Mount&Blade

a review of Mount&Blade
a videogame developed by Tale Worlds
and published by Tale Worlds
for Microsoft Windows
text by Matthew Sakey

3 stars

Bottom line: Mount&Blade is “the best legal use for $22.”

If you have a choice between spending twenty-two bucks on a matching pair of eighteen-year-old Thai hookers or spending it on Mount & Blade, go with the former. However, within legal and moral limits to the concept of “best way to spend $22,” Tale Worlds’ horsey Medieval sell-n’-stab extravaganza is up there. It’s marked down since the game is still unfinished, but even the full release will only set you back $29. And if you calculate entertainment value in a sheer hours-to-dollars ratio, you’re likely to come out way, way ahead with this one.Indie games are always a mixed bag, like indie films. On one hand you have your Alien Hominids, your Armadillo Runs, your Mounts & Blades. On the other there are games that are the equivalent of “art” produced by that one weird kid you remember from high school – the one who dresses in black and tries so hard to be artsy and alternagoth but can’t quite conceal the fact that he has no talent, and his “art” is actually just a canvas painted black. It’s buyer beware in the world of indie games, my friends. This is one where the buyer can go for broke with confidence.

 

While most commercial developers make us pay fifty bucks to beta test their work and then trickle the patches out over a period of months or years, Tale Worlds has said flat out that you’re getting a unfinished product for your 22 bones. It’s become one of gaming’s most popular and beloved beta tests, in version 0.808 as of this writing, and it’s more stable and polished than any of a dozen major releases I’ve played in the last year. The husband and wife team toiling away in their little office in Turkey have produced a real gem of a game, one of those up all night classics that seem so thin on the ground these days.

Half economic sim and half blood-drenched melee combat, Mount & Blade strikes a fine balance of action and loot-peddling, with a bit of heraldric drama thrown in. The Swadians and the Vaegir have been at each others’ throats since time immemorial, and now there’s a war on. It’s an environment tailor-made for the ethically challenged, those who are willing to trade a little morality for a lot of opportunity. And that’s where you begin, you lowly SELECT YOUR PROFESSION SQUIRE HUNTER PRIEST MERCHANT. You are but a twig cast on the churning current of war, and by God, you’re gonna profit from it.

In a nutshell, you travel from town to town buying low, selling high, and getting accosted by bandits along the way. Starting with essentially nothing – a glue-candidate horse, maybe a chipped weapon and something to trade – you must build your financial empire, piece by piece. But there are a lot of opportunists out there who wouldn’t mind making their money by taking it from you, so if you plan to strike out into the countryside you’d better bring some muscle. Sharply limited funds keep you humble at first, saddling you with peasants eager for glory and maybe a town watchman or two. You won’t be able to hit the broad side of a barn early on either, and that glue horse steers like Jabba the Hutt. As your fame and fortune rise, though, you’ll find yourself at the head of a glittering column – armored knights, eagle-eyed sharpshooters, hot swordvixens, you name it.

And it’s really as unpretentious as that. They buy furs at a premium in the town of Suno, and there’s a big fur industry in Khudan. Point A to Point B. Stop at Point C to pick up ale, which they want back at Point A. Of course, Khudan is Vaegir and Suno is Swadian, and sooner or later you may have to declare for one side or the other. But the politics haven’t been fully integrated at this point, and it’s just as profitable to work freelance. One thing the game lacks (right now) is an organic economy; you can keep stuffing furs into Suno like it’s Liberace’s closet and the price still won’t go down. Dynamic supply and demand would add a lot. Regardless, eventually you’ll realize there’s more profit in the bloodstained goodies hard-won on the battlefield than in salt and dried fish, and that’s when the game really takes off.

Combat comes swift and furious in Mount & Blade, and newbies would do well to take the combat tutorial and spend their first few hours fighting exhibitions in the arena. It’s necessary, you see, if you hope to get comfortable with what is to this day the best horse-riding and close-range combat model in video gaming – yes, better than that too. And that. Brutal and simplistic, combat is seconds to learn (seriously: left click attack, right click block. You’re done) and a lifetime to master. More than a dozen interconnected skills play a part, and exquisite play balance means that even at very high levels, you still have skill improvements to strive for. You may be a bandit Cuisinart, slicing through hordes like Paris Hilton through blow, but you’re a Cuisinart that still has room for improvement. It’s the combat that you’ll keep coming back for, and it’s what you’ll never get sick of.

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These battles start small, but as your coterie grows so does the enemy. They soon involve dozens of characters on each side, and between braining deserving souls with your mace, you’ll be in charge of issuing battlefield commands and keeping your people in order. Along with simply looking to start fights and mastering your trade routes you’ll pick up assorted quests, ranging from caravan escorts to bandit hunting and even damsel-in-distress rescuing. There is no rest for a vagabond swashbuckler merchant, not when there’s money to be made, but I wouldn’t mind a little more variety in the side jobs. It would help keep the overall gameplay from becoming too stale, and it’d flesh out the history and politics of the game world.

The fan community supporting Mount & Blade crossed the border into Scary long ago; they do not like to hear negative things said about their game, and they will respond with a grammatical wasteland of flames should you post such on the official forums. The good news is that that same community has produced outstanding support materials and documentation for the game, clarifying a lot of points that you’d otherwise have to leave up to trial and error. They tend to be friendly to guppies who identify themselves as such, so if you find yourself lost in the game, the forums are the first place you should go.

Sweeping if repetitive music is easily replaced by background MP3s (the soundtrack is good, but it grates after the thousandth cycle); nothing beats bashing heads to the sound of Slipknot. Most impressive, given that this game is largely a two-person job, are the classy graphics that employ advanced goodies we’re more used to in broken top-shelf games than cheap indie titles. We’re talking shaders, dynamic lighting, the good stuff. It can’t compete with the best of the best, of course, but it never claims to try. Mount & Blade won’t cause trouble for a modern PC, though older machines may suffer from the nonexistent resolution options and limited advanced controls.

This game’s a freebie download. You only have to part with your $22 once you’ve reached sixth level, which is both perfect and kind of cruel. The point at which the game stops and demands that you feed it another quarter is exactly the point at which the little voice in the back of your head whispers “we must own this game.” So for the price of a movie with popcorn – or, if you prefer, a pair of teenage Thai hookers – you can get a game that promises ongoing evolution, huge fan support and hours of skull-cracking fun. Seriously, how often do you get to hear the words “Stop, that I might brain thee!” outside of Thanksgiving with the family?

–Matthew Sakey

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