Mount and Blade can be an incredibly frightening franchise to get involved in. It’s a grand exploration, expansion, and combat sim that takes place at some unspecified point in a medieval time, in a fictitious medieval land. Knights, lords, ladies, peasants, and bandits all scuttle around the various kingdoms of the land of Calradia. You start out as some kind of ambitious warrior or adventurer. You can be a noble, poacher, steppe hunter, or any other number of vaguely defined classes. The game throws you right into the world, sets you up with a simple quest, and then lets you figure out how to fight on horseback, command armies, deal with diplomats and lords, and marry into royalty, all on your own. If it sounds a bit complicated, that’s because it is.
The thing that most people don’t realize, or say, is that Mount and Blade: Warband (the new M&B game that offers a host of new options to this experience) is nothing like all of the medieval RPGs out there. It’s really Sid Meier’s Pirates! set in the Middle Ages. It isn’t a strategy sim, a castle or city building sim, or any kind of sim, really. It isn’t concerned with finely, painstakingly recreating one particular brand of industrial or civic construction or management. It’s a vast host of almost-minigames, wrapped up in a few RPG bits, just like Pirates! The important difference between the two games (aside from just about everything but the setting) is that where Pirates! Was possessed of a surprising wit and whimsical humor, Warband is humorless, drab, and stiffly obsessed with its brand of authenticity.
Warband adds some excellent features to vanilla Mount and Blade, but it also adds some completely useless ones. I’m going to avoid discussing the added multiplayer because it’s completely opaque and lacks any of the sinuous, hard-to-find charm of the single player campaign. Suffice it to say that combat in Mount and Blade has always been a finicky, hate it or love it thing, and it’s incredibly difficult to master when playing against a computer. The UI and controls are one step away from being completely incomprehensible. Imagine playing a jousting/sparring sim with the steepest learning curve ever (and bad controls) and then imagine playing it with the charming, charming denizens of the internet. It’s a toxic experience, and only the most diligent, ardent fans of the game’s single player combat will bother sticking around longer than an hour. They’ll probably go back to the single player, and they’d be right to do so.
The single player portion of Warband is a game of exploration, fighting, and skill and character nurturing. Once you’ve come to terms with the game’s clunky, almost feedback-less combat, you’ll start riding around the countryside, hiring troops, and attacking all manner of travelers, bandits, and wanted men. So, if you’ve played Pirates!, you’ll be completely at home. You take missions (which have incredibly annoying time limits), collect rewards, buy and sell people (prisoners) and items, and attempt to create a name and reputation for yourself.
This is the part of the game that I wish had some more meat on its bones. Hiring heroes is a lot of fun and should be deeper than it is. Warband thankfully expands on the original game’s meager vassal options, but I still wish that I could do more with my individual followers. You can give them items, fiefs, and send them out into the kingdoms to spread the word of your war party’s prowess and might. You can also marry (though it’s unpleasantly difficult to do this as a woman) and award your spouse a fief. I’d rather it weren’t so difficult to marry when playing as a woman. Even if you can convince a noble to marry a rough, “unwomanly” (as all of the NPCs constantly remind you) sort like yourself, you’ll often wind up as his vassal or as his knight commander. You can never be the leader of that particular medieval partnership.
This may be historically accurate to a degree (though noble wives would have controlled the finances of their fiefs and lands while their husbands were at war, if we were being completely historically accurate), but it’s not fun gameplay. It’s an issue symptomatic of how Warband approaches the place where “authenticity,” fun, and gameplay meet. In this game, it’s always an awkward meeting.
None of the things that should delight a lover of medieval history and culture (even if you just love Stephen Biesty’s Castle Cross-Sections) will actually delight. The mounted combat, while difficult to master and carefully modeled, is not unpleasant to perform. I love the fact that you have to properly aim and set your lance before charging mounted and on-foot opponents, but I hate the fact that the game’s nonexistent documentation and minimal animations make every mounted encounter a thing of luck and mishap. The same goes for all combat. Blocking, swinging, and arrow shooting are all carefully realized, but the technology (that of the UI and that of the animations and enemy responses) are generations behind what they need to be.
Warband is considerably prettier than its forbearer. Characters and interiors are more detailed, and the pop-in that was so incredibly distracting the first time round has been toned down. It is a game that no longer tears at your eyes whenever you open a door or mount the crest of a hill. In fact, at dusk and dawn, on snowy hillsides and seaside towns, it can be a rather beautiful game. That’s as long as you don’t actually watch anything move for longer than a few seconds, that is. Animations are of the creakiest, stiffest variety.
The awful animations work hand in hand with the bad AI to produce laughable, boring combat encounters. If you have units of archers, footmen, and horse, you might want to order them around like one can in a Total War game. These three basic kinds of units are tailor made for certain kinds of attacks, after all. In Warband, orders can be given, but they rarely prevent a huge medieval dog pile. Every single unit jumps onto or attacks every single other unit. Archers rarely keep enough of a distance (to deter deadly melee attacks), and horse ride into the thick of things and then sit there and die. Again, some of this might be somewhat realistic, but all of it is boring and difficult. Time and again I’ve spent 30 minutes mopping up bandit groups because every single one of my units is dead or unconscious.
I love the idea of Mount and Blade: Warband. I want to become the leader of my faction, rebel against the rightful King, and find love (or, more likely, money) along the way. I just want to do it in a world that isn’t cracking at every seam. The quality of a game’s animation shouldn’t break it. When a game’s central conceit (here, mounted combat) can only work with the aid of reactive, informative, and clear animations and UI design, that game had better get every single UI element and bit of in game feedback right. Warband does nothing of the sort. It spends all of its time assuring you how cool and deep its simulation is and then forgets to make that simulation fun or playable.
I’m still playing Warband, despite all of this. I think I’ll roll a new hero soon, one who focuses on hunting and riding, and isn’t as concerned with trading and talking. I love the idea of this game so much that I look past its glaring faults and inefficiencies. I love the diplomatic and social elements despite the fact that if you blink you’ll miss them. I love the battles despite the fact that they aren’t that fun. No one else out there is doing what Mount and Blade is doing. That’s not enough for most people, but if you can take the punishment, maybe it’ll be enough for you.