The 2010 Game Developers Conference is under way, and so is the ongoing beta test for Mount & Blade: Warband, the upcoming expansion to the unique medieval hybrid action game from developer Taleworlds and publisher Paradox. Like in the original game, you can play as an ambitious young warrior noble in search of fame, power, and conquest, though Warband's single-player campaign will give you access to new paths to power--specifically, by marrying into a wealthy family. The campaign will let you woo your potential mate with song and with your long, long, long…list of battle accomplishments, but that's not how we spent our time with the game. Instead, we jumped headfirst into the game's already-thriving multiplayer beta.
Warband is currently undergoing an extensive multiplayer beta with hundreds of players pounding the servers daily, trying out the expansion's six new multiplayer modes (which will include free-for-all Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Siege--a team-based mode that requires the attacking team to capture a castle and the defending team to repel the onslaught). All multiplayer modes will support up to 64 players (competitive modes will support teams of up to 32 players each), and surprisingly enough, the ongoing beta has plenty of 64-player games running at this very moment. The game offers six different nationalities as factions, and each faction has several character classes to try--since this is a large-scale medieval combat game, some classes are more useful than others in various situations.
In our session, which took place in a full-on 64-player siege, we played a few rounds on the attacking team as a Norseman, trying out each of that faction's three classes--the archer, a very lightly armored ranged fighter; the huscarl, a heavily armed melee warrior; and the scout, a lightly armed soldier with a small shield and handaxe. This particular siege map started us out just beyond the walls of a castle, with a gigantic, wheeled siege ladder available for pushing, as well as a few smaller ladders on either side of the keep. Warband is based on an enhanced version of the original Mount & Blade engine--much of the work on the expansion is being poured into balancing the game and its physics for multiplayer, but veterans of the first game should feel right at home with the expansion. Like in the original game, you can commandeer a horse and pick off any enemy infantry with a dramatic lunge (assuming you don't miss horribly or your enemy doesn't spear you with a pike), though since our mission was storming the castle, we left the horses behind and went for the siege ladders.
In Warband's multiplayer, life is cheap, and death by crushed skull or arrow-in-the-throat happens all the time. In several cases, while we made our feeble attempts to set up ladders, we took well-placed arrows from defending soldiers clean in the face. Warband's archery, like its swordplay, isn't a simple, button-mashing deal--it requires precision and careful timing. Your accuracy when firing an arrow is extremely compromised if you're on the move and will also decrease if you nock an arrow and hold it too long. Fortunately for us, our opponents were already extremely high up the game's learning curve and had no trouble feathering us with arrows multiple times before we made it up into the castle. Once inside, we experienced the chaotic and brutal nature of Warband's melee combat--repeatedly.
Melee seems deceptively simple in Warband--you left-click to perform a melee attack (you can also hold down your left mouse button to prepare a stronger attack and then let it go to unleash it) and right-click to block with your shield, if you have one. However, in the confines of castle keeps and narrow walkways, battles can become crowded quickly, and carefully timing and aiming your melee hits becomes a lot more challenging. You also need to make the seemingly simple decision to either attack or defend, since you can't use your shield while you're attacking or charging an attack. In addition, in Siege mode, castles have various heavy wooden doors that can be opened freely by the defenders but must be chopped down by attackers in order to pass.
Smart defenders, like the ones we faced today, make judicious use of opening doors just long enough to allow through one or two attackers to cut down or to send out a counterattacking force in a swarm. In addition, doors can be smashed only by melee weapons, but Warband lets you pick up weapons and shields dropped by any fallen friends or foes nearby, and if our multiplayer session was any indication, there won't be any shortage of those in any given game. Warband also has heavier two-handed weapons, such as cleaver swords and two-handed maul hammers, which don't let you equip a shield but do let you put a quick end to one of your enemies if you can place your strike well enough.
Warband's competitive multiplayer modes are already chaotic, brutal, and action-packed, and with some more polish and balancing, they will hopefully attract a large enough fan base to make 64-player games happen regularly. The game will ship later this year.