Come see the violence inherent in the system!
HIGH Elegantly awkward combat in a deep open-world RPG.
LOW Too bad it looks like a PS2 game, though.
WTF When do I get to start my own Anarcho-Syndicalist Commune?
For PC gamers, Mount and Blade: Warband is the better part of a decade old by now. That makes it all the more impressive today, considering so few titles on any modern platform have managed to match it in terms of depth.
Following an involved character creation process and a brief, text-based Choose Your Own Adventure affair designed to gauge a preferred style of play, Warband throws gamers into the deep end. With no larger narrative to shuffle players onto some pre-planned ‘epic’ quest and no other goal than to make one’s way in the world, one of the biggest risks to a new Warband player is paralysis of choice. Indeed, almost any course of action is open for the taking, limited only by the resources at hand and a character’s stats.
A brief, optional tutorial takes place to set the mood, starting in the third-person combat mode. Players are quickly taught to navigate towns and speak to NPCs similar to many modern RPGs. The meat of long-term play, however, takes place on a larger overworld, where players and their parties are shown as mounted figures on a zoomed-out continental map. Time passes only as players move from place to place, vaguely similar to Heroes of Might & Magic or Koei’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms games. Seeing NPCs and towns on the map opens up a world of medieval role-play possibilities.
Players can become bounty hunters, tracking down bandits for local villagers. They can prostrate themselves before a local bigwig and attach themselves to his coattails. They can join a local tourney to win big, and perhaps catch the eye of a noble patron or marriage prospect. They can buy and sell goods, eventually founding businesses in towns and building up a trade empire. They can even become bandits, raiding towns for fun and profit while dodging time in the stockades. There’s an intimidating level of freedom available to players of Warband, and while the randomized, procedurally-generated quests and relationships never quite rise to the level of authored RPG narratives, there’s nothing quite like knowing that one’s fate is genuinely up to one’s own will and decisions.
No matter which path is chosen, any success will involve gathering a titular warband, as very little can be accomplished alone. Players can travel the land, hire local muscle, train them into soldiers, and then build up a small army of their own, ready to ride into combat and join in the continent’s chaotic power struggles. Supporting one noble over another can pay dividends if one backs the winning side, including a title and land to rule. It’s even possible to even become king of a nation with enough military force, financial resources, and a few well-planned marriages.
Mount and Blade: Warband‘s combat system isn’t as deep as the RPG surrounding it, but its slightly cumbersome elegance is apparent. Melee happens in third-person and is based around the concept of horizontal/vertical attacks and defending against strikes in any of four quadrants. Fights feel realistic — players will dance in and out of reach, using the analog sticks to determine the angle of both their attacks and defenses, setting up parries and feints in a search for that elusive critical strike. Despite the awkwardness of the stiff animations, there’s a genuine feeling of tension, and every battle, even with lightly armed NPCs, feels like an intelligent duel. Putting this strange intimacy on a battlefield full of dozens — even hundreds of NPCs means that Warband delivers a combat experience that puts the canned flailing of lesser games to shame.
As indicated in the title, mounted and cavalry-style combat is also supported, with spear charges and jousting being the order of the day. Archery and crossbows are a tad less involved but still present a useful alternative, particularly in multiplayer, where enemy players are more crafty up close.
If Warband has a weakness, it’s the abysmal graphics. Despite the presence of light bloom and some decent texture work, the whole thing looks like a late PS2/early PS3 title, with simplistic models and environments that wouldn’t pass muster as tiny units in a real-time strategy game. Of course, the sheer size of some battles and the quality of systems at work definitely outweigh the primitive visuals. Plus, it’s a six-year-old game… it’s entirely fair to cut it some slack.
Other issues include the UI — the original PC setup is a bit fiddly on a controller, owing to the sheer number of functions that need to be mapped to the gamepad. An aspect ratio better-suited to TVs would also have helped, but to the game’s credit, Warband works better than many other PC-to-console adaptations I’ve seen.
Any player with a taste for a medieval warlord’s life and a tolerance for dated graphics shouldn’t pass up the chance to sink their teeth into Mount and Blade: Warband. Though the PC version may be a bit easier to recommend thanks to the prevalence of mods and a more established community, folks without that option will do just fine on consoles. Go forth and conquer!
Disclosures: This game was developed by TaleWorlds Entertainment and published by Koch Media. It is currently available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and was reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 26 hours of play were devoted to the single-player and multiplayer modes, and the game was not completed.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game’s rating is T, and contains Alcohol References, Blood, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, and Violence. The story allows for player choice in a number of scenarios, including the choice to become a criminal and victimize innocents. Gender roles are reflected in the game setting, and playing as a female character is explicitly more challenging due to discrimination.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The game features subtitles in English and minimal voice acting.
Remappable Controls: The game does contain remappable controls.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes in the game.
Today he continues to write for a living while trying to turn his fledgling knowledge of Japanese into a marketable skill. He is Managing Editor of Japanese culture site Japanator and is a Contributing Editor for Destructoid. He has written for The Escapist, The California Literary Review, Esquire Magazine, and proudly holds the badge as the premier apologist for Star Trek Online.