Paradox Interactive was cool enough to provide us with three games for review lately, and having enjoyed space combat with Dark Horizon and the conclusion to an eerie adventure in Penumbra: Requiem, it was time to mount up and ride into an open world single player RPG adventure with Mount & Blade. An ambitious title, Mount & Blade offers players a chance to visit the land of Calradia circa 1250 and do everything from buy and trade goods to taking hostile action on a town. While some ideas work, Mount & Blade overall has several glaring issues.
Mount Up And... Well, Go From There?
In Mount & Blade, players begin by creating a character, and you do that by answering several questions about the character you're creating. The questions you will be asked include 'what was your father' and you'll have a choice between things like 'a warrior,' 'a thief,' 'a blacksmith,' and so forth. You will also get to choose your gender and adjust several different sliders that affect the appearance of your character. That done, you're ready to head out into the open land of Calradia, but before doing that, it's not a bad idea to try the tutorial.
The tutorial takes players through combat on foot and on a horse by leading them through a text based series of room to room trials. Even the tutorial showed signs of a game that wasn't very polished; the AI that comes out to attack you during tutorials involving blocking was almost embarrassing. The AI, like the rest of the game, looked several years old and more importantly acted unrealistically, almost like a puppet that could move its arms and legs but not its torso or head; it just looked awkward. The same can be said when he went to strike; I also saw the first signs of sketchy collision detection. I did think the blocking system was pretty neat however, as your character blocks depending on which way you were facing. It's easy to have your character perform a block against an incoming attack from the side or your head simply by moving the mouse in that direction and pressing a button.
Horse riding is simple, but trying to hit a target with your bow and arrow or sword while riding is pretty hard, although I'm sure it is in real life too. Not only was it pretty hard, but it also seemed inconsistent, with seemingly very similar strikes recording different measures of damage on the opponent. You can tell the damge you're taking and receiving by the scrolling in game log that pops up in the bottom left of your display; it will indicate how much damage you're dishing out and taking in.
Once you start the actual game, you'll be presented with a large map of Calradia. You can choose to gallop over to one of many little towns, there must be at least thirty total although I did not take a firm count, spread out between four kingdoms. When you click on a town, you have the option to ride in and talk to the NPCs, recruit some folks, or take hostile action. Each town has an elder that might just have a little quest for you, and you can also trade food and cloth and other goods with townspeople. Quests include gathering items from another town, and escorting livestock, for example. There aren't really a lot of dialogue options with the townspeople, but they're at least to the point – you can ask about the latest rumor in the town, and if someone knows something, you'll usually get a good tip like where to find a certain good cheap. You can also ask them how life is in the town. The variety of responses you get isn't very deep, nor is the variety of NPCs from one town to another. The NPCs also seem to be mulling about in these towns doing and saying nothing, just walking, stopping, turning, repeating. They almost seem more like a bunch of zombies than people working hard for their living, as they all claim to be doing.
That's essentially what this game is all about; visiting these towns, talking to folks, getting a quest, recruiting more men to ride with you and trying to kick some ass when favorable. There really isn't a hard and fast direction to take, and for many, that can be addictive and interesting, but I personally like more structure, unless a game is full of other compelling reasons to play. As you'll see online, many gamers are really enjoying this title, and mods for the game are easily installed and there are several out there. Still, there are some major issues with Mount & Blade that should not go unchecked.
A moment ago I was talking about visiting the towns in Calradia and interacting with NPCs there. Well, as I like to do in 'open' games, I decided to attack the townspeople after I had already to go into the town, not when I was outside of it and the game asked me if I wanted to take hostile action. Should you decide to do this, be prepared for – disappointment. Nothing happens. If you try to punch someone, hit them with an arrow, run into them with your horse, or use any kind of weapon, nothing happens. With arrows, I noticed my ammo depleting, but I couldn't even get an NPC to turn their head much less take damage. This type of oversight is major in my opinion.
On the other hand, I visited a castle. There were like, three guards, inside the entire courtyard. One was guarding a dungeon and said I needed to talk to the King to get access, although he also admitted no one was being held. Once again, just to see how the game handles it – I decided to attack this guy. He actually took damage, and how. He simply stood there, flat footed, while I put arrows into him until he finally fell over. It just seemed ludicrous to me that he didn't react; I mean I've played games well over a decade older than this game that had more believable AI.
Another issue I had with Mount & Blade that I touched on earlier was the lack of any direction at all. I can appreciate the openness of the game, allowing you to run about gathering and declining quests and so forth; but the other issues overshadow this in my opinion. Without a clear direction, you'd better enjoy what the game has to offer or you can bet continuing to play is going to be tough.
The presentation doesn't help much either. As a huge fan of retro games, I understand graphics and sound aren't necessary for a game to be great. That said, when graphics are bad, especially when 'they shouldn't be,' you can't help but notice. Visually, Mount & Blade seems more on par with something that came out eight to ten years ago; the polygon count is very low, the colors are drab, the lighting effects are poor, and there are 2D sprites all over, like the trees for example. Given the other technical problems, it made me wonder if this game couldn't have really benefited from several more months in development (although you might say what game wouldn't benefit from that). As far as the sound, the soundtrack isn't bad, but it's a little too constant and too noticeable. I also thought it was just a little out of touch with the game in that the music was moving at a more excitable pace than the events in the game. There aren't many voiceovers at all, but a lot of text, and the sound effects are okay.
Perhaps the overarching concern for me, personally, was that the sum of these issues above make it tough to enjoy.
Judging from some reading online, Mount & Blade has already gotten a respectably sized fan based that seem to suspiciously give it scores of '9.5' and '10' all over the place. While I find these scores to be way off, Mount & Blade seems to be the type of game that you either get into and enjoy, or if you're like me you'll tire of it quickly and not intend to come back. You're best bet is to head over to Tale Worlds' website and grab the demo (which is actually the full game with a level limit of six imposed) and play it for yourself.