During last year’s Steam Winter Sale, there was a intriguing game with a mind-boggling proportion of positive reviews, many clocking over a thousand hours of play and telling epic and absurd stories of gameplay. I went and bought the series without a second thought. It was pretty cheap, after all. And then I…didn’t touch it. Left it to gather dust in my Library. This little contest allowed me to redeem myself.
The Mount & Blade franchise is made of the titular Mount & Blade, Mount & Blade: Warband, which is pretty much the finished, updated version of the original, its two expansions – Viking Conquest and the multiplayer-only Napoleonic Wars – and a third, stand-alone expansion: With Fire & Sword. I’m going to talk about the most popular one, Warband.
Contrasting with the three expansions, which respectively take place in Dark Age Britain, the Napoleonic Wars and 17th century Eastern Europe, Warband, just like its predecessor/beta/older version, is set in the fictional land of Calradia, which is divided in six factions often at war with each other, each claiming to be the rightful heir to the Old Calradian Empire. Each faction is loosely based on real-life Medieval countries and has its own types of troops, with strengths and weaknesses.
The Kingdom of Swadia, for instance, is largely based on Western Europe, with a mostly balanced force and an emphasis on heavy calvary; the Kingdom of Nords is based on Scandinavia and has the best melee infantry but no cavalry, the Khergit Khanate is very obviously inspired by the Mongols and has a force made up almost exclusively of cavalry units, and so on.
You start the game as a stranger who came to Calradia to seek a better fortune; after choosing the gender and background of your character, shaping their face and choosing a capital city to start in, you get attacked by a bandit. Once the threat is dispatched, a local merchant comes to give you shelter and a little serie of quests to get you started. You are tasked with recruiting some people and defeating local bandits. From this point on, you have complete freedom over what to do. You can safely ignore the starting quest if you so wish, although it can help getting a little idea of the game.
On the world map, your warband is represented by your character on a horse (or on foot if you don’t have one). Likewise, other warbands (peasants, bandits, lords…) are represented by a single character, and moving over to them allows you to fight or talk to them, depending on the circumstances. Of course, they won’t remain stationary, and will either ignore you and take care of whatever task is currently on their hands, actively chase you (if hostile and they think you don’t pose a big threat) or run from you. Thankfully, time only flows when you are moving, unless in special cases where you can’t do anything but wait anyway. Warbands also move at different speeds depending on the number of people, how many are on a horse, and so on. You’re free to go wherever you want, and visit all the towns (there is even an achievement for that), castles and villages. The region is very large; it takes several in-game days to go from one end to the other.
Mount&Blade: Warband is at heart an action game – you will often shoulder a lot of the fighting and cause the most casualties – with shades of a RTS (you give broad orders to your men on the fly) and also some RPG mechanics. For instance your character gains experience when fighting and completing quests, which will allow your to improve some of their abilities, whether combat-related or not; using a certain weapon type will also increase the character’s proficiency with it, gradually increasing damage and swing/shooting speed (and accuracy for ranged weapons). But above all, M&B is a medieval sandbox game.
That’s right, a sandbox game; you can choose to do whatever you want. You can be a freelance mercenary and work with one of six factions only to join one of their rivals at the end of your contract, try your hand at buying low in a given city to sell high in another, steal from villages and attack wandering peasants (running the risk of angering the local lords), join a faction as a vassal (after proving your worth by winning battles and tournaments, especially if your character is female and/or not a noble), join the effort of a claimant to the throne of a kingdom to overthrow the current king, or capture a castle or city and proclaim your very own kingdom…although if you haven’t been properly prepared by bolstering your claim to the throne, the other rulers will be all too happy to deem you a renegade and crush you into dust.
There are plenty of things to do, but many are not achievable right away, such as becoming a vassal to a king. You’re just a stanger with rags an a dingly horse, after all. You will need to build up your renown and increase your relation with local lords and whichever king you want to serve by doing quests for them or help them in their battles. And for that, you will have to get in a lot of fights. But you can’t fight alone against dozens of enemies. That is why you need to recruit troops. There are four main way to do it; go to villages and recruit from the local populace (cheap, but weak recruits, can eventually be upgraded to their faction’s specialized high-tier units), hire mercenaries in taverns (good to get skilled soldiers quick, but very expensive), recruit any prisoners you may have (may fail, lowers party morale if it succeeds, recruits may leave you shortly after), and finally, find Companions in taverns.
Companions, or heroes, are unlike the other rank-and-file soldiers; they have names and a backstory. Like you, they are down on their luck and seek better fortune; like your character, they can level up, you can choose which of their skills to improve when they do and equip them with weapons, armor and a horse you choose. They also cannot die, just like all named characters and yourself. Got hit in the head by a point-blank crossbow shot? You’ll be fine, you’re just wounded. Bunduk got impaled by the lance of an enemy knight at full gallop? He’s only out of commission for a few hours at best.
Once you have gathered a few dozen men and start going toe-to-toe with other lords, battles can become grandiose, with the unmodded game allowing up to 150 soldiers on the field at the same time, which can get confusing and requires you to make full use of the various orders you have at your disposition to direct your different group of soldiers while cracking some skulls yourself.
Overall, Mount & Blade: Warband promises many hours of play and a lot of replayability, further bolstered by the various community-made mods which go from a “simple” complete overhaul of the base game to a completely different universe built from the ground (20th century Calradia? Star Wars? Game of Thrones? You name it).
One of the silly, compulsory purchases I made during a Steam Sale turned out to be one of the most addicting games I own on Steam, already ranking fifth in terms of play time behing juggernauts such a Team Fortress 2 and Civilization V. That’s something. It costs $20 on Steam, but with the Summer Sale around the corner, you too should try it and get sucked into the world of Calradia.