in the works; a bona fide Mount & Blade II. With motion capture and a much updated game engine, we can expect a game which has not only the tactical battles and complex simulation, but one which has the looks and sounds to match.
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