I’ve started this article three or four times before, and failed to follow through, Mount and Blade is one of the hardest games I’ve ever tried to explain the appeal of, it’s graphics are five years behind the times, it’s quests are repetitive, it’s dialogue unimaginative, it’s world derivative, but god help me, I love it. Why? The short answer is ‘the combat’ but the truth is far more complicated than that.
Journey beneath the cut to see me fail to explain why.
First, some background. Mount and Blade is an open world RPG/Medieval combat simulator. It takes place in the sprawling land of Caldaria, a fantasy land without Orcs, Elves or Magic. The land is perpetually fought over by five middle ages kingdoms, the Swadians (European Knights), the Vaegir (fur-clad Russians), the Nords (axe wielding Vikings), the Kergit (cavalry heavy Mongols) and the Rhodoks (well drilled, spear wielding Italians), I would eventually ally myself with the latter as they seemed the most modern, even being ruled by a proto-democracy. Players start as a wandering adventurer with a few basic items (generate depending on the origin story you chose) and a horse. The last bit is important, this game is called Mount and Blade for a reason, being mounted gives you a terrific advantage in combat.
Ah, the combat, the centerpeice of Mount and Blade. Those who have played Oblivion might feel at home, you click the left mouse to slash, hold it down for more power and hold the right mouse to block. Where Mount and Blade differs from Oblivion however is in two vital areas: The first is that blocking (unless one has a shield) is directional, you will automagically block in the direction the opponent is swinging, but you won’t adjust if they change direction, this means that blocking is down to timing, bringing your weapon up as the swing begins. The second is the more vital, the game’s physics engine adds damage to your swing based on the speed of your movement, this is where the horse really comes in handy.
But it’s the sense of time and place that makes the battles what they are, real effort has gone into creating the sensation of speed as you gallop along, and the sound of your sword connecting with an enemy is brutal and visceral, arrows embed themselves into shields, and flesh and even nearby trees with a satisfying thwack. It’s the use of physics in this fashion that really makes Mount and Blade’s combat what it is, arrows, spears and blades feel like real, physical objects, not merely moving textures with damage attached, nearly every aspect of damage is calculated using these physics systems, making for one of the most direct and realistic feeling combat system in any game I’ve ever played.
And Mount and Blade really needs this system, because it’s problems are far easier to explain. The first and most obvious is the graphics engine, which is not so much bad as from five or ten years ago, still fairly impressive for a game coded by a single Turkish couple, but poor when compared to most modern games. The second is the repetativeness, while Mount and Blade’s world is large, there are only really a handful of quests within it, and they very rapidly become rather dull. And there isn’t much character to the world either, as I explained earlier most of the factions are simple clones of historic armies, and their dialogue is rarely inspiring. Siege battles are another bugbear, turning the otherwise wonderful battles into dull slugfests.
And yet, the game remains compulsive, and not simply because of the combat, even if one ignores the quests there’s still a lot to do in Caldaria. The player doesn’t merely fight alone, but can recruit armies, training them from peasants into armoured knights. Companions, hero figures who earn experience in a similar fashion to the player, are scattered throughout the land, they can be recruited and outfitted, adding their skills to your own, but often fall out and disagree with one another. Allying oneself with a Kingdom allows one to take castles, towns and villages and be awarded them as a fief, to manage as one sees fit, there are goods to be traded and tournaments to take part in, each Kingdom even has a claimant, who accuses the current leader of usurping his throne, and whose cause you can back.
Eventually I’ll become tired of Mount and Blade, but even then there is a vibrant modding community that can provide additional entertainment. I think I’ll be going for a little while though, my Rhodok armies are besieging the town of Narra, we will drive the Kergits from Caldaria yet.
Sir Dante, sallying forth.