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Mount & Blade

Score: 73%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Taleworlds
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: RPG/ Action/ Free-Roaming

Graphics & Sound:

Most games that involve horses don't do our four-legged friends justice. Whether they're used as the player's transportation (The Legend of Zelda, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion) or as an effort to appeal to the young female demographic, their history as fierce war machines has been largely (and oddly) ignored by the game development industry. Taleworlds' Mount & Blade seeks to revolutionize the way gamers look at horses, by giving them the chance to experience the glorious symbiosis between a man and his battle steed.

Mount & Blade's presentation is easily the weakest aspect of the game. I'm not kidding; this game's graphical and audio design is a last-gen effort, at best. I can think of only one way to appropriately describe the extent of this game's aesthetic deficiencies: picture The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind... after receiving a couple of blows from the ugly stick. I know this game comes from an independent developer, and I'm inclined to be more lenient because of that, but Jonathan Blow's Braid has proven that being an independent developer is hardly an excuse for your game to look like it belongs on a long-defunct console. No matter how you design your character in the beginning, he or she will likely possess one feature that doesn't look right. The physical elements of the game's character creation system are passable, for the most part, and this can result in the creation of some decent looking faces. However, heads usually don't match bodies in color; for example, my knight (Sir Killsalot) has a sun-swept face... and a pasty body that would make Casper the Friendly Ghost grimace. Blood effects are unintentionally funny, as blade wounds usually manifest themselves as a series of hazy red lines that look like they've been spray-painted on the unfortunate goon. Textures are flat and uninspired, and nearly every facet of the game's natural landscaping is a simple, two-dimensional texture. The presentation of the world map is also severely lacking in quality; save for a few trees, some rivers, and your token icy wasteland, the land of Calradia is a barren and downright unattractive place.

With regards to the audio design, there's not much to speak of at all. There's a handful of sound effects, and most of them are handled well; the airy zip of a crossbow shot and the slice of a connecting sword sound realistic and quite convincing. The battle cries, like the blood effects, are comical for all the wrong reasons; they all seem to walk the fine line between savage and completely brainless. What makes this positively hysterical is the fact that many of these battle cries are recycled several times during conflicts. The music is passable, but there's not much to hold on to. There are only a few tracks, and they loop. If the music wasn't appropriate to the atmosphere of Calradia, it would be a serious problem. Instead, it's tolerable.


Gameplay:

Much of Mount & Blade's gameplay is so addictive and deceptively deep that it is somewhat easy to forgive the game's visual shortcomings, severe as they are. The game is an open-ended RPG that at first seems similar to games from the Elder Scrolls franchise, but its overworld works in the same vein as The Oregon Trail and Sid Meier's Civilization in that time passes according to player movement. The world itself is littered with about 150 cities (each belonging to a certain kingdom) to explore, and with the click of a mouse, you direct your party to whichever city you choose. The world is quite dynamic; conflicts erupt and are settled whether you are there to witness them or not, and a text box at the bottom of the screen keeps you informed of all the political goings-on in Calradia. This adds a layer of strategy to the game that is sure to please hardcore gamers; in the case of the casual player, this political strategy can be ignored - after all, much of this game is all about player choice. Groups of enemies traverse the land, and depending on your comparative numbers and strength, the miscreants will either hunt you down or run away. If you find yourself at a disadvantage, you've still got a few options. Most of the time (especially earlier in the game), you can pay them off, but sometimes all they want is to watch you bleed. In those cases, you have no choice but to feed them a dinner of cold steel.

Without question, the combat system is the star of Mount & Blade. Riding into battle on your trusty steed with sword at the ready is undeniably thrilling, and well-timed swings of your weapon are rewarded with agonized shrieks and meaty crunches. Getting into the groove of combat is very satisfying and accessible to boot. Within minutes, you'll be sniping from the saddle, pulling tight figure-eights through the forest, and cutting your enemies down like stray (albeit well-armed) weeds. In addition, damage bonuses are awarded for high-speed lunges that connect with an unlucky foe.

There are no spellbooks or summon creatures to be found in Calradia, and the only tools meant to lay waste to your enemies are... well, the mount and blade. There are no health potions to keep you alive in the midst of an otherwise uphill battle. You get what they had: good old red meat.

If you are downed in combat, you are taken prisoner. When this happens, you lose some items and money, as well as quite a bit of in-game time. This may not seem punishing, but time is an extremely valuable commodity in Mount & Blade, and those who like to stack several quests on top of each other may find themselves quickly overwhelmed if their force is not beefed up enough. If captured, you'll escape from your captors within about a week's worth of in-game time, and if you're feeling especially lucky, you can exact some sweet revenge on your malefactors before they even know you're gone. If successful, you'll have the chance to regain some items you may have lost.

Outside of combat, Mount & Blade comes dangerously close to failure. To start, the story of Mount & Blade amounts to this: you are a warrior in the land of Calradia, a land that is plagued by an ongoing conflict between a group of factions. You decide the rest. You can pledge loyalty to one of the different factions (and those who govern them) and ride around Calradia furthering your kingdom's agenda by force. You could also simply lead a life of pure evil, looting cities and terrorizing villagers just for fun. Everything is completely up to the player, and the choices made often carry interesting consequences. However, this utter lack of direction causes the game to feel like it doesn't have the backbone to hold the sum of its parts together. All of this results in an experience that is considerably more freeform in nature, but at the cost of the game feeling somewhat stripped. Most open-ended role-playing games encourage hours of exploration. The cities and castles of Calradia are completely uninteresting and visiting them (save for shopping, recruitment, and quests) is a near-total waste of time. NPCs wander aimlessly around towns, and many of them say exactly the same thing to you.

The quest design is unbalanced in terms of quality. Many of the quests are mundane fetch-quests that are absolutely no fun at all. As your knight progresses, quests become a bit more interesting, but they don't come close to achieving the level of greatness that the combat often reaches.


Difficulty:

As mentioned earlier, the only death in Mount & Blade is that of your friends and foes. The punishment for falling in battle includes being looted and losing your party. This can be frustrating sometimes, since in some of the larger-scale battles, you may end up losing a large amount of what you've spent quite a bit of time building up. However, much of this has to do with the choice of save system the game presents to you right before you arrive in Calradia.

The most difficult part of Mount & Blade is getting past the game's presentation and diving headlong into the hardcore elements of the game. Combat takes a while to get used to, but it's a total blast once everything clicks into place. Learning to micromanage your ever-growing party in particular is a skill best learned through practice. The best choices for your character (politically, strategically, and in terms of quests) are rarely apparent, but the game lets you learn from your mistakes.

This is a game that doesn't end (yes, it goes on and on, my friend). How much time you will end up spending with Mount & Blade depends entirely on what kind of gamer you consider yourself to be. Most will come back to the game for its exciting and satisfying combat. Some will want to create multiple characters with vastly different abilities. On the other hand, those who are into emergent gameplay will doubtless come up with a huge number of ways to play the game. Regardless, if you get into Mount & Blade, you will find that the game offers quite a bit of replay value.


Game Mechanics:

Mount & Blade brings a fresh set of gameplay mechanics to the table, and many of these are implemented well into the package. Players directly control the sword swings they make by way of subtle movements with the mouse; moving the mouse to the left while left-clicking will cause your knight to prepare for a leftward lunge. Much like the games in the Elder Scrolls franchise, your proficiency with weapons depends completely on how often you use them successfully. Some extra battle options add a layer of strategy to the gameplay, although they are not exactly honorable; for example, when your party of five is faced with thirty looters, it might be a good idea to sacrifice the rest of your men in order to cover your escape. You can also order them into battle to wear the enemy's numbers down while you sit on the sidelines and laugh at the chumps. It's not particularly groundbreaking, but it is entertaining.

The game's standard scenario comes with the full version, but the team at TaleWorlds has voiced their support for user-created content. In addition, TaleWorlds has announced on their website that their Chinese affiliate is already hard at work developing a module based on Chinese history. In short, there's no reason to doubt whether or not we'll be able to participate in countless battles literally pulled from the pages of history. There are a lot of possibilities to explore, and it will be interesting to see what kind of madness the community will end up creating.

Mount & Blade, despite its terrible presentation, is an innovative title that is marred by an occasional lack of focus. I recommend anyone interested in the game to try out the shareware version offered at the developer's website (http://www.taleworlds.com/) before settling on a purchase. Despite its shortcomings, Mount & Blade is a solid start for a unique brand of role-playing, and it offers a special kind of gameplay that I would like to see more of in the future.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

Minimum System Requirements:



Windows 98/ME/2000/XP/Vista, Pentium 766 MHz or Compatible Processor, Direct3D 3D accelerator, 700 MB Hard Disk Space, Direct-X Compliant 64 MB Video Card, Keyboard, Mouse, Speakers
 

Test System:



AMD Athlon 64X2 Dual-Core Processor 6400+, NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTS, SoundMAX Integrated Digital HD Audio, Windows Vista, Sony DVD RW AW-G170A ATA Device, 2x 1GB DDR2 at 400MHz

Microsoft Xbox 360 Zoids Assault Windows Warhammer: Mark of Chaos - Battle March

 
Game Vortex :: PSIllustrated