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PostPosted: 21 Jul 2010, 01:34 
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Mount&Blade
Released: September 16th, 2008
Platform: PC
Rating: T(ESRB), 12+ (PEGI)

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Gameplay and Mechanics: 85%
Graphics: 65%
Plot: 40%
Character Development: 65%
Replayability: 90%
Average: 71%

Comments:

Mount&Blade is an interesting animal of a game. Designed by Turkish developer TaleWorlds, M&B was constructed (that's the only way I can describe it) over several years, slowly accruing more features and improvements. Before its official release, the developer allowed fans to buy beta versions at reduced price, which allowed them to download the successively more complete versions of the game, and ultimately, the completed version, which was published by Swedish developer/publisher Paradox in fall 2008. The thing about M&B is, that it showcases a lot of the characteristics of the higher tiers of independent game development: it was developed by a small team, financed by an innovated fundraising system and was eventually picked up by a publisher known for making and selling highly immersive and long-playing niche strategy games. In the end, that's what M&B is, a highly immersive, highly replayable game with several towering strengths, but also many deep and some would say, fatal flaws.

Don't get me wrong, I love this game. It is massively appealing to the crowd which can afford to spend hours getting lost in the nuances and mechanics of a world. Set in the pseudo-medieval land of Calradia, a formerly unified empire which was torn apart centuries ago by internal strife, M&B places you in the boots and saddle of a newly arrived adventurer, come to seek his (or her) fortune in a war-torn and chaotic land. If anything, the way you customize and create your adventurous knight-errant reminds me of Mass Effect. The game asks you a series of questions about your upbringing, your training and your parents (your answers will determine your starting stats, equipment and skills) before plonking you down in a wonderfully complex character creation page where you can tweak your character's face, skin, hair and age to your heart's content.

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Character creation is pretty detailed.

Following this, you are introduced to your hero's character sheet. A D&D or Western RPG player might feel right at home in the in-depth lists of stats, skills and proficiencies, but it might drive a gamer used to more simplistic character sheets to whimpering madness. You have three types of stats: attributes, which decide your character's basic physical capabilities; skills, which determine your character's education and training; and proficiencies, which determine your skill and experience with different types of weapons, like crossbows or polearms. After you commit your remaining free attribute, skill and proficiency points, you are set down on the massive overworld map, armed with nothing but a crappy weapon, a half-broken shield and (if you chose the right background questions) a horse and told to go nuts.

No really, that's it. There's a tutorial accessible from the main menu, but it only gives you basic combat and movement controls., It doesn't explain the overworld, your character sheet, your inventory or anything. This is one of M&B's greatest advantages and most glaring flaws: you have to learn everything yourself, through battle, gambles, setbacks and dumb mistakes which will more than likely cut short your first two or three playthroughs as your would-be knight in shining armour is repeatedly hunted down, beaten, robbed and left for dead by the most pathetic of enemy mobs. This game is unforgiving as hell, even on the easiest (of the highly customisable) settings, but with each playthrough, you'll learn more of what works and what doesn't and eventually, you'll be able to survive those first few battles, make a few hundred gold pieces, buy yourself some decent equipment and go up a few levels...

...and that's when the fun begins...

You see, despite first impressions, Mount&Blade is not a role-playing game. After a few false starts and foibles, you'll find that under the bitter dark chocolate shell of unforgiving hardcore RPG, there's the delicious nougat of real-time strategy goodness. You see: you don't have to fight as a lone horseman (though the option's still there), you can recruit local farmers from nearby villages, or (far more expensive) mercenaries from taverns in one of Calradia's twenty or so big walled towns. In addition to managing, commanding and maintaining your growing band of brothers (and sisters, in the case of the extremely rare, but ultimately quite powerful female troops), you can also train them, either through use of skills and training fields, or by testing them in actual battle. Your troops gain experience and upgrade - even the most pathetic peasant might be honed into a deadly crossbowman, a sturdy sergeant, or a nigh-invincible knight. In addition, you can hire named companions, who have their own likes, dislikes and stories to tell. You can manipulate their skills and stats as they level just as you can your own, and several can be trained to become experts in extremely useful support stats (like surgery, which lessens the amount of your soldiers who die from serious wounds). Beware though, if morale isn't high enough, or they find someone in your party they disagree with, companions will leave, though you can always try to rehire them next you meet.

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A high level army in the Native Expansion mod.

Eventually, when you gain enough fame from killing roving bandits and raiders, one of the warring monarchs of Calradia will offer you a fief and title in exchange for a your loyalty. Each of the five factions has separate recruit types and troop upgrade trees, each with their own strengths and weaknesses: The Swadians (my personal favourite) are French and German-inspired, with well balanced infantry and extremely powerful cavalry. The Vaegirs, inspired by the pre-Moscovite Rus, have powerful archers and strong cavalry. The Viking-inspired Nords have strong melee infantry. The Turko-Mongol Khergits have fast and deadly horse-archers and lancers, but pathetic infantry. The Rhodoks, which draw their terrifyingly deadly crossbowmen and resilient pikemen from the medieval Swiss model have no cavalry whatsoever! Each faction can conquer the other, each side has an equal chance of uniting Calradia under its banner, and each King has a small horde of other loyal vassals, each with their own companies of warriors, and each side has skeletons in their respective closets which they'd rather not speak of. After a while, you will assemble what would most likely be the most mighty army in recent memory, backed by a hardened corps of blood-brothers and sisters and possess wide swathes of territory including villages, castles and cities. Rivals will tremble at your passing and enemies will fall before your honed and tempered lance and blade like wheat before a scythe. You will have wealth beyond imagining, power which shames even the greatest lords and the finest fighting force in the realm...

...and it'll all mean nothing, because you can do fuck-all with it.

Well, okay, that's a rather sweeping generalization. You can still cultivate favour with your fellow lords, or fight in tourneys, or save poor villages from the depredations of bandits, but you won't be able to do anything worthwhile. You can't declare yourself king; you can't unite Calradia as emperor; there's no final boss to defeat, no dark fortress to storm, no princess to rescue and no noble lineage to initiate. Going back to the beginning to play as another sort of character or join another faction is always an option, but the main flaw of Mount&Blade is the the endgame, namely, the fact that there is none. If you play this game, this is what will stick with you the most. There are other flaws, sure. Combat is often unfair and sometimes tedious (there is an autobattle feature, but it is hopelessly incompetent), the graphics are dated and the non-combat options like trade and property management can be boring and simplistic, but the greatest flaw of all will be the fact that the beginning and middle will set such a great stage as you enter Calradia and begin your rise to power. The thing is, after that dramatic rise, the action just... fizzles out...

...or does it?...

Ultimately, the greatest thing about Mount&Blade is the fact that it is infinitely moddable. There are literally hundreds of enhancement packs and dozens of new campaigns, ranging from the Native Expansion, which adds foreign invasions and more endgame content, to WWII Battlefield which transplants the action to the Japanese invasion of China and adds mortars, machine guns and flamethrowers. Some mods are, as always, shoddy and buggy, but others, like the superb The Eagle and the Radiant Cross have fleshed out characters, interesting new equipment, troop types, and backstories that make the bare-bones vanilla plot hang itself in shame. You can get bored of the vanilla M&B campaign in a few days, yet keep playing one mod after the other until you die of old age.

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The Eagle and the Radiant Cross is an excellent mod which is set 250 years in Calradia's future.

Ultimately, Mount&Blade is a damn good game with a hell of a lot of problems. If you are willing to tolerate a weak plot, dated graphics and an utter lack of endgame, then you'll find that M&B is a rewarding, immersive experience with satisfying combat and far too much gameplay for its own good.

Mount&Blade: Warband
Released: March 30th, 2010
Platform: PC
Rating: T(ESRB), 12+ (PEGI)

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Gameplay and Mechanics: 95%
Graphics: 75%
Plot: 65%
Character Development: 68%
Replayability: 100%
Average: 81%

Comments:

Think back, into the mists of distant memory, to the long-ago year of 2008, when Dubya was still president, the economy was in slightly better shape and David Tennant was the Doctor. In that year, a small Turkish developer called TaleWorlds released a sandbox horseback-fighting, sword-wound inflicting simulator called Mount&Blade. Now, this game was hardly bad but it did have a number of rather glaring flaws. It sold to moderate commercial and critical success and was generally well liked but despite easy moddability and any updates, Mount&Blade still felt somewhat empty, somewhat aimless, and the imperfections which were to blame haunted both community and developers alike.

A year and a half later, TaleWorlds released an enhanced version of Mount&Blade titled Mount&Blade: Warband. This updated re-release includes a host of minor enhancements; new armour, new weapons, gameplay changes (for example, the nerfing of the ludicrously powerful lance charge) and graphical tweaks. The majority of these were taken from, or follow the gist of small user-created mods. You see, TaleWorlds, like many smaller scale developers, are like that. They listen to the feedback from their players, and they act on it. The players wanted more than a few things added or changed and the developers responded, delivering what I consider an altogether superior experience. Warband is completely stand-alone and does not need the original to play, so if you ever get the chance to buy one or the other, I suggest getting the updated version, although be forewarned that many of the mods made for vanilla M&B do not work for Warband as of yet.

Warband makes up for the temporary loss of mods (most major projects are either in the process of being ported to Warband or have already been updated to be compatible.) with several major additions. The most obvious would be the campaign tutorial, which walks you through recruiting troops and introducing bandit hideouts, another new feature. In vanilla M&B, bandits would wander aimlessly, but now they have bases from which they spawn. Assaulting and destroying those bases rids an area of wandering raiders and the hoards of loot within are a fine source of treasure. Despite this, the early game is still tough going for new players and can still be a source of frustration and rage.

The second most obvious addition is that of a sixth faction; the Persian-inspired Sarranid Empire, a balanced mix of quick archers, light infantry and deadly Mamelukes, whose lances can turn a melee into a massacre. In addition, each of the five existing factions has been beefed up. Each has been given faction-specific armour and equipment, new faction-specific titles have been given to each lord, and internal politics are now far more interesting, with syndicates of noble lords forming, usually based on the newly introduced family system, which binds lords together into noble houses. Lords can also be persuaded to switch sides to another faction, which introduces some odd sights, like Khergit horse-archers fighting alongside Rhodok armies (which have no cavalry of their own). In addition, lords can be persuaded to join your own political faction, supporting you when you request a recently conquered village for your own or backing your play if you attempt to rebel.

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Warband gives you new ways to commit political backstabbery.

Most of Warband's additions are designed to address M&B's most critical flaw: the lack of endgame and non-combat options. For example, in Warband, it is now possible to woo nobles of the opposite sex into romance and even marriage, creating alliances with other noble houses and creating your own faction. Each noble lord and lady has their own likes and dislikes, and can be pursued through acts of derring-do at the tourney lists, or wooed through courtship poems which appeal to their respective interests. The management of your fiefs has been made much easier as well. Warband allows new ways of making money, like investing in tanneries or other town workshops. New missions for high level characters (like breaking a lord out of a heavily defended enemy fortress) make the later game more interesting. Once you gain enough power, it is possible for you to rebel against your liege lord and try to take over the kingdom, or renounce your oaths of fealty and create your own.

The last thing which Warband adds is probably also the feature that was most requested: multiplayer. Players can now go online and play against one another in a variety of battle types. A match in Warband is much like a match in say, Counterstrike, with player characters spawning, fighting, dying and spending their earned blood money on newer and spiffier equipment. Thankfully, multiplayer characters are not persistent (since even a low-level character is nigh-unstoppable with a good suit of plate mail and an expensive sword) and reset at the end of a game. Multiplayer adds yet another scoop of replayability into the game and offers a quick-and-dirty way to enjoy the sensation of cutting your friend's virtual avatar in half with a bastard sword without the hours and hours of play that would take in a singleplayer game.

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Multiplayer is perfect for some quick good ol' fashioned sword-wound-inflictin' fun.

Ultimately, Warband offers a better experience over all. Its easier to get into, the combat is more varied, the world is more alive and distinct and a single playthrough will occupy you for longer. Nonetheless, both the original and the expansion are fine games. Anyone who likes depth, realistic (and extremely satisfying) combat, a living world which trembles with every mighty stride you take, a complex character creation and customization system, not to mention medieval powermongering, leading cavalry charges from the front and the freedom to hold a sword to destiny's throat will love the experience both M&B and Warband have to offer. All in all, I'd say that if you've had the attention span to read all the way to this point, you'll wring quite a few hours of enjoyment out of the single player campaign. If not, well there's always multiplayer.

Now if you'll excuse me, the Rhodoks are getting uppity again, and it's high time I cut a few of those pavise toting bastards in half...

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FOR KING AND SWADIA! CHAAAAARGE!



"Those are brave men," he told Ser Balon in admiration. "Let's go kill them."
-Tyrion Lannister, A Clash of Kings


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PostPosted: 26 Jul 2010, 20:57 
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Ok, um, this is a very superb review.
...but it's quite long. Try culling a bit. I removed copy/pasted the comments section only into MSWord and removed all the images and captions, and it came out to 3.5 pages. If you could limit just the text in the comments sections to 2 pages default font and margins in Word, then this is will most definitely be approved and put up on the site. (Note the length limit doesn't include your screens and captions--feel free to leave those in.)



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PostPosted: 26 Jul 2010, 22:38 
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I've split the reviews in two, and made some alterations so they work better as standalone pieces.



"Those are brave men," he told Ser Balon in admiration. "Let's go kill them."
-Tyrion Lannister, A Clash of Kings


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PostPosted: 26 Jul 2010, 22:41 
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Mm, those are much more manageable.

*Rubberstamps*
I'll get this up asap. Now even.



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