Do you know the bad thing about having a Sunday Column? Apart from the divine wrath for abusing the sabbath, when there’s a sale on steam for the weekend or week it’s over by the time you read this. Luckily, I have a portable time machine! Like fuck I do. If you actually believed that, you are banned from Gaming Daily. From the internet even. Infact, I ban you from life. I have admin tools (I think), don’t make me use them.
Back on topic; this week on steam there was a 50% sale off all Paradox Interactive games, and one of these obscure titles was Mount and Blade. I’ve seen the screenshots like everyone else, and it does seem like a bizzare time-warp graphic set from 2001. I’m not a graphics snob, but for a recent game charging £30 retail in those mythic places called shoppeths it seems a tad insulting. On steam though, it is slightly less at £24.99 and now (and one reason I bought it) much more reasonably priced at £12.49. I warn you now, it is a very marmite*₁ game.
There are swathes of shit to wade through, with repetitive dull missions, frustrating combat, bugs and a sense of emptyness, which isn’t helped by an unintuitive tutorial that tells you how to move and combat but forgets to mention the majority of the game mechanics. For instance, at no point are you told what you are meant to do, simply are you dumped on the world map after a laughable character creation. You go to the nearest town, get a mission from some lord to deliver a letter, go to another town hiring troops along the way before getting soundly beaten, captured and dropped off by yourself again. Sounds pretty shit doesn’t it? So let me tell you why I had an incredible amount of fun.
This game is essentially a fucking awesome medieval role play game. No dragons to slay, no dragon gold to steal, no dragonfires to re-light. It is medieval total war, but with you playing as one of your generals rather than the omnipitent hand of the state and battle. You are entirely your own person, and that lack of a main quest means you are free to do whatever the hell you like. Want to be a royal retainer? A pirate? A rogue Baron? Then by all means do as you will. Build vengances, build motivations, find your Evony queen and bone her senseless. Create your own character’s story, rather than creating a story around a pivoting point like your search for Da-da. A fine ongoing example of the role playing opportunities to be had can be found here.
Much like Medieval Total War though, this inital exciting freedom does die down and become a nihlistic adventure (for me at least), where I want an exciting climactic end and some guidance rather than a wearisome slog to an empty “Ye hath beaten everyyeoman in ye lannde! GAME OVER”. Fortunatley, Mount and Blade has a brilliant modding community. If you really do want a search for your Da-da and a climactic build up, there’s a mod to put a main quest in. Fancy the warfare to be more Elizabethan with muskets, halbediers and pikes? Fuck yes there’s a mod for it, and a rather well done one too. Lord of the Rings give you soaring erections? Then mod away.
As for the combat, I realise I said it was frustrating earlier. And quite alot of the time, it can be. But it is actually some of the best combat I’ve played in another sense, especially when you go all Barbie and get a pony to ride. Commanding troops to hold and squeeze together, delaying their order to fire till the last moment for maximum effect is difficult yet rewarding to master. The AI does have little accidents all over the place; running into walls, not attacking correctly, charging aimlessly around like a looney, but when it works it works. Controlling your chap/chapess, timing it carefully to block and getting a satisfying thunk when you hit back, mowing down people with a lance, it’s all rather enthralling. Just occasionally is it annoying when a lucky blow knocks you unconcious and you lose the battle, as you couldn’t be there to command your troops and afterwards you lose all your men and some of your gear, starting at scratch once more.
Mount and Blade is very much about personal taste and willingness to overlook bad design to find the *metaphor for goodness on the inside of your choice*. It’s hard to tell people to buy it as many won’t find that joy, as can be seen by the majority of reviews that rightly overlooked it. It is dull, empty and shoddy in areas, and mod strength and “getting into it” is a tenuous argument. But for those with a role playing flair and swathes of forgiveness that enjoy Medieval fighting, this is the game for you (till a better one comes along).
*₁ – For those of you who don’t know Brit lingo, Marmite is a sandwich spread that ran an ad campaign with the slogan “You either love it or you hate it”. By crickey, that was a boring footnote, I’m afraid I must apologise. In the future, they’ll explain cunnilinguis and such to keep you entertained.