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.

mountblade_pic.gif

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

Comments

24 Responses to Mount&Blade

  1. Cool. I don’t understand what you mean by skills, though; is it stat grinding or combos or what? You’ve given a good sense of the global structure of the game, but I’d like to hear more as to how a two-button combat system is given depth in itself.

    (Nitpicking: “. . . slicing through hordes like Paris Hilton through blow. . . .” Ugh. The hookers part isn’t funny, either.)

  2. toups – M&B is a standalone game, not a mod. It should run fine on most modern systems, provided you have 1.5GHz+, 512-1GB memory and a recent generation video card. Give the free download a try; its performance will indicate how the whole game will play.

  3. This review makes me feel sad. Why does this review make me feel sad? Someone please get this man a classy escort who won’t bang him for his buck. Oh god, now I’m doing it. :(

    ‘hours-to-dollars ratio’! The whole first paragraph reads like it’s on some sort of irony bit, but he keeps going.

    I give no *’s to this review, sir.

    Did I not ‘get it’?

  4. I should elaborate. I don’t like to be negative, but this review offends me.

    The writer of the piece, is throwing ‘haha paris hilton haha’ bits in for absolutely no reason. This feels like the work of a professional* writer who has been writing long enough that he is simply going through the motions.

    It feels like you’ve forgotten what works and what doesn’t.

    Lets look at your hookline.
    “the best legal use for $22″
    That is ice-fucking-cold. I know you don’t really mean it, so why the fuck would you say it? You’re just going through motions, satisfying your routine. You can’t even stand by it in the review. You fall back to the weaker claim that regarding uses for $22 it’s “up there”.

    What does this game mean to you, what stands out about your experience with it? Why should anyone ever play it?
    I’m not knocking the game, I’m knocking the review. This review tells me nothing about this game.
    Why is the game “up there” on my uses of $22, why did this game get a rating of three stars out of four?
    I have no idea.

    “haha jabba the hutt”, I know it’s a freebie download, and that it costs $22 for the sixth level, thank you mister price sheet.

    I like videogames. I think videogames have some actual merit. I think some of these things are artistic and can be appreciated. Beyond that idealist nonsense, I have enjoyed playing videogames. I have enjoyed playing videogames and I find a review that in no way addresses enjoying videogames offensive, it tells me nothing of the experience that will be taken from this game. It offers me no insight as to what I might take from it, nor any into what you took from it.

    All this review tells me, is what this videogame would take from me; $22.

    *I in no way am suggesting a level of skill. Only that his motivations can at times be measured with dollar signs.

  5. oligophagy asked “I don’t understand what you mean by skills, though; is it stat grinding?”
    Yes, M&B does have stats. As usual, you gain experience points, advance a level, and then allocate the points to Strength, Agility, Intelligence or Charisma. Some of these factors then have sub-skills. That may sound complicated to anyone not used to the concept but it is very well handled and actually quite simple. Between levels stats don’t get in the way much but they do quite reasonably control which weapons you can make use of, etc.

    As with spending money on armour, weapons, horses and food, allocating points is like a child in a sweet shop – so many desirable items to choose from. Learning how to make the best choices is a vital part of the game.

    Stats and equipment purchasing also apply to your companions, Marnid and Borcha. Finding and recruiting those guys is an essential early stage of the game.

    All the medieval towns are fully 3D realised and can be walked round. Very impressive!

    Battles are also fully 3D. In battles people can be on horseback or on foot; if your horse is injured you revert to being on foot.

    Weapons include things to throw (knives, stones, etc), things to aim and fire (arrows and crossbow bolts, which require bows and crossbows), and things to hit with (clubs, swords, maces, all sorts of other nasty devices). You can obtain shields.

    The map screen, which appears when you’re travelling, is effectively only really 2D but perfectly adequate for its purpose.

    There is absolutely no fantasy in the default version of the program. Some of the numerous mods available might include it though.

    It’s a superb game but as the reviewer says the missions need more variety. That will almost certainly come as development proceeds.

    Hope this is helpful, John

  6. I’d forgotten how much fun M&B was–thanks for reminding me! Dl’ed it and have been lance-skewering pirates for the last two days.

    And I don’t get what Lurky’s talking about; I thought the article was funny as hell. Just because the dude can make a joke doesn’t mean he doesn’t respect games, dude. I thought it was a pretty thorough review: every aspect of the game, plus some background info on the company (cool that it’s just two people), and some snappy writing:

    “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.”

    Told me something about the game, but also cracked me up. I’m looking forward to your next review.

  7. Lurky: I know this must be trying for you, but this is actually how people write about things outside of a videogame setting. They make observations, and jokes, and humorous comparisons to things that actually happen to people when they go outside. Nuts, I know!

  8. There isn’t anything in the review to indicate Sakey has ever gone outside. There isn’t anything to indicate Sakey has ever felt an emotional response in his life.

    He mentions Thai hookers, but he doesn’t say anything about Thai hookers, he doesn’t tell you about Thai hookers he passes on his way to work, he just suggests that you know, Thai hookers, um they’re out there, in the world somewhere, I bet there are a lot in Thailand.

    It’s completely impersonal. Humorous comparisons are never made to aspects of his life, if he was pulling out funny anecdotes about the time – whatever, it might be charming. The references are all pop culture references, they aren’t things outside; they are things on TV.

    It just feels fake. Sakey is making some very cheap shots at trying to establish insider/outsider relations through arbitrary pop references. He takes a shot at Paris Hilton, because haha everyone hates Paris Hilton. He mentions Jabba the Hut, oh because he’s seen star wars, as if to illicit ‘wow I’ve seen Star Wars too, he’s just like me’ in the subconscious of his reader.

    He gives tidbits of background information, but they don’t serve to say anything about the game.
    “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.”
    What did that say? It tells me that a husband and wife team worked on it. Umm ok, but how is that relevant, you (literarily, Brendan) could probably suggest something interesting about how their work dynamic resulted in the game before you. The “a real gem of a game, one of those up all night classics that seem so thin on the ground these days.” is in no way related, he could have said that without mentioning the wife and husband, or he could have mentioned the wife and husband without the shallow praise. Neither of these bits seems interesting, and they don’t add up to anything.

    He explains small details, but why? What overarching intent does this piece have beyond the dollar-to-hour ratio? Ignoring that, the thesis would seem to be “Half economic sim and half blood-drenched melee combat” why wasn’t that the tagline? That almost says something. Maybe some huge fan of economic sim games, and bloody melee action games would read that and go ‘DAMNS need to buy me that game’, but to the average reader did that explain why anyone would want to play it? Is he really catering to an audience so engulfed with gaming, so thoroughly engaged with gaming that these disconnect fragments will be meaningful. Is playing a game just inherently a worthwhile activity?

    It feels like a nihilist wrote it.

  9. I take that last bit back, that was mean,
    let’s just say it feels nihilistic, and that bothers me.

  10. This is an interesting example of people reading the same thing differently.

    I found Sakey’s review humorous and informative. I think it shows that he did his homework (the very “two people in turkey” line Lurky deplores demonstrates that) and it gave me all the information I need. After all, what is a review? It’s meant to tell us whether or not we’d like the game. He also tossed in some wit that made me smile, even if it’s not to everyone’s taste. Based on this review I know that

    the combat is excellent
    the graphics are good
    it should run on my slightly older PC
    there are two basic modes of play
    the economy needs work
    the fan community will help me if I need it
    the game is free to try and affordable thereafter
    the music is nice but gets old
    it’s a straightforward game that nonetheless keeps you entertained

    What exactly is your complaint, Lurky? It seems that you have an issue with this writer’s style, not with his review.

    I’m curious why Mr. Sakey hasn’t responded.

  11. Mr. Sakey has been a professional writer long enough to realize that if you hold out for universal acclaim you’re going to be waiting a very long time. Lurky’s opinion is just as valid as my own, or anyone else’s.

  12. Good god, Lurky. What do you want? This is a video game review, not a PhD thesis. I gotta go with Failer–I learned all I needed to know, including a level of behind-the-scenes knowledge that many reviewers don’t possess, and I got a few laughs in the process.

    And lines like “It’s completely impersonal. Humorous comparisons are never made to aspects of his life” strike me as odd. How personal should it be? He didn’t code the game. He played it. He liked it. He told us about it, about what was good and bad. Are you really saying that for this to be a useful review he needs to introduce humorous anecdotes from his own life?

    And by the way, bravo to Mr. Sakey for his response. Very classy to acknowledge that everybody’s entitled to an opinion.

  13. I haven’t play M&B in a while and this review has me jacked up to go check for the latest updates. I’ve forgotten how much fun it is to wade through the enemy on horseback in full platemail. Those are good times.

    I agree with the reviewer. The economy is broken, the combat is excellent, the graphics are good, it’s as straightforward a game as there is, but yet I can’t seem to get enough. I’ve killed countless numbers of “Sea Raiders” using the same tactics in the same landscapes (more or less), yet it never gets old.

    Good review. Funny too, which is more than I can say for most reviews (books, video games, movies, or otherwise).

    Thanks for the review, now I am off to sell me some River Pirates at $20 a head, which is the same price I paid for head from that Thai Hooker last… Oops!

  14. First-time comments are held in limbo until a moderator okays them. After the first comment is approved, your comments will show up automatically after you post them.

  15. “What do you want?”

    something like
    “Plenty of gamers saw Painkiller as just an ultraviolent romp through Demon Land, which is fine. But for those who care, it’s also a stirring artistic reflection on the concept of death and the nature of the afterlife, reaching stratospheric heights of thematic sagacity in the mind-blowing final mission, when gamers looked around and collectively whispered, “this is exactly what Hell would be like.” It’s weird to think of Painkiller as deep, but it is – if you want it to be. Not having much of a story, it also demonstrates that depth can be achieved in lots of ways. But the important thing to remember is that however you played it, however you saw it, it was a profound and powerful game. So yes, those games are still lots of fun, assuming they’re good games.” – Mr. Sakey

    which is from
    http://www.igda.org/columns/clash/clash_Feb05.php

  16. I’m sorry. Is your point that he actually _is_ an excellent reviewer?

  17. That Culture Clash column is really good! Can’t believe it’s escaped my radar for this long- thanks for pointing it out, Lurky. I second Brendan’s suggestion: you should try writing a review. You sound like you’ve got passion enough for it.

    I would consider this review fairly successful, as its made me download Mount & Blade again, months after I deleted it because the horse I started with steered like, well, Jabba the Hutt/other sluggish creature of your choice.

  18. “months after I deleted it because the horse I started with steered like, well, Jabba the Hutt/other sluggish creature of your choice.”

    *grin* I feel your pain, Perseus – be patient. It’s not you, it’s the horse. Once you have the cash and a slightly higher Riding score you can invest in another breed (Heavy Hunters are my favorite). They corner like an Endor speeder. ;)

  19. One complaint with your review: putting Alien Homonid alongside Mount ‘n Blade. It’s basically just a flash game ported to consoles and it shows.

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