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Graphics: Sometimes a game will use the latest DirectX and dazzle us with deep colors and brilliant lighting effects. This is not one of those games; however, that doesn’t mean that Taleworlds hasn’t made the most of their engine. Using graphics technology that is a couple of years old, they have managed to create well rendered battlefields, sieges, castle interiors and people; soldiers with shields even sport their lord’s specific heraldry (including yours, if you become a lord). Also, by placing towns, cities, battlefields and siege sites on a strategic movement map for boring cross-country treks, the game’s very modest system requirements more than meet its needs. They are so modest, in fact, that even as I write this review in Word 2007, Mount and Blade is running in the background with no performance loss in either application.
Interface: If Mount and Blade was just a game with tactical battles, you’d be seeing a 4 or 5-star rating in this category. The battle interface is well situated and can be tailored several ways, while being out of the way enough that you can go about the business of knocking heads on the battlefield without obstruction. Yet the interface for the strategic portion of the game needs some work. First, there is no indication of how many days of food you have left. You can open your inventory and see how much food remains, but there is no way to know how long it will last, even though you can get accurate reports on how many days of food a garrison you have besieged has left. Second, there is nothing on the strategic interface that shows whether various armies are close enough to join a battle you have initiated. Because Mount and Blade employs a model of warfare that emphasizes medieval concepts of vassalage, the lords of a particular kingdom own their armies rather than the kingdom as a whole. As a result, instead of one large army wandering around, you instead see groups of smaller armies traveling and fighting together. This is great, but armies move at different speeds based on the skill of their commanders and their composition, so sometimes they get spread out. The game engine allows these armies to join together in a battle if they are close enough together, but since there is no indication as to what that distance is on the strategic map, I’ve been caught unawares on more than one occasion, either seeing extra enemies join a fight unexpectedly or friendly forces not showing up when they seem nearby.
Gameplay: Even though this game can be labeled as a CRPG, don’t install it expecting a story you must follow or a rules-set that gives high-level characters hundreds of hit points requiring 30 or more whacks from the biggest, heaviest battle axe to kill. If that’s what you’re looking for, then this really isn’t going to be your game. Mount and Blade is so free-form that you can role-play almost any conceivable medieval character with any possible moral outlook. The key to enjoying the game is setting your own goals and working to achieve them. The gameplay is so good it’s hard to tear yourself away.
The game, however, seems to have a few problems that mar its beauty. There is a nasty bug that crops up after large battles involving multiple lords that causes the game to crash with unnerving frequency. Also, the lack of a printed manual forced me to depend on the tutorial, which taught me what I needed to know about combat, but didn’t cover many important parts of the game, including some of the practical effects of honor and whether or not renown had any impact beyond increasing the number of men I could lead. Extensive trial and error can easily overcome these and other questions, but I sincerely hope that Taleworlds will provide documentation upon release to clear up these ambiguities.
Sound FX: The sounds and voices of battle are well done and sound professional, but outside of combat, they are rather sparse. The towns and villages in particular need a bit more audio engineering to sound alive, and castle interiors (when not in the middle of combat) are strangely silent.
Music: The music included in the game will have you spurring your faithful steed (if you have one) on to glory; however, there are not enough tracks included. As a result, the music gets stale a bit quickly. There’s also a quirky issue in which the music decides to start and stop at random times and never in line with what is happening in the game. I’ve experienced the noble, triumphant music start in the middle of a shopping spree in town, and noted it become strangely silent during a later battle.
Intelligence: Again we see a disheartening division in the game’s strategic and combat elements. Tactically, the AI is good. Well trained and disciplined troops with good leaders try to form coherent battle lines and fight together; using the appropriate weapon for whatever situation is at hand (undisciplined and inexperienced troops with no leader fight in a disorganized fashion, which is also good). The AI handles cavalry and cavalry archers very well on the battlefield, using them properly and not sending them to needless defeat by fighting the wrong way. On the strategic map, however, the AI’s behavior is baffling. Sometimes the it can’t seem to make up its mind whether to attempt to flee or to fight a battle, resulting in numerous instances of armies pacing back and forth on the strategic map, alternately running from enemies they spot that are stronger than they are, and then trying to resume their previous action when the enemy is no longer visible. Also, while armies travel together to achieve a common goal in war when under the banner of a particular kingdom’s marshal, they don’t try to move at the same pace, scattering units everywhere despite supposedly campaigning together. It’s too easy to exploit this and defeat the majority of a kingdom’s military with only a small army.
Difficulty: Mount and Blade includes a variety of ways to customize its difficulty, with everything from limiting feedback in the interface to controlling blocking. As such, you can easily tailor the game to suit your skill level and make it enjoyable. Without documentation, however, some aspects of the game have a rather steep learning curve that could have been eased with two sentences describing how to properly couch a lance in cavalry combat or what effect increasing your proficiency with a given weapon has versus increasing your skill in power strike, throw or draw.
Overall: Mount and Blade is a lot of fun. At an expected price of just under forty dollars, it offers more replayability and entertainment than many full-price titles. Despite a few small problems, anyone looking for a change of pace in CRPGs and their combat systems should really pick up a copy.
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