Horses are awesome! No, I don’t mean the ones on icky-poo farmyards that prance about, leaving trails of muck for you step in. I mean the hardcore battlehorses, kitted up with armour, striking fear into enemy hearts as they thunder gallantly across the battlefield, smashing through enemy lines with the ease of a hot knife through butter. Some strategy games have recreated horses so well, like the Total War series. But imagine it on a much more personal scale, imagine being just one of those mounted horsemen, the crashing hooves, and clashing swords filling the air. Few games have tried this, and none have truly succeeded. Until now…
I, Brew van Storm, astride my majestic mount cantered slowly into the courtyards of a humble country village. The sun was rising from hills to my left, and the blinding rays were projecting through the ancient stone archway just beyond the village. My horse slowed to a trot as I passed by the outlying farmyards, and entered into the village centre. The locals continued about their business, as I slowed to a gentle plod, surveying my surroundings. I was directed to the village elder, a grizzled old farmer sporting an incongruous wide-brimmed hat. I enquired about the possibility of recruiting young men from the village to bolster my army, to which the old man found me some suitable volunteers.
With my new recruits in tow, I turned tail and headed back into the rolling green pastures, the distant sea no more than a hazy blue line on the horizon. My faction was at war with the Kingdom of Vaegirs, and we were trying to push back their invading parties. So far we had met with little success, since their superior numbers put us at a disadvantage. However, I had collected a small but elite army of veteran soldiers, archers and cavalry, and was going for a last ditch attempt to defeat their most formidable general. I set Eastwards apace, knowing that the coming battle would mean either my grim demise, or the turning point of our war.
The sun was setting by the time I reached the battleground. The enemy had finished ransacking a village, and were heading further into our territory. I ordered my army into a full charge. My horse struggled up the steep hill above the battlefield, giving me a full vantage point over the imminent clash. I reached the summit of the hill, the sun slowly sinking amidst a fiery red sky. Beneath me, metal smashed on metal as my soldiers made contact with the enemy force. For one long minute I watched the battle hover in the balance, then I purposefully drew my sword. It caught one of the sun’s dying rays, and glowed fiercely, as if with relish for the fight.
My sturdy mount started to canter down the hill. Within seconds we had reached a full gallop, the hooves thundering a deafening staccato across the green turf. I bore down on the enemies at a frightening pace, and aimed a sword strike at one of the foot soldiers. The force of the blow, combined with speed of my horse proved instantly fatal, his lifeless body flung forcefully across the ground, soon to be trampled by my cavalry. I then made a beeline for the enemy soldiers, throwing their long range attacks into disarray. I received two arrow wounds in the pursuing skirmish, thankfully neither of which were fatal, and caught many, many more arrows on my trusty shield. But the enemy archers fell beneath my cold steel, or the merciless hooves of my bold equestrian companion. The battle ended with a complete enemy defeat, my remaining men cheering and chanting, waving their weapons furiously in the air. Again I clambered up the hill, observing the battlefield as the final dying rays of the sun sank beneath the horizon, leaving behind a whorl of oranges and reds dominating the sky. We had won a battle, not a war. But for the moment, that is all that mattered. There were hard times to come, this was just the start, but for tonight we would celebrate. Finally, the tide had turned.
Mount & Blade takes place in the Kingdom of Calradia, a fictional Medieval locale, brimming with towns, cities, and vast castles. There are a number of opposing factions warring within the battle-scarred lands of Calradia, each vying for dominance. As a newcomer, a wayfarer and adventurer, you have no set career path; you are free to roam the lands as you please, forging and breaking alliances, and making friends and enemies.
The idea behind M&B is one that really appeals. Medieval warfare was absolutely fascinating, and battles with swords, lances, and bows make for extremely compelling gameplay. Swordfighting, for one of the first times in a game is entirely skill-based. Rather than have preset buttons for preset swings, the developers have designed a fluid gameplay mechanic that relies upon your mouse movements to control the sword. It must have been incredibly hard to create, but it works surprisingly well. When pitted against a foe, you can slash or jab from any direction, and can also parry their attack if you are quick and accurate enough.
Some weapons are one-handed, allowing you to hold a shield in the other hand. That makes blocking attacks comparatively easy, well until the shield breaks through excessive battering at least. If you have a two-handed weapon, defending is a lot harder, meaning you are open to every attack unless it is parried successfully. You will need quick reflexes, and require some nifty mousework, but some true swordsmanship against a worthy foe is something that feels staggeringly satisfying to accomplish. Like any skill-based game, proficiency comes with a lot of practise, and with proficiency comes a heightened enjoyment and appreciation of the game.
If you have ever played a swordfighting game like the Dynasty Warriors series, where you slash your way through lands full of enemies almost single-handedly, you can forget all about that. M&B does not make you some elite warrior with a vast amount of health, inhuman strength, and ridiculous sword skills. You are only too aware of the fragility of life as axemen slash at you, and enemy archers devastate your health with well placed arrows. And every army consists of varying units, so even if you took out an army twice your size on the last battle, you can easily be wiped out by superior or long range units from the next army if your troops are not so effective against the unit type.
There is actually a moral element to the game as well, allowing you to make the good/evil or light/dark decisions that some games employ so well. This affects your interaction with others, and how they view you, but does mean the game will play out slightly differently depending on how you act throughout. For instance, do you steal cattle from a village, and lower your reputation with them, or do you help them find grain to plant their crops, making them your friends? And the ruling forces of the area will be aware of your actions, and may also take action accordingly.
It must be said that M&B has a very distinctive beauty. There is a constant day/night cycle going on, and as you see the sun rising over grassy glades, then setting over the sea in a bloodshot sky, it really is quite jaw-dropping. Several times I clamber up to the top of a hill, and just sit there quietly on my steed, gazing out over the rolling hills, and watching the wondrous sunsets. The scenery is simply amazing, and aided by a fairly atmospheric, albeit somewhat repetitive soundtrack.
And now for the horses. Oh, the horses. The single most enjoyable aspect of the game. I have ridden digital horses before, and it felt like I was grinding around on a concrete block, with the nimbleness of a drunken mammoth. But M&B’s horse-riding is just oh so exquisite. You have complete control of your mount, turning realistically, and moving at any speed you like, from the gentlest trot, right up the full gallop. You can even jump over fences and walls, with horses being the natural jumpers they are. And in battle, it feels so good, charging the enemy atop your noble steed, with your cavalry charging alongside. Those are the gaming moments that will remain for a lifetime, times that will stick forever in the recesses of your gaming memories.
That said, despite such remarkable moments, M&B is not without its shortcomings. The biggest problem is that with such a large world, there needs to be a reasonable amount of variation between each location, and the missions it can offer. Sadly, it seems that not enough time was allotted for this area of the game, and most of the missions are randomly generated from a short list of possible actions, with the only changing variables being the targets. And every person you speak to will respond using the same words and sentences. There is simply not enough variation to give even a slightly unique character to any of the locations or NPCs.
Added to which, there isn’t really technically any winning criteria for the game. You can simply choose to end whenever you wish, and will get assigned a score based upon your performance, and some small end tale. But it is not really a convincing end. We want some final challenge, a sense of completion, of victory. But unless you want to undergo the exceedingly laborious task of dominating the entire map, you simply have to choose a seemingly premature end.
Medieval warfare just got even trendier. And despite several major deficiencies, Mount & Blade has just too many memorable moments of glory to ignore. Even just to watch one sunset, the price tag is worth it.