Your sword, your choice
Great open-world games are lauded for their massive maps, compelling quests and how well gameplay synchronizes with exploration in the created world. Like unfolding a map one crease at a time, exploring becomes a narrative in itself. What random events or epic battles a player encounters in an open-world game, adds up to a personalized story linear games cannot fathom. Enter Mount and Blade: Warband, a PC sandbox conquest-sim that is part point-and-click adventure, real-time strategy, swords-to-shield brawler and one of the most ambitious and great open-world video games to support a narrative completely driven by player choice.
Forging a story in Warband begins with character creation. Players first create their hero to tailor their playstyles. From combat-driven skills such as Power Strike and Horse Archery to more personal skills like Looting or Persuasion, a player can craft his or her character using 24 different skills. Players may invest points in any skill they wish whether it’s early on in the game or after many hours through the campaign. A created character whose battle-driven prowess can defeat dozens of enemies on a battlefield has as much impact on the game as a character whose focus is on leadership and healing troops post battle. Once character creation is finished, players then take their created avatar across the fictional Calradia and perhaps up the ranks of the different factions throughout the land.
Calradia is a land of opportunity for those ready to seize it. There are six distinct kingdoms the player may ally with, fight against or remain neutral to. But whichever the case, each faction is ready to fight for its borders. Turmoil, war, village raids and bandit attacks are all consequences of the skirmishes between kingdoms. Unlike triggered events in other games, these occasions of war and peace unfold randomly in each playthrough. The boldest of players, with a powerful army and extended treasury, may even set out to establish a kingship for themselves and conquer and play politics with the other kingdoms, adding even more variables to the complex equation of Calradia’s already tumultuous state.
Paradox Interactive, the studio behind games like the Magicka series and the Kickstarter success Pillars of Eternity, crafted a well-defined, breathing world in Mount and Blade: Warband. From the deserts of the Sarranid Sultanate to the to the mountain ranges in Vaegir territories, each kingdom, each piece of the map has its distinct characteristics. For example, the Khergit Khanate soldiers focus much of their combat on horseback, while the Nordic armies, who specialize in heavy infantry, are void of any cavalry units whatsoever.
Like the pseudo-culture of Warband’s different kingdoms, the game boasts a very rich soundtrack to reflect each area appropriately. The music in the towns and the beating drums of battle create a deep atmosphere for Mount and Blade, however the laughable voice acting, often heard as grunts and war-screams during combat, are far too repetitious and can rip players away from the ambiance of the world. The graphics, unfortunately, follow a similar suit to the voice overs. In a year that witnessed technologically superior titles such as Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption, Mount and Blade: Warband’s graphics are embarrassingly terrible. The textured map players spend hours trailing across is very simple looking and battlefields look flat, empty and boring. Character models are ugly and rehashed throughout Calradia over and over again. However, the simple graphics design do give way to some large scale battles. Natively, without any mods, Warband supports up to 150 characters fighting on-screen at the same time.
Gameplay is handled in several forms: exploration, text-based narratives and combat. Exploring Calradia is simple as clicking a destination. The camera then follows the player’s miniature avatar, cycling through a day and night cycle, on a journey across the map, breezing past villages, cities, bandits, farmers, lords and kings. Exploration in Warband is like a chess game where everyone takes their turn at the same time. Each piece on the Warband map represents a group, whether a small cluster of farmers or a 200-man army. This information shows up as players get closer to other non-playable characters on the map, a very important nuance to consider when deciding to attack or run away.
Each faction of Mount and Blade: Warband has its own ruler, lords and vassals, patrolling their territory, holding tournaments for all challengers or even possibly raiding a neighboring kingdom. Joining a faction provides the simplest way to earn a living in Mount and Blade. A lord, jarl, or king’s quests may range from an easy delivery mission to a more complicated task of rescuing a family member from a prison. While completing these kind of quests require some combination of exploration and combat, it is the text-based narrative that initializes any quest or dialogue. In fact, a player may even choose to play Mount and Blade as a merchant, utilizing the text-based system to assess local prices of commodities in each city. Buying and selling items, which players will do a lot, and even paving the way to marriage also rely on text-based sequences. Options are limited in these narrative segments, but it’s the context that make them work in Mount and Blade: Warband. The repeated dialogue of a king asking a player to become part of a kingdom creates a more interesting story when that player was just at war against the same king now offering a vassalage.
Finally, the glorious and often times frantic pace of combat completes Mount and Blade’s triangle of gameplay. Combat transforms Warband from a map-scroller to a real-time strategy, third-person action game. Players are dropped in the middle of a battlefield with a plethora of weapons, including lances, shields, javelins and knives, and a legion of troops to command. Jumping into the fray to cut and ride down enemies is satisfying, but so is commanding tens of archers to open fire upon soldiers climbing up a steep hill. Combat momentum can shift between opposing armies at a moments notice. Even a strong, battle-oriented main character fighting alongside veteran soldiers is at the mercy of a massive, almost never-ending army. Strategy, the skill of an army and sheer numbers all play a part in determining the outcome of a skirmish and make each battle in Mount and Blade as varied and important as the last. Warband also features a multiplayer mode. Though it lacks the depth of singleplayer, it is a fun arena-style battleground players can romp through from time to time.
Where Mount and Blade: Warband succeeded in creating a player-driven game, it failed at making it accessible. The tutorial manages to capture the essence of combat easily enough, but it does not prepare players for Calradia. Prepare to wander aimlessly and lose everything you’ve worked for going through the game the first few times you play. A single loss can result in being taken hostage, losing all your gear, troops and Denars, the in-game currency for Warband. Essentially, losing a battle is almost like starting the game over. But as players ease into the learning curve for Warband, the highest difficulty will prove a fun challenge. On the realistic difficulty, which I suggest everyone should play on, the game auto-saves after every decision, battle and dialogue. Whether the last battle was an easy conquer or a complete loss, reloading saves is not an option here.
While some pieces of Mount and Blade: Warband, such as the graphics and accessibility, are considerably weak juxtaposed to its other parts, like combat and exploration, its entirety forms a cohesive Frankenstein of a great game. The learning curve is high, but the rewards of building an army and conquering nations are completely satisfying. There’s a freedom in player choice that only a few games can mirror and Warband is extremely flexible in its playstyles. Mount and Blade: Warband is an extraordinary adventure that’s rough around the edges. Once players get passed the bad graphics, difficult learning curve and terrible voice acting, they will find a gem amongst open-world and sandbox video games.