Retro Review – Mount and Blade Collection
This game was reviewed on the PC.
TaleWorlds Entertainment’s Mount & Blade series has found a niche as an underground hit over the last few years, owing its modest success to its unique combat system, open-world gameplay, and bold rejection of standard RPG norms. Spawning a sequel and a spin-off title, Paradox Interactive, the series’ publisher, has decided to package all three games – including Mount & Blade, Mount & Blade: Warbands, and Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword – into a single purchase. It’s available on Steam as well as other online distributors.
The collection starts with the original Mount & Blade game, the 2008 release that first initiated players into the fantasy world of Calradia. Although slated as a fantasy RPG, there are very few obvious fantasy elements apparent in the gameplay. Calradia is a fantasy world roughly equivalent to our 13th century, consisting of five ethnically and culturally diverse kingdoms ranging from the Mongol-like Khergit Khanate to the Viking-surrogate Kingdom of Nords. In between, there are other kingdoms, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Most of the gameplay in all three titles is comprised of your character riding around the land on the map screen. From there you can ride to towns and cities, run into neutral bandit groups or enemy armies, and either run from them or engage them. Your own actions, however, don’t really have a huge effect on what’s happening throughout the kingdoms. Each NPC has their own personality and agenda, and wars between different kingdoms are constant. You can take advantage of this and hire yourself out as a mercenary; eventually, you can become a vassal of whatever kingdom you respond with the most, if your fame is high enough.
Fame is mostly accrued through battle. At its core, the combat system is extremely simple, involving basic attacks from three directions and a timing-based blocking system. Fighting from foot will involve timing your block to deflect the attack, then countering. Damage is based not only on the weapon you wield, but also on both your skill rating with the weapon and, most importantly, on the movement you put behind your swing. If you’re moving forward, for example, you’ll do more damage than if you’re moving backward.
Armor is also unique compared to other RPGs. It doesn’t just reduce the damage taken from each hit, but high-quality armor will sometimes completely deflect an attack. Swords have difficulty getting past armor quite often, and fighting against a faction whose high-level NPCs tend to wear expensive and useful armor might necessitate switching to a weapon that can either pierce it (such as a couched lance) or smash the bones underneath it (like a heavy mace).
And that’s just on foot. Most weapons can also be used on horseback, and the amount of damage you can deal from a full charge with even a low-tier horse is impressive. Charging on horseback allows you to pierce armor, but it also means that your own armor becomes less effective at speed. This makes charging heavy horsemen or lines of pikemen extremely dangerous.
Luckily, you don’t have to fight alone. You can hire mercenaries or country-specific troops and upgrade them as you earn experience through battles. After getting a few dozen top-tier troops at your back, you can begin laying siege to castles on your own or slugging it out with large enemy armies. This is where the game becomes the most impressive. Battles are sometimes comprised of thousands of troops; and if you’ve been able to become the marshal of your faction (the highest level you can achieve in either With Fire and Sword or the original), you have full tactical control of all friendly troops on the battlefield, making your decisions paramount to the success of your faction.
There aren’t huge differences between the original Mount & Blade and Warbands games; though the latter does significantly improve your ability to influence the politics of the kingdoms. In the sequel, you can rub elbows with the nobility and eventually woo a prominent lady to give yourself a bit more influence through marriage.
Additionally, Warbands smoothes out some of the kinks in the combat system, adding the ability to kick opponents to give yourself a bit more time to line up a powerful attack, and also allowing you to change your line of attack just before you swing (in the original, once you wound up for an attack you were committed to it unless you followed through or cancelled by blocking). Warbands also adds a new faction: the desert-dwelling Sarranids.
When it comes down to it, given a choice between the original Mount & Blade and Warbands, the latter is the way to go. The combat is smoother and more accessible, the politics and trade have been totally revamped and expanded, and all in all the game looks better, plays better, and is much more satisfying.
Mods change the landscape considerably. A very impressive Lord of the Rings mod is only available for the original Mount & Blade, though both titles have an incredible mod community. There are mods for popular book series like the aforementioned Lord of the Rings mod (and even going as far as making a Redwall mod, which makes the 12 year old in me giggle with delight), other video games, movies, and historical settings.
With Fire and Sword is an entirely different beast. Although its US release came months after Warbands, it’s actually based on the original Mount & Blade’s engine and capabilities. As such, the political role-playing, the expanded combat, and some of the trade systems are not present as in Warbands. With Fire and Sword should be understood to be a spin-off of the original, rather than a true sequel.
What Fire and Sword brings to the table is a real-world historical setting. Taking place during the Northern Wars at the end of the 17th century, Fire and Sword has a story based on the 1884 novel by Polish author, Henryk Sienkiewicz. Being in the 17th century, the game also features gunpowder on a huge scale. Individual combat becomes significantly more dangerous; a single shot from a peasant armed with a very crappy firelock can still instantly kill you or your horse.
For the series’ first foray into a historical setting, there are a few bugs present. In order to make the game interesting to players inured to typical replace-your-equipment-every-couple-hours style of play, some liberties had to be taken with technology at the time. Miquelet muskets and wheellocks, which were never used on a very massive scale, are as common as dirt and nearly as cheap even though most armies of the time used matchlocks. The variable quality of the firearms themselves are also somewhat suspect – there are bent, handmade, and quality firearms and even bullets, among other types; it would be much more realistic and accurate to rate the quality of the powder, for instance.
Luckily, they still have the ability to control massive armies. An army of a hundred or so musketeers can absolutely shred your opponents, and commanding them to fire ordered volleys is viscerally thrilling. Because the game does not feature many of the better elements of Warbands, the game sometimes seems like a step backward, but the introduction of gunpowder and the new tactics that it leads to should not be ignored.
Criticisms are fairly standard across the board. None of the three games have much in the way of production value; and although the NPCs impressively pursue their own goals independent of the player, there’s no voice acting to speak of, the quest lines are fairly repetitive, and the writing is sometimes bafflingly stale. Graphically, nothing’s terribly impressive and that alone might turn away some prospective players. The music is nothing special either and NPC lines are presented as walls of text rather than as cut-scenes with recorded dialogue.
The Mount & Blade series comes across as an ambitious idea for a sandbox-style RPG that wasn’t quite given the leeway it should have. It obviously doesn’t have the budget to bring the graphics up to a modern standard, and the lack of player characterization or voice acting makes everything seem a little one-dimensional. But there’s enough here to entertain a player for a very long time, and Mount & Blade easily features the most impressive and realistic combat system to date. Given a budget that even a small American studio might be able to bring to bear, the folks at TaleWorlds could shatter the conceptions of what an RPG can and should do. Although it’s clearly not at that stage as yet, the Mount & Blade Collection is something that every fan of RPGs or medieval combat should try out.
TaleWorld’s Mount & Blade Collection earns an impressive 4 bloodied swords out of 5.
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