Two Turkish game designers accomplish what entire development teams have failed to do in nearly a decade.
Mount & Blade was a game that I always threw into my "Probably not worth playing" pile partly due to the fact that my experience with the beta version some five years ago was less than memorable. At that time a friend had given me a leaked version of the game and begged me to play it, yet when I did I wasn't too thrilled with what I saw. The game had no music, had very little in the way of gameplay and had no working quests at all. It was "indie" in every sense of the word, and not in a good way.
Now, shoot ahead half a decade later and that same friend informs me that he bought Mount & Blade Warband off of Steam for only 9.99 and that if I don't buy it I'm missing out on the best game he's ever played. After listening to him say things like "This game has ruined all other RPGs for me" and watching as he cancelled his MMO accounts (Putting "This isn't as good as Mount and Blade" in the reason for cancellation box) I figured he was either going temporarily insane or the game really was that good. Since he has the same RPG taste that I do I decided to believe the latter and ponied up ten bucks for the steam version.
...and boy was he right.
One of the most used and most misunderstood buzz words in gaming nowadays is "emergent gameplay", and while it sounds good when you read it on the back of a game box it rarely means what you expect it to mean. Games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption claim to have it in spades, but in reality they do not. Too many times people confuse emergent gameplay with simple unscripted gameplay events and think that merely getting into high speed chases with cop cars after brushing up against them or running over a nearby prostitute in GTA is considered emergent gameplay. No, emergent gameplay is when the entire method of playing the game is changed all because of one seemingly random and unplanned event. Emergent gameplay is when something happens that the manual (or your quest log) didn't tell you would happen.
Mount & Blade is full of such events.
A whopping 90% of the game is made up entirely of unscripted, unplanned events that drastically alter your trip through the game and unlock new ways of play. Emergent gameplay isn't just a buzzword with Mount & Blade, it's the very foundation that the game is built on. Since you start the game as an unaffiliated warrior with almost no money and very little in the way of help, your path through the game is decided by how you interact with the people who live in your world rather than how much gold you gain or people you slay. Unlike other RPGs which brag about having lots of interactivity and faction play, Mount & Blade doesn't need to cover up any inadequacies with false promises of unparalleled interactivity...because, quite frankly, it is the deepest and most involving CRPG you'll ever play.
Do you want to join one of the game's six factions and eventually gain enough trust with them to become an official vassal and lead them to victory over the other five factions? Do you want to marry one of their generals and meddle with the political web of intrigue that holds them together? Do you want to sabotage a faction by staging a revolt and becoming their new king? Do you want to create your OWN faction and wipe the rest of the world out in a bloody conflict over several years? Do you want to simply become a master merchant and exploit trade deficiencies and land prices to form the first medieval wal-mart and become the world's richest man without even lifting a sword? Do you want to manipulate the leaders of the world through political arm-wrangling until you have them all eating out of your hand? Do you want to be a chaotic puppet master that instigates wars and backstabs people behind the scenes? Do you wish to remain faction-less altogether and simply carve a bloody path through the game world?
The list goes on and on, but with a game that has no real limitations on what you can do and how you can interact with the world's NPCs the possibilities for so-called "emergent Gameplay" are beyond anything you'll find in any other game...regardless of genre or developer.
So many RPGs today claim to be non-linear yet not a single one of them Can touch Mount & Blade when it comes to free-roaming and limitation-free gameplay. Unlike the Elder Scrolls which still forces you to save the Empire and fight Mehrunes Dagon at the end, Mount & Blade is a game where the story is completely made up by the player. With no real "end game" to speak of, Mount & Blade has a story that is directed by and built around the player rather than being forced upon them. There is no empire to save, there is no evil warlord to kill and there is no real "final level"...the game gives you complete and total freedom to live out your fantasy medieval life any way you want to. Build up your trade skill and buy up land in every town for development so you can become the Bill Gates of the dark ages, or if you prefer just create your own faction and unite the world under your iron fisted rule. Those two scenarios and everything in between are completely possible and totally do-able in Mount & Blades alarmingly open ended emergent-gameplay based world.
One of the most ridiculous (but amusing) examples of this freedom was revealed by a poster on the Steam forums who explained their own method for playing Mount & Blade. This person would play as a female and coerce one of the game's most powerful faction leaders to marry her, and after leading them to near victory would begin to manipulate the faction's leaders behind the scenes in such a way to cause them to lose power. Then, they would leave their husband and shack up with a general from a rival faction and destroy their ex-husband's now shattered forces. Cruel, but incredibly inventive.
I could write the games journalism equivalent to a doctoral thesis on the unparalleled level of depth this game's faction system holds, but that would be ignoring Mount & Blade's strongest feature...
Those who know me are aware of how much of an RPG combat nerd I am. I want my combat fast but complex. Deep but easy to understand. Challenging but not overwhelming. Epic looking but not overly ridiculous.
Mount & Blade not only nails this, but revolutionizes real time RPG combat by having the best hit-detection I have *ever* seen in a game.
Most of the game's combat is done on horseback, with you leading anywhere from a dozen to around a hundred men into battle with your rival factions. While it seems ordinary at first with the standard list of medieval weapons at your disposal, you'll soon learn that nothing in this game is quite as simple as it looks. Polearms, two handed swords, thrown weapons, crossbows, longbows, longswords, bastardswords that can be used either one or two handed, shields that have varying lengths and coverage stats, weapons that change speed ratings depending on how they are held...all of this factors into your character's combat skill and drastically changes the way you fight on horseback. With a mouse gesture system similar to the old Elder Scrolls games (You know, before they ditched it in favor of a simpler whack-a-mole method) Mount & Blade is about as close to perfect as a real time action RPG melee combat system can possibly get on modern hardware. Throw in a hit detection system that even my Counter Strike addicted friend claims is the best he's ever seen in a video game and you can see why a combat nerd like me loves it so much.
Horseback riding has always been the bane of fantasy CRPGs. Though it has been attempted several times before it's either ruined by a game that treats the horse like a poorly controlled car (Two Worlds, Oblivion) or removes the feeling of control and makes it a mostly hands-off affair to avoid any pitfalls altogether (World of Warcraft, most other MMOs). Mount & Blade, however, goes the extra mile in making your horse feel as real as possible. The way it turns, the momentum and speed of the charge adding to your damage rolls, the subtle way it gains traction as you move, the awe-inspiring sound of 80+ calvary units charging into battle and kicking up dust, the way your horse will rear back if you command it to do something that it fears (Like almost hitting a tree or another horse) makes the horse feel like more than a poorly controlled tank or a hands-off "mount", it actually feels real. It's hard to explain in a review so I urge you to look up videos and see for yourself how masterful the mounted combat truly is. Though it does take a while to truly adapt to and appreciate, I doubt anyone could find fault with it once they properly learn it.
Though mounted fighting is fun, the best part about Mount & Blade's combat is the castle sieges and defenses that you will be required to engage in.
Like the siege scenes in the second Lord of The Rings movie, the castle-storming combat in Mount & Blade is the kind of adrenaline pumping action that most RPGs no longer engage in. The term "Unlike most" is getting over used in this review, but "unlike most" games Mount & Blade recreates battle scenes that rival that of Hollywood productions. Like some twisted cross between Zack Snyder's 300 and LOTR's "The Two Towers", Mount & Blade makes castle sieges look as gritty and violent as possible while still maintaining the believability that makes them so exciting. These dynamic sieges, which are easily the most enjoyable feature in the entire game, are where most of the memorable sequences come from in this emergent gameplay heavy RPG. Blood, bodies, and arrows pass by you in a sea of sensory effects that have to be experienced firsthand to be believed. With some castle sieges lasting as long as 15 minutes in real-time, the epic feeling you get from them simply cannot be replicated in any other form of modern media. Indie game budgets be d*mned, Mount & Blade manages to do what even big time developers could never accomplish. That is, make war look (and play) as beautifully as this:
and also this:
Mount & Blade is the first game since Gothic 2 where I felt that the term RPG wasn't just slapped on the box because it has a hit point bar and some dialog trees. Like Gothic and Ultima 7 before it, Mount & Blade is a game that exhibits unparalleled interactivity with the game world and sacrifices absolutely nothing in its quest to make you believe its world is real. With a game that has no real limits on what you can do and has a story that is totally dependant on emergent gameplay and player choice in order to progress it forward, Mount & Blade is as revolutionary as it is fun. While the learning curve is a bit daunting and starting off can be hard due to the lack of help you are given, once you settle in you will soon find yourself hopelessly addicted to the freedom and power this little indie RPG gives you. It simply amazes me that an inexperienced Turkish couple made this game themselves with only a devoted community of unpaid players to help them. What they've created, and what you see for sale on Steam, is easily the best CRPG money can buy.
Like my friend who cancelled his MMO accounts and has already racked up 91 hours with the game over the course of a week, I too think I have finally found the perfect medieval CRPG. One part RTS, one part simulator and sprinkled liberally with startlingly realistic melee combat Mount & Blade is the best PC game I've played in the last 7 years and I cannot believe I waited this long to find this out.
There have been times in my life when a game took me over so thoroughly that I would go without sleep for days and go into work looking like I had been on a heroin binge all weekend. Not since the Infinity Engine was still powering games has such a thing occurred...
If you love hardcore RPGs, non-linear story progression, complete freedom in gameplay and realistic real-time combat then Mount & Blade is the very best thing you could buy yourself.
Just be sure to unplug the phone, close the curtains and save up some sick days, because Mount & Blade is so incredibly addictive that you'll probably never want to stop playing.