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A Long Hard Look at Mount & Blade
Review - posted by DarkUnderlord on Tue 21 April 2009, 18:30:48Tags: Armagan; Mount & Blade; TaleWorlds
A bit of history first...
We've known about Mount & Blade here on the Codex ever since the game was called "Way of the Sword" and then later "Warrider" before finally getting the name it's known by today. It was originally touted to us as an "Action-RPG" by armagan, the game's Turkish developer so naturally, we paid attention and tried it out. That was back in the heady days when the game was at version 0.2 something and was available for sale on a "buy the BETA" process. That is, you could pay about $12 USD on the premise that when the full game was released, you'd be able to download it as an update without having to pay any extra. For an indie, it was a pretty neat way of funding game development. Get the game out there, get feedback, see how it plays, make some sales, fix errors and release new versions all the while generating revenue and increasing the price every once in a while until you hit full release. It's definitely a concept I think other developers should try, though understandably not every game would suit the model.
Anyway, armagan lived up to his promise and finally at the end of 2008, M&B hit the long-awaited 1.0 release. Now I actually bought the game way back when it was still in development and played it to death. Back then, the game was very much a combat simulator with lite-RPG elements. You could wander around the country-side, raid caravans, join factions, fight other factions, fight in the tournament at a town called Zendar and level up to increase your killing ability. There was a lot of fighting. Today, even though we're now three years later and the game has gone from the 0.621 version I bought it at to 1.0 through various iterations along the way, not much has really changed...
Welcome to Calradia.
Like most RPG-type things, Mount & Blade begins with character development. Face-Generation is in and allows you to choose from a raft of different beard, age and other options (skin colour, hair colour). Enough that you should be plenty happy with the results. I'd even say the face-gen in M&B is superior to that in Oblivion. After selecting from a bunch of options that determine your background (Knight, Travelling Salesman, Thief) and starting skills you eventually get to the character screen. Here you get to allocate some points according to your whims. These points are in three-categories: Attributes, Skills and Proficiencies.
Attributes are your basic stats of Strength, Agility, Intelligence and Charisma. Increasing these provides some general overall benefits (Hit harder, swing faster, get a bonus Skill Point, and have a slightly bigger army). Skills however, are the real important part. Options there include giving you slightly more health (Ironflesh), allowing you to ride faster and better horses (Riding), causing more damage during attacks (Power Strike), aiming better with a bow and arrow while riding a horse (Horse Archery), leading more people (Leadership) or getting better trade prices (Trade). Like most RPGs a lot of these skills are primarily useless (more on that later). Finally there are Weapon Proficiencies. They define how proficient you are with each of the game's weapon types which include One-Handed Weapons, Two-Handed Weapons, Pole-arms, Archery, Crossbows and Throwing.
Now, each Skill starts at 0 and maxes out at 10. Skills also have an associated Attribute and can't be increased more than 1/3 of that associated Attribute. Which kind of sucks because for example, the Power Strike Skill (8% more damage per level) is associated with Strength. So if your Strength is only 9, Power Strike can't be any higher than 3. However Strength also governs Ironflesh (+2 hit points per level) and Power Draw (archery damage bonus). Now every time you level up, you usually get 1 point to spend on an Attribute, 1 paltry point to spend on Skills and 20 Weapon Proficiency points. So if you want to increase your Power Strike and your Strength is 9, it means you have to wait 3 more level-ups before you can get your Strength to 12, at which point you've saved 3 or 4 Skill Points that can then be spent on the Strength associated Skills. You then get to wait another 3 level-ups before spending points again.
The fact you get so few points to spend is one thing but coupling it with a system that ultimately encourages you to hoarde points and NOT level-up whenever you get the opportunity kind of takes a bit of the fun out (Why level-up at all if it's only every 3rd level-up that matters, when we get to dump all our accumulated points on something?). Still, despite the few points you get, you will most definitely notice the increased benefit to your character with each Skill increase. To be fair, this "every 3rd level-up" problem also only begins to affect you in later levels as initially, there's quite a bit for you to spend your skills on.
The other problem though is it also discourages specialisation. Want to be that super strong hard-hitting guy or a Leader of a Mighty Army? Well you can focus on one or the other but given the points system, you generally do both. Meaning most characters in Mount and Blade end up being Jacks of all Trades with a little bit of everything. It can also frustrate you immensely if you do focus on Strength and Agility first, only to then try and change tack later when you max them out. If you've neglected Charisma or Intelligence, you'll have to spend a few levels getting them up before you can throw points into their respective skills. When you're level 30 or so (for the record, there's a level 50 max) and level-ups are few and far between because of the high amount of XP needed, it means you spend a long time before you can finally put that extra point into Prisoner Management which lets you handle that extra number of prisoners you've captured.
And then there are Weapon Proficiencies which not only compound this problem even further they, for the most part (like a few of the skills), are entirely useless. Weapon Proficiencies basically increase your ability with those types of weapons. For example a high Archery skill generally allows you to aim longer with a bow and arrow. Instead of drawing the bow and having to fire rapidly before the reticule starts wavering out of control and your aim is completely buggered, a high Archery Profeciency lets you draw your bow and wait until just the right time to take the shot. This can be crucial in battle given the limited arrows you'll have on the battlefield and the number of enemies you'll be facing. Every shot counts. On the upside, simply using a weapon increases its associated Weapon Proficiency but on the downside, Weapon Profeciencies are themselves governed by a Skill.
You see, Weapon Proficiencies are further limited by the Weapon Master Skill. Each level of that Skill lets you put more points in your Weapons Proficiencies with Level 0 Weapon Master allowing up to 60 points, Level 1 - 100 points and so on. This means that if you want to spend all those 20 Weapon Proficiencies Points to make you a better Two-Handed Swordsman, you need to increase Weapon Master which means you need to increase Agility (the Attribute associated with Weapon Master). Once again, you're left with points sitting around because you haven't got some dumb Skill or Attribute up high enough yet and no, I don't want to spend them on Throwing or anything else thank you very much, I want to be a mother-fucking Two-Handed Swordsmen. Please why can't you let me specialise in that? But it doesn't end there because of the fact Weapon Proficiencies increase with use. If you use a One-Handed Sword a lot, your One-Handed Weapons proficiency will rapidly increase. Often beyond the limit imposed by the Weapon Master Skill. So what happens when you can naturally (and quickly) increase your Proficiencies by simple use beyond the limit imposed by the Skill? You ignore the Weapon Master Skill and Weapon Proficiency points completely.
In the end, you're throwing Weapon Proficiency points around not because you need to or want to but because you've got them. At later levels, you can't even spend them because from using the different weapons (generally out of boredom at that point and just for something different), they will have naturally well and truly surpassed the limit imposed by Weapon Master anyway. We now have useless Weapon Proficiency Points and a useless Skill to go with them, all in a system that forces you to put points into everything because you can't increase what you want. While most of the combat Skills are generally useful and you'll want to up them as much as possible, in the end the system enforces a broad generalisation on you which is counter to what an RPG is meant to be (IE: Playing a specific role). Later we'll learn that this is all further compounded by the game-play itself.
Get on your high horse.
With character creation out of the way, your first experience with Mount & Blade is to find yourself dumped in the game-world with no goal or explanation other than your own choice that you might be "out for revenge" (against whom, I don't know) or "Wanderlust" (which accounts for the other 4 options). So you'll wander around the world map until you run into someone. Your first encounter is usually (or hopefully) with some lowly band of looters (sadly they are no longer called Pirates - V0.6 lest we forget) and with a bit of luck, you'll kill them, pat yourself on the back for a job well done and look for the next band of looters to kill. No doubt you'll suck at the combat at first until you get the hang of it (and level up a bit, as well as buying more powerful items) but there are some training grounds about the place which allow you to practice your skills along with a tutorial. For the most part though, you'll learn on the job.
Travelling on the World Map is a fairly simple affair. The vast lands of Calradia are before you, its cities shown in a sort-of top-down view. Simply click on your destination and your trusty steed will begin riding there. Time will pass and before long (assuming you aren't attacked along the way or can out-run any pursuers) you'll be at your destination. Actually not much time passes because you can ride from one side of the map to another - through all four kingdoms - in less than a single day of game-time (and about 5 - 10 minutes real-time). I guess the people of Calradia like building their cities and villages pretty close to each other.
Unlike Grand Theft Auto, the entire Kingdom is open to you from day one, so you're free to ride where-ever you want. That might mean something if there was somewhere interesting to go however, as most places in Calradia are the same Town, Village or Castle plonked on a green grassy map. There's the fairly typical "land of eternal snow" down one side of the map which is nice if you like white but that's really about it. There's no vast desert to cross or hazardous mountain pass. Travel on the World Map is in fact fairly mundane unless you're being chased but it serves its purpose.
One other complaint I will make about it though is that you can't scroll it. You seem forever stuck with your horse and rider in the middle and can't simply duck left or right to see what cities are out there, instead having to rotate the map up or down or zooming it in and out to try and see that way. Thankfully, the game has a comprehensive Quest, Faction and Location log so if you're after a particular town for a quest, you can find it in the alphabetical list, click "show on map" and the World Map will whizz over there, showing you where it is. You then simply click and you're whizzed back to watch your guy make his way over.
If you're not in combat, then the World Map is likely where you'll be. You'll see other caravans, raiders, war parties, farmers and so on all travelling over it. Just how many you see and how far away you can see them depends on a few Skills. There's even a very handy Tracking Skill that shows up the tracks of parties that have travelled through the area, allowing you to hunt down a group of bandits or opposing war party. The level of the skill determines the information you gain when you mouse-over the tracks, as well as how far away you can spot tracks from. The Spotting Skill which increases the range you can see parties from allows you the opportunity to spot groups of raiders before they see you and high-tail it out of there if necessary, hopefully out-running them.
Your travel speed on the World Map is determined by the size of your party (bigger parties = slower travel time), the Pathfinding Skill, how much stuff is in your inventory and how good your horse is. Generally though, the aim of travelling around the World Map is to find looters, raiders or enemy war parties, chase them down (which can mean running after them the entire breadth of the map) and attacking them. This is where Mount & Blade shines.
Combat to us is riding around on Horseback, killing things.
Mount & Blade is first and foremost a combat game and secondly... well, there really is no second. Mount & Blade starts and ends its life as a combat game. Essentially you're an adventurer who's just starting out in the land of Calradia. You've got a lowly horse and a cheap blade and you're out to make a name for yourself. At least, that's what I think you're meant to do because Mount & Blade doesn't really give you any goal as such. There's no story, such as a woeful tale about how your peasant village family was killed by raiders and now you're out for revenge or your Dad ran away and your job is to find out what's happened to him and the President is a computer. It's just, you're there. You've got a sword. And you get to kill people. So you may as well start killing people.
One of the things you will notice though, is that you're doing most of your killing from the back of a horse. Unlike other multi-million dollar development studios who just can't seem to figure out some basic horseback combat mechanics for the life of them, Mount & Blade's two man development team has come up with some very nice horseback combat fun. Did I say nice? I meant really fucking awesome.Have you ever wanted to charge into battle at the head of a group of Knights, Lance at the ready as you charge at and skewer your opponents? Mount & Blade is that game. Have you ever wanted to have your horse killed from under you, fall off it, desperately swap weapons to your sword and shield to fight on foot only to grab another rider-less horse as it runs by, mount it and continue fighting? Mount & Blade is that game. How does sieging a castle with an army of men appeal to you? You can do it in Mount & Blade. What about capturing that Castle and then having to defend it from enemy attack? Mount & Blade. Mount & Blade mother-fucker, Mount & Blade.
Actually controlling combat is a fairly simple affair. You can perform an over-head swing, side swing (from left or right) or thrust (depending on the weapon). You can adjust how to perform these moves to your liking in the options menu. You can have the attack determined by a mouse movement (drag down and click to do an overhead swing, drag left to swing left) or you can change to another option and have it determined by how you approach your enemy (look at his left side to swing from the left, look directly at him to thrust).
You also have a wide range of weapons to play with including Lances, Maces, Swords, Axes, Large Double-Handed Swords, Throwing Axes, Bow and Arrows, Crossbows, Spears, Throwing Knives and Shields. Each weapon has a range of variants from poor to best of the bunch. Arrows come in normal, Barbed and other varieties. You might like to treat yourself to a light Crossbow which can be fired and reloaded from Horseback or a heavier Crossbow which can only be reloaded when you're dismounted. And there's no shortage of enemies to use them against on the battlefield.
The graphics are quite nice. Unlike most indie's they're not complete and utter shit. Sure, they're not AAA Grade, top-notch HD bloom glare inducing crud that marks the graphical peak of today's games but they're not ascii characters either, which means you actually understand what you're looking at. For an indie, that's a good thing. More to the point, it means you can have a metric fuck-ton of enemies on screen at once without causing a meltdown in your graphics card. A battlefield will often consist of your party of 50 or so men with the enemy's party of 50 or so men and when you kill people, their corpses remain on the battlefield so you can bathe in their blood (though that's adjustable for performance reasons; both the number of corpses that stay on the screen and how much blood everyone will get covered in).
If you do have a low-end machine you may want to adjust the number of characters on field down but for the full M&B experience, you'll max it out at 100. You may even want to download the mod that increase battle-sizes even more. How does 1,000 sound? Caution: Mod has chance of crashing above 200. Arrows, Throwing Axes, Spears and the like will even stick out of those you hit with them, including those that hit you. There ain't nothing quite like riding around covered in blood with an axe sticking out of your back, riding into enemy lines again and again, bowling them over with your horse and running them through with your lance.
You can even use your blunt weapons which allows you to knock enemies unconscious and take them as prisoners. Something which can be very lucrative early on with prisoners fetching 50 denars a pop (often much more than the pathetic amount you'll get from selling their loot). Mount & Blade's combat is insanely fun. Sadly, combat is also the game's biggest flaw as it gets rammed down your throat until you get absolutely fucking sick and tired of it (much more on that later).
One of the fun things about combat is that it's leadership oriented. While you can choose to run around on your own, you will get fucked over that way very badly and so eventually, you'll have to recruit men to your cause. This can be done by freeing prisoners from other parties you've attacked and defeated, asking villagers to join you or buying mercenaries at the pub (where all good mercenaries are bought). All of these warriors can be trained up into better warriors, essentially meaning you can start with a handful of rag-tag villagers and train them up through battle and your own Training Skill into an elite force of warriors. You even get to choose how they level up, often deciding between footmen, archers or knights.
On top of this are special NPC heroes that are recruitable who you can level-up much like yourself, choosing skills and equipping with the best equipment. These NPCs become vital as you'll need all of the game's Skills to become an effective leader. Getting all the Skills yourself is difficult so having Hero's on the team with those Skills becomes invaluable. First Aid and Surgery skills will prevent you from losing so many of your men in combat and will allow you to heal faster, meaning your men will always be in prime shape for their next battle. Having a tracker on the team is very useful, particulary if they have a high Pathfinding Skill so you can travel quicker as the more men you get, the slower your party travels. However this also completely and utterly destroys the Skill system.
Remember how I said earlier that you end up being a jack of all trades? Well, you end up being a jack of all trades because you find so many NPC hero party members (there are like 30 of them) that you effectively have every Skill covered. Now only some Skills are "party skills" so of course you get your NPCs to focus on those while you only ever level up your personal skills that help you out in combat. Trading skills are party skills, healing, tracking and tactics as well, essentially leaving only the "Leader Skills" (Leadership, Prisoner Management) and the combat Skills for you. I also said before that playing alone is not advisable because as you level up, the number of looters you encounter increases. Suddenly it's not 3 or 5 bandits, it's a roving party of 50+. All of this combines to mean that choosing skills in Mount & Blade is mostly irrelevant. You will get all of them. You will get party members. You will pretty much play the same guy I played. Our weapon choices might be different but our Skills mostly won't be.
The NPCs even act as an aborted attempt to add some life into the game. Take your party on a raid against a defenseless village and some of your NPCs will whine at you and eventually leave, meaning your great plan of using their skills doesn't work. Other NPCs will relish slaughtering innocent villagers though. Unfortunately they will also annoy you with petty useless banter from time to time and quibble amongst themselves. "I don't like Hero X, he looked at me funny, do something about it". Like most things in Mount & Blade that aren't combat, these can be safely ignored by saying "Shut the fuck and don't talk to me about this again". Problem solvered. However the problematic ones will eventually leave, so while having all 30 of the NPC heroes in your party might seem like a good idea, you'll soon learn it doesn't quite work and you're better off sorting out the whiney ones from the ones who get along with each other (and are happy to rape and pillage).
If the good ones do finally leave (most of the time they won't if you tell them to shutup about it), don't worry. You'll find them again and they'll want to join again. And if their pointless banter annoys the crap out of you like it did me, don't worry. Just ignore that too. Especially when they talk to you and you click at the same time because you intended to click on the map to travel somewhere but their "Hey I have ISSUES" message popped-up. Your click interrupts the message and cuts them off. Doing that was a personal favourite of mine. It seemed my timing was always impeccable.
Of course, all these men in your party don't come cheap. You have to pay for your men and the more highly trained they are, the more they cost to look after. Heroes come at an extra price so to keep your party size decent, you'll be looking for opportunities to make money. Most of the time the loot you get is pathetic and sold for peanuts, so you might consider trying your hand at trading...
Fighting for Peanuts.
RPG developers the world over lack one thing: Basic economic sense. They build these absurd economies in their games without actually thinking it through. Let's take a simple real-world example. There exist vehicles that cost over $1 million to buy. Do you know what that means? It means two things. Firstly, there are people out there with millions of dollars. Secondly, they're not only able to buy these expensive vehicles, they're able to sell them as well. This is where Mount & Blades trading system comes crashing down.
Each town has a bunch of different Merchants. Horse Trader, Goods Merchant, Arms and Armour Merchants. If you visit a Town, you can pop in to one of these Merchants and buy their appropriate goods. Some towns even produce goods which other towns want to buy. Things like Salt, Linen, Pottery, Oil, Iron and so on. So if you want to be a big name trader and make lots of cash, you'll up your Trade skill. This allows you to access a feature that tells you what town is buying what goods at what prices. You'll use it to get this information and then set up on a trade route. Veluca is paying top dollar for Linen you say? All right then, I'm travelling to the town that sells Linen, buying a boat-load and shipping it out to Veluca. So off you go to make some money... or so you think.
You'll arrive at the Linen selling town and stock up by buying pretty much all the supplies of Linen from them. This might cost a few thousand denar (the game's currency). You'll then ride to Veluca and talk to the merchant there. Yup, he's paying top dollar for Linen but there's a catch! He's only got 1,000 denars on him. You've probably bought 10,000 denars of Linen in the hopes of selling it for 20,000 denars (that kind of markup isn't unusual in the real-world; in fact the retail price of a product is typically 5x what it cost to manufacture depending on your industry). So how do you sell this punk all your Linen? You can't. You sell him one. One lousy unit of Linen out of the 10 or 20 units you may have bought. You'll then go to the Armour Merchant and see how much money he has. He'll buy Linen too so you sell one to him. Then one to the Arms Merchant and one to the Horse Merchant.
... and even then, you'll only off-load less than half of the goods you've purchased, leaving you with a loss and having spent significantly more sums of money paying for your troops due to travelling time. In essence, trading in Mount & Blade involves buying tiny amounts of stuff because anymore than that and no-one "has enough money" to buy it. It would appear the current economic crisis is affecting Calradia and the world of computer games. This money lending crisis leads to the absurd situation of selling arms to the horse dealer, goods to the arms dealer and pretty much anything to anyone who'll buy it. What's worse is that you'll eventually get to the point of being able to afford so many trade goods and having sold so much crud to so many people in every town you've visited that your buyers will run out of inventory space to store it all. That stops you selling to them completely until you buy stuff off of them. Yes, I had to buy stuff off of a Merchant and sell it to another Merchant just so he would have room to buy the items I was selling. All of this bullshit reduces your bare-boned profit margins further.
It gets worse too. Prices in Calradia are completely out of whack. Items go for either too much or too little. There are suits of armour at the princely sum of 80,000 denars that only have 1 or 2 more protection than the current suit you bought for one tenth that price. Likewise forking out 6,000 or so for a Spirited Courser (the fastest horse in the game) is a waste when it's speed is a mere 44. That's 1 more than the standard Courser which you can pick up for 1 sixth the price at less than 1,000 denars. You effectively pay your warriors a pittance per week but spend a lot of money on food. One wonders how your men can afford to live on so little per week. Expensive weapons and armour are fine but now try and sell that expensive suit of armour. Do you think there's anyone in all of Calradia who has the funds to buy that 10,000 denar suit of armour you've just picked up off a dead enemy? Nope. They'll pay you 2,000 for it at most because that's all the cash they have and even then, they only have that cash because you bought stuff from them before so it's really only your money anyway.
Yes, it seems that despite all the trade caravans running about the place, you are the single driving force behind the entire economy. Of course the trade skill helps reduce purchase prices significantly but as you really need money to get the decent equipment (which unlike most games, you'll have to buy rather than find from killing stuff) you need a lotta cash. Where do you get cash from in a world that has none? How am I supposed to make that kind of money if I can't sell any of my expensive goods to anyone? More to the point, how can an item be worth 80,000 denars if no-one on the planet even has that much cash to pay for it? It's like selling a loaf of bread for a gazillion dollars. It's asinine.
Goods are often the most expensive items in the game in terms of re-sale value (often several hundred denars), much more than the pathetic 1 or 2 denar price you'll get for most of the armour and weapons you find (like all RPGs, stuff you sell goes for a pittance while buying stuff costs the Earth - RPG developers really need to study economics). This seems odd but it does make raiding helpess villages a very profitable endeavour. However, it doesn't make up for the fact that the economy of Calradia is seriously fuck up man. So fucked up in fact, that after many attempts at trying to make any sort of decent profit in the game I resorted to cheating. Export Character. Edit text file. Money = Millions. Import. I'd have enjoyed being a trader. I really would have. Travelling back and forth and selling things for decent prices and actually earning my troops wages but after several attempts at making a profit, only to either make pathetic amounts of profit or in fact make a loss, I have to say trading is completely broken.
To give an actual example, I assessed trade prices with my trading skill of 5 and was told that buying Velvet at Jelkala and selling it at Reyvadin would generate me $277 profit per item. So I bought all the Velvet they had for a total cost of $7,538 and set off for Reyvadin. When I got there, I could sell the lot for $9,097 profit. Not bad for a short trip right? Well, the Goods merchant only had enough money to buy 2 pieces of Velvet (at about $700 each). I then had to sell Velvet to the Arms merchant, the Armor Merchant and the Horse Merchant. The result? I still had Velvet left. In fact $3,575 worth in terms of profit. I had made a loss simply because the town didn't have enough money to buy the Velvet I had. Here's the crunch though. Even if I had been able to sell it all, the total profit of $1,559 wouldn't even have bought me a decent sword. I'd have to do the trip again but how? The town didn't have any freaking money left!! Trading simply isn't a viable option to make money. Games that have unbalanced trade systems really need to sort their shit out. It would've been okay if the town had something I was willing to buy in exchange, like using it to buy an espensive piece of armour but it had nothing and the reality is, I needed the funds to simply pay wages and support my troops because I was going backwards financially.
I even headed off to Wercheg to see if I could offload the rest. The prices weren't bad there but once again, I had to sell to the Arms, Armour, Horse and Goods merchant AND I STILL HAD TWO PIECES OF VELVET LEFT. Who the fuck designed this trade system? A retarded monkey? How are people even trading in this world if no-one has any money? They want insane amounts of $80,000 for pieces of armour and yet don't have the cash to buy a few pieces of velvet totalling a mere $9,000 by comparison? What retarded douchebag designed this stupidly butt-fucked trading system? I tried the same thing with Furs from Sargoth. Make a profit selling them to Suno, sure. Yet again, I had to sell to all and had items remaining. In the end I just offloaded for "whatever they could pay me". That's when I went to my character page, exported my character, edited the file, gave myself 90 million dollars and reimported. It's just not worth the hassle trying to even pretend you can trade in this game. For the peanuts I was making, how am I supposed to afford a comparable garrison in my towns (to prevent them from all being raped while I was away), have an army of followers of over 100 (to match the war parties I was encountering) and buy nice things if I keep going backwards? I'm going backwards with wages at 7,000 denars a week (Level 30, about 5 Castles with full garrisons). If I had a better trading skill, that would only be more money I'd be missing out on.
You can't even trade with all the villages who by the School of Retarded Game Economics don't have enough money to buy any amount of stuff at all, meaning you'll make $1.50 profit out of them at most from selling a single item to them. The absurdity of the inability to make money is driven home by the fact that every other Lord (Lords lead enemy War parties) was obviously cheating too. They'd have 200 men in their party (yet according to the Skills and Renown they had should only have had 100 men at most), they'd own two or three Towns and Castles and have Garrisons of 200 - 300+ in each. This was less than the total number of men I had and yet they could somehow afford it all while I couldn't. I'd built myself up to that point quite legitimately and yet maintaining the kind of garrison I needed to defend the properties I had acquired sent me backwards. I'm sure I could've ditched the army and taken a long, long time to build myself up to that point financially (at which point I'd get all the garrisons I needed and then start going backwards) but the point remains, you don't make enough money to pay for everything. Even when you eventually end up owning every Town, Castle and Village on the map it's still too little and you can't collect it all fast enough.
If you want something different to earn money, you can have a shot at the arena. While tournaments will earn you a few decent thousands, mostly you will earn the impressive sum of 250 denars for fighting 25 guys over a long period of time. You just feel like you're spending a lot of effort to earn peanuts, while your expenses simply eat a hole in the bottom of your pocket.
Choose your own adventure.
I've lambasted the game for not having a story but that's not entirely true. While the essence of the game is "wanderlust adventuring" and combat, there are options open to you to make it more interesting. You know those Towns and Castles that are spread out across the map? Well, you can capture them. You can capture them for yourself. Better yet, you can swear loyalty to one of the game's four factions and then capture them for your King (or ask him nicely to give it to you which he may or may not decide to do depending on your reputation). There are even people you will run into who claim they have a right to the throne and you can start a revolution in their name, fighting for them and capturing Castles and Towns in their name. Unfortunately, you seem to have wait until you've "been wronged" before you can capture Towns for yourself independently. This usually means capturing the fifth Town in a row, asking the King to give it to you and being denied yet again at which point you can renounce your oath and take it anyway.
Joining a faction ultimately involves you in the world's politics. Which are completely non-existant. All it does is let you attack war parties from Kingdoms your faction is at war at... but that's really about it. Sure, you can wander into the empty, lifeless cities but much like your own predicament, you get the feeling the citizens of this world were simply dumped there and told to kill stuff. You've got no sense of the world. Not even a lousy book or newspaper or message boy to say what's happening. Just lifeless messages scrolling across the bottom left of the screen. Lord X was defeated in battle and managed to escape (like you're supposed to care).
One thing running around and waging war does do is increase your Reputation. A high Reputation lets you have more men in your party. Like most things in M&B that was broken too. For example I worked for the Khan for a while. The Khan had a reputation of about 800 or so and a war party of 300+ men, he also owned a Town and Castle each with Garrisons of 300+ too. Meanwhile my reputation was 1,200. I could only scrabble together a War Party of about 100 men and I owned two Towns which I couldn't afford to put Garrisons of anywhere near 300 men in. Oh and I'd single-handedly wiped out the entire Kingdom of Rhodoks (literally single-handedly - none of the other Lords seems capable of capturing anything). So why the fuck wasn't I the Khan? Why wouldn't the Lords follow me?
They never do. While you can work for someone else and make them King and encourage the Lords you meet to follow their cause, nobody wants to follow yours. Logic would dictate that taking over the entire world yourself would be a necessary game feature yet it wasn't implemented. Don't get me wrong, you can renounce your oath to the Khan and keep those Towns for yourself but none of the Lords in the game come to your cause. This leaves you having to single-handedly garrison and defend every Town you own. Of course, every other Kingdom seems capable of raising armies of thousands of men and funding it all, even when you wipe their entire armies out, more will magically pop-up out of nowhere and yet you can't do anything even anywhere remotely near the same.
M&B is very much a "choose your own adventure" style open sandbox. Only without any tools. A sandbox without water to make mud and build castles or without a shovel to dig a hole or without a tonka truck is well... just sand that falls through your fingers. You can make uninteresting mounds out of it but that's about it. That's pretty much the sandbox M&B presents you with. There's really not much you can do other than kill everyone you meet and when that's done, you join another faction and kill everyone again or start your own faction in order to kill everyone. And by everyone, yes, you quite literally will be in every battle doing most of the killing.
The factions declare war (and peace) on each other randomly. It's never a result of your actions. There's no quest to incite war with another faction (unless I missed it), it just happens in the background. Usually while you're travelling the World Map a message will pop-up: "The Kingdom of X declare war on the Kingdom of Y" and if you're aligned to either or, you get to kill those war parties too. Of course, no-one ever wipes anyone else out without your help. The declarations don't even seem to trigger responses from alliances. M&B is a sandbox but no matter how much you pee in it, it never turns to mud that'd allow you to build a sand castle. It remains sand, slipping ever through your fingers, leaving you with little choice other than to repeatedly dig holes or make little piles and knock them down.
There are quests in the game but they're so mundane. "Our village needs 5 bushels of crud, go fetch". "Bandits have attacked our village, you clearly have not killed enough bandits yet so go kill these guys. Our reward will be pathetic and so not worth it". "It would please me if you collected taxes from this village I own, go fetch". "Go capture 5 Swadian Knight Prisoners and return them to me". As you might tell, they're the type of stuff you'd find in an MMO and like all other things in M&B besides the combat, they're pointless too as the rewards are pathetic.
That leaves you pretty much making your own story up. You'll join a Faction and decide that the Rhodoks will pay for defeating Lord X in battle and so after them you go. You'll gain the support of your Khan and get elected as War Leader. You'll call the other Lords to your aide and you and groups of other War Parties will ride into enemy territory to lay waste to all before them. This is the meat of Mount & Blade and it's quite fun. However your battles will almost always result in victory and with a bit of luck, the Khan may even reward you with a Town, Village or Castle for your efforts.
... and like all rewards in Mount & Blade, they're entirely worthless too.
Rapunzel, rapunzel, let down your hair.
Let's take Villages first. With a bit of luck, you'll join a faction and be granted ownership of one pretty quickly. Having ownership allows you to purchase village improvements. I don't understand village improvements. They all cost a lot and provide seemingly no benefit whatsoever. For example, if you spend 6,000 denars you can build a manor which gives you the bonus of "only paying half price for your troops while you rest there". You never rest at your village. Ever. In fact you rarely rest anywhere. You heal while riding around, so why rest? Even worse is if you want to rest, you can pay 5 denars and rest over-night at any of the large towns. Hmmm... Let me see, 5 denars over-night or some kind of half-price troop payment if I hang around my village for a week doing nothing? Alternatively, you can build a watch tower which increases the time it takes bad guys to loot your village by 25%. Ideally it gives you just that little bit of extra time you need to get there and save your village (enemies will raid your village and a little message pops up telling you). But again, why?
It only takes a day to cross the map and it often takes them 2 or more to raid it, so it's not like you really need the extra time. So on the rare occasion your village is looted, you either get there on time anyway or it doesn't really matter. There's no "make this village generate a decent amount of cash so they can pay more for my goods when I off-load them" option or a "build a castle to station a garrison here" option which would actually be useful. You can even build a school which increases villager loyalty by +1 every month. Every month? I'm level 32 already and have been playing for 192 game days. If I'd built a school on day one that'd be +6 "loyalty". Only it takes 70 days to build and you don't get a village for a while.
And by the way, your village may end up being raided by bandits anyway which leaves it completely over-run. And you know what happens when you ride in and save the village after it's been over-run? +7 loyalty. In other words, spend a lot of money for a useless improvement that'll maybe net you +5 loyalty over months of game time or... Just help them out when they're in trouble for three times the benefit and zero cost. You can't even improve a village and turn it into a bustling town that generates you a lot of wealth. You just kind of... have this village and you collect a couple of hundred denars whenever you pop round. A couple hundred denars less than what you get from slaughtering a war party and selling their stuff. Whoopdee-fucking-doo.
And what's villager loyalty supposed to mean anyway? I know villagers that have bad loyalty towards you (IE: Any village you've ever raided as it goes to -53 instantly) won't provide you with fresh troops to recruit. However I've often received more troops from villages that have 0 loyalty (villages I've done nothing for) than I have from villages I owned that had 19+ loyalty. It doesn't seem to get me better prices or more recruits. It's just a worthless number saying they like me, they really like me.
Then you have Towns. Towns are places that have Merchants and other stuff in them. For starters, there's no pizzazz to them. A Town is a menu of options you choose from. You can wander around your town and take a look at it, which is nice but ultimately a waste of time. The Town's menu gets you what you need quickly. This is a perfect opportunity to have something sexy there, like a map screen similar to Fallout. Imagine seeing a lovely hand-drawn map with labels for "Horse Merchant", "Arena" and so on that'd highlight as you rolled over them. Aesthetics aside, Towns are useful because they're the only damn thing that'll generate you any decent amount of money on a regular basis. A few thousand denars of decent money which you can collect every week or so. Of course this means running a circuit when you've conquered enough Towns but hey, at least it gives you something to do. Until you get pissed off and cheat for money that is.
Like Villages, Towns also have improvements. Like Villages, they're worthless. Unlike Villages there aren't many of them.
Now let's have a go at Castles. Ahh, Castles. Castles are cool. When you siege a Castle and capture it, there's a chest in there that allows you to store stuff. That's useful because whenever you lose a battle in Mount & Blade, your enemies capture you (they never kill you), ride around with you for a while until you escape and take most of your good stuff. Having a store means you could store back-up weapons. If by that stage of the game you needed it because you see, if you ever lose combat with an army of your own men, you generally have the option to escape (it's only if all of your men end up dead that you're captured and that's rare at this point in the game) so by the point you get a chest, you don't use it. Worse is that you can't store the one thing you want to in it: Money. No wonder the economy of Calradia is so fucked up, they've never heard of banks. So you can't stash cash around the place (and therefore have a reason to get really worried if that castle is attacked). Instead you have to carry all your money on you and if you get captured, you lose a tonne of it. And I'm pretty sure you can't put horses in the chest either so basically it's just another annoying and useless reward.
Castles will also annoy you immensely too because once you own one, and you've been kicking a lot of ass, your castle will get attacked. Repeatedly. By never-ending armies that never-end. You see, while you can join a faction, get elected War Marshal and lead a few other Lords into battle, the enemies can too. Each Lord will be in charge of a party of anywhere from 100+ - 300+ men. They'll all get together and attack your castle. That's often 1,200+ men against your garrison of 50. So you have no choice but to ride to your castles aide where you, your garrison of 50 and your party of 100+ will hold back all 1,200 men (actually that's not true because even if they do capture your castle, all you have to do is capture it back which is easy enough - either way you'll be doing a lot of fighting).
... and you will. Yes, you will defeat all 1,200 enemy soldiers. Only that won't be enough because even though you've just annihilated the entire fucking Swadian or Nordish or Khergit or Rhodok or Vaegir army, another bunch of Lords and War Parties miraculously pops up to take their place. And they attack your castle too. Often the same castle. So you'll kill them. AND IT WILL BE REPEATED. I literally destroyed the entire Swadian army of 1,200+ men at least 5 times over before I was able to conquer every Swadian town and wipe them out for good. You will struggle to get those sorts of numbers yet your enemies pop-up with them virtually over-night. Combat bores you to death once you start facing massive army after massive army after massive army.
But let's make this article even longer and focus on why it's so easy to defeat these over-whelming hoardes...
Sadly, combat in Mount & Blade comes in two varieties. There's ridiculously stupid and easy where you exploit the completely daft AI or there's ridiculously hard where you're overwhelmed by sheer numbers and no matter what you do, you're completely fucked.
You ride around in circles on your horse as the pathetically daft AI does nothing but follow you. On foot. They don't try to head you off or cut off your path. Nope. They just follow you. So you're free to take pot-shots at them with whatever throwing weapon is your preference. Ranged enemy units might pose a problem but you can just out-run them on your horse then circle back to take them out as you pass. The AI is stupid enough that they can't hit a moving a target easily, where-as you have no trouble hitting your ranged targets easily as they stand still to shoot arrows at you. Once the ranged units are out of the way, keep circling and taking shots at the footmen as they follow you.
The easiest method is trotting slightly ahead of the stupid AI following you and constantly shooting arrows into them until they drop. Works every time! Never fails! You're close enough that the dumb AI keeps trying to swing (and therefore drops his defense) but far enough away so that every time they swing, they miss. Or there's the Mongolian method if your Horse Archery isn't up to par. Ride up out of range as the enemies approach, dismount, take shots at them with the bow and arrow. As they get closer, mount the horse and get further away, dismount and repeat.
Just be careful of the invisible wall which defines the battlefield's boundary though. There's nothing quite like being chased and galloping towards open space only to hit an invisible wall that marks the edge of the map. Your horse stops abruptly and everyone who's been following you slams into your rear like a multi-car collision. Needless to say, they attack and you die. Leading you to be constantly on the look-out for open terrain that's not actually open. Watch out for invisible walls.
If you prefer more close combat, simply ride at full speed into the enemy ranks with a lance and skewer the lot of them. This is riskier as they will attack but almost always results in insta-death for your enemy. If you're fighting against 40+ enemies, just rinse and repeat. Generally though I preferred a good Bow and a Long Two-Handed Sword. Fire arrows until I'm out, then ride past swinging with the sword. Take out their horses, then ranged units first and then focus on their footmen. If you need more Arrows, gallop back to your battleifled chest (where your inventory during combat is stashed) and re-equip (assuming you can find the chest because it doesn't appear on the map and in the large battlefields it can be bloody difficult to find and necessitates riding around and looking for a while).
On horseback, you are an unstoppable killing machine. A fast horse means enemy horses aren't a problem and most of the time, you can avoid them anyway and focus on them one by one until they're down. A few minutes later and you're done. Unless of course you happen to make a bad judgement call and your own horse is killed beneath you. This is when combat goes from pathetically easy to ridiculously hard. The people you fight are often as good as you, even when you have full skills. So it comes down to getting the first hit in quickly and then hitting them repeatedly (which knocks them back each time, allowing you to hit them again) until they're dead. If they hit you first, you're screwed as they keep hitting you. Particularly against multiple foes. There's no real skill at sword-play, it's just "avoid getting hit at all costs". You can block but often they just attack again immediately meaning there's no time for you to counter-attack. One-on-one it's not so bad. Just run away from them (only ever so slightly out of range) until they swing, after they inevitably do, turn around and attack yourself. They'll hopefully fall over, giving you ample opportunity to finish them off. Though if you're up against large numbers of footmen and you're alone, then you're in trouble.
That's where your army comes in. The advantage? Cannon fodder which leaves you free to ride around and polearm people as they're fighting someone else. In the old versions of M&B, your enemies would make a b-line for you and only you. In fact they would ignore your army as they ran after you. That thankfully has been fixed in the retail release. Now, the enemies will mostly ignore you and go after your men. This leads to the adbsurd situation that if your army (40+ troops on the field) attacks an enemy (40+ troops on the field), you can order your troops to hold position. You then ride up alone to the enemy lines which will be moving slowly and in formation towards your men. You can ride around behind them and thin their ranks with your Bow. A few of their ranged units might have a go at you but you just take them out first. As the rest of the formation keeps moving slowly towards your men, switch to your melee weapon, ride up behind them at full speed and swing. You'll take a few more out. By the time they get within range of your own men and break ranks to attack, you'll have single-handedly halved the enemy's forces. Of course that triggers re-inforcements to appear which at that point, only serves to drag the combat out.
On the plus side, as your army of followers grows larger, the enemy war parties will eventually start to run away from you. This is a good thing until you realise that you need to kill that War Party eventually anyway, so you may as well do it now, so you chase after them for the entire breadth of the map. Their travel speed being of an impressive 5.6 compared to yours of 5.8 means a lot of chasing - always being only slightly behind them - before you catch up.
... and like all things in M&B, it gets worse.
Sun Tzu's Art of Castle Sieges.
Let's take a look at castle sieges. These often involve your men standing helplessly in a line as enemy archers shoot at them from the battlements. A siege engine of some sort will slowly make its way towards the wall and when it gets there, you'll be able to charge. Until then, you'll order your men to hold ground as you pick off the enemy archers yourself with your Bow and Arrow. Literally. You have to kill them all yourself. Even with an army of Archers you do most of the killing yourself while they miss. You'll aim up a head shot as someone sticks their head over the battlement, fire and drop them dead. Then take out the next guy as he comes up to replace him. As there are so many god-damned troops to kill during a castle siege, that means a lot of attacking and killing.
Finally charging the castle is fun but your men go single-file up the ladder. That's good for strategy purposes (for the enemy), if your men could actually get over the ledge at the end instead of getting stuck there. So you have to go up and do it yourself but your own men constantly knock you off of the ladder whenever you try to get up. You can't push them out of the way and they clearly have no respect for their leader. This means the charge ends in disaster as your men run single-file, one-by-one... into a wall where they stop and are killed by a swath of enemy pointy things. So you have to order your men to hold position and do it yourself. Once you've single-handedly cleaned up the enemy archers, you'll have no choice but to climb the ladder. Enemy footmen never come down to you during battle - in fact they can't, they can't jump over the wall themselves (most of the time, in some sieges they can).
At the top of the ladder, an array of spears, halberds and long swords will be waiting for you. That's okay though because the Great Sword you're using by that point has a longer range than those weapons. This leads to the absolutely absurd situation of you, standing at the end of the ladder, swinging at men who can't hit you back. You will even run forwards, take an overhead swing and take someone out, before running back down the ladder a step or two and avoiding their counter-attacks. Siegeing a castle is repeated this way for all the remaining enemies. Run up, swing, run back down.
The AI is even so laughably terrible that standing on the end of the single ladder and shooting the bad guys until you run out of arrows is a valid methodology to win sieges. Sadly, unlike battles in the field, there's no access to your inventory to get more arrrows in siege mode unless you pick them up from dead soldiers. The really sad thing however, is that if you couldn't exploit the AI in this way, there's just no way you'd ever win any sieges because even sadder is the uselessness of your men in combat.
Eventually, because you're doing all this killing yourself, you will get hit and taken out but don't worry! By then you've likely killed 80+ of the enemy's 300+ garrisoned forces. Because your men are mostly still alive (by virtue of the fact you told them to hold position, rather than attack themselves and thus get killed) you will simply end up back on the World Map. Where you can promptly attack the Castle again. With a good Surgeon NPC on staff, your health is mostly halfway healed instantly and given it only takes one hit to take you down most of the time, it means it doesn't matter. You just attack anyway rather than waiting to be fully healed. This is choice and consequence in the M&B universe. Which is to say, there's no choice other than combat with no consequences.
The second attack is made easier because you will have a full stock of arrows again (arrows only run out during battle, after the battle all your arrows are returned to you). With a full stock of arrows you're back to headshots over the battlements. So you take another 100+ enemies out by yourself, invariably get knocked out again and repeat the process again. Eventually, you will win the siege by pure persistence alone and the Castle will be yours to claim. Where you can garrison men there and then defend it against attack.
Defending the castle against attack is much the same process. For some battles, enemies can't charge until the siege engine is in place so you'll be taking a lot of them out with your Bow and Arrow from the Battlements (none of your men seem to be able to make anywhere near the number of headshots you can). When the siege engine is in place, combat then reverts to you at the front of the battlements, swinging your sword as the enemies come up the ladder and get stuck. Once again you will have to single-handedly take most of the enemy down. The whole process will actually make you dizzy. From all the running up and down the ladder swinging and running back and forth behind the battlements swinging I would literally get a little dizzy. Especially in battles where I was being attacked by 2,000+ men for the third time in a row. Don't they get the message? Don't they understand? I've killed 2,000+ of you fuckers when you tried to attack my castle last time, why aren't you surrendering? Why do you persist?
Hell, to avoid the dizziness you may even jump over the wall (being the only person able to do so) and charge at them on foot as the enemy stands stupidly in place waiting for the siege engine to move into position. You'll keep attacking the guys they send to move the siege engine. This is riskier though as eventually you will get taken out and when that happens in a defensive siege, the game runs a calculator that says "X of your men died" after you go down, meaning you can't do it forever because you'll run out of men. You may even want to hide under the stairs and attack through them or hide behind the wall and attack through that. Killing everyone yourself by taking advantage of exploits like this is the key to successful siege combat in Mount & Blade.
Needless to say, the soldiers in Calradria are a bit daft. I suppose that's the core of my frustration with the game. You don't really become God-like in the traditional RPG sense by building up your character, getting more Hit Points and laying waste to all around you. No, you become God-like in the sense that you learn to exploit the AI's stupidity. And if you didn't, well frankly you'd be completely screwed. You'd be left wandering around aimlessly for a long time trying to build up army after army and watching as they get cut-down constantly. It would take so many attempts to siege a castle that it wouldn't be fun, it'd become a drag. After taking out well over 40 of the castle's defenders myself through the skilled usage of "jumping out from behind a corner and firing an arrow" to get the archers off the battlements, moving deftly into position on the opposite side to get the other group of archers and then standing on top of the ladder and using my remaining arrows to take out the soldiers behind the wall, there were 10 enemies left according to the battle screen. Low on health and out of arrows, I thought it was time my crew were given a chance to taste blood themselves. 7 of them died and 2 were wounded trying to take out the remaining 10 opponents. Oh, if only I'd had 10 more arrows...
Still, it's pretty cool to siege castles and capture them. Until you realise nothing happens when you do capture them. It's pretty cool to have Lords follow you into battle because you have an idea, but annoying when you have to keep doing the same quests over and over again for them in order to win their favour. As you might understand it all gets incredibly boring very quickly. If there was some kind of purpose it would be better. If repeatedly winning made your enemies realise you were a force to be reckoned with. It's just I'd like even a bit of recognition for single-handedly killing everyone (or at least, 80% of the enemies) in every battle while my men ride (or run) around stupidly getting themselves killed. Until you get Swadian Knights that is...
Yes, Swadian Knights are awesome. There is nothing quite like the experience of riding into battle on horseback, at the head of your army of Swadian Knights. At that point in the game (provided it's an open field and not a siege), your army becomes useful (in a siege they're useless, as per above). Enemies on foot will be obliterated in seconds as your Knights charge into their ranks. Strangely, the enemy war parties you encounter never seem to have many horsemen. Instead it's foot soldiers waiting to be slaughtered by your own cavalry. The enemies on horseback you do encounter will... Ride around for hours as your men can never catch them leaving you to do most of the killing there. But against enemies on foot, Swadian Knights pwn all. You can even take a break, charge into battle and just stop while you let your men clean-up which makes a nice change.
You can even not fight at all by ordering your Knights to attack without you. This is the M&B way of saying "I have too many men, please kill most of them off" (even with the maximum Tactics skill which is supposed to be useful here) as you're often better off joining the battle anyway but hanging back and not getting involved in the melee. Go away, have a cup of tea and when you come back chances are high that the enemy will be dead and you'll have most of your men alive - even though you didn't lift a finger. This is the disparity of M&B where there doesn't seem to be a balance. Battles that would have you outnumbered 2 or even 3 to 1 have you winning with less than 10 men dead and wounded if you join the battle. Use the "Attack without me" option though and it results in you losing. Badly. The code just doesn't seem to take into account the fact you have a bunch of guys on horseback while your enemy has an army of soft fleshy man things on foot with no shields. Instead losing all your men in some horrible massacre like some kind of imitation of the French at war.
Every once in a while, M&B shines. Those battles where your horse is killed underneath you and you fall. You run and battle wildly on foot, only to take out another horseman, hop onto his horse and continue fighting. Even having the same scenario repeat again only to get back on another horse and escape. Or when in sieges, you run out of arrows, and start using the arrows from people you've killed. Just has a nice touch. As you can see though, the combat is both the best thing about Mount & Blade and the worst thing. Dumb AI which at lower levels, you often have to exploit in order to win. Though even at higher levels, exploits are required. Like riding around in circles as they all daftly follow you and you skewer them with arrows. When they go "shields up" or fighting horsemen it becomes difficult but you can take out their horse from underneath them and watch them fall down, then if you're quick, shoot a few arrows into their backs while they're down. Else shoot at their shield until it breaks (big waste of arrows) or just ride ahead of them just that little bit so they swing and miss, after-which you skewer them.
M&B compounds this problem because you can massacre the entire army of a Kingdom only to face the same Lords not long later, having re-gathered their armies. Really, if you capture enemy Lords, don't sell them. Imprison the fuckers. Even when they have very few villagers at which to gather troops, they somehow or another manage to materialise large armies instantly while you have to travel the country-side mustering forces.
There is only one thing M&B does well and surprisingly, that's when you're on a mount, with your blade. Horseback combat is fun stuff. It's fun to ride circles around stupid lifeless AI drones and cut them down where they stand, leaving their battered and pathetic corpses strewn across the battlefield. Sadly that's all that ever happened. I kept wanting M&B to have so much more in it. Like a decent trading system, some background to the lifeless and empty world to make it feel alive and maybe give me some reason to join one faction over another. Sadly, it's just a spreadsheet. Pick a faction at random. Fight with them until you get bored (and you inevitably will). Then change factions and fight back the other way.
M&B is more a larping simulator than an RPG, the result being you'll need a team of blokes if you really want to survive more often, rather than having the AI b-line for you in every battle if you go it alone. As a result, you'll want the leadership skills that increase your army size (otherwise facing down a 60+ war party is just tiresome) A single hit will often knock you down dead and without an army behind you, it means you once again get captured, wander around the map with the bad guys a bit before being able to escape for the umpteenth time. With an army, a single hit at least allows you the option to "send in your men" in case you're too wounded and maybe, if you bothered to up the tactics skill, your men might even actually kill someone. Yes, they'll die horribly themselves that way but then you'll get to retreat.
Often, your men either die or kill an impressive 1 or 2 bad guys, while you lose 1 or 2 of your own men. This is even in cases where 40+ parties run into each other. Sadly, even with the maximum tactis Skill allowed, only with you on the battlefield are your men actually capable of killing in decent numbers. Decent enough that allow you to move on and loot stuff, making it actually worthwhile. You can never make mud because nothing you do sticks. Factions are changed as easily as paying a pittance fine, your men work for pittance a week (1 or 2 denar, where-as weapons and food cost several thousand denar). In the end, sandpits are just boring without any toys to make them interesting.
The patheticness of your own men in combat is perhaps best demonstrated by attacking one of the villages. Yes, loot and burn is an option and like all things in M&B... it involves combat. This time with armed villagers. While you ride around in circles cutting them down unharmed, their sheer numbers will swamp and overwhelm your men quickly. Your armed men. With armour. And training. And sharp pointy things called swords. Get taken down by villagers wearing nothing but rags and holding pointy pitch-forks.
In some ways, it's like Microsoft Flight Simulator, it only works if you're into that sort of stuff. If you've ever wanted to run around 1200 AD and complain that the hats clearly aren't pointy enough for the time period and no, no, no that's not how a bow and arrow works, M&B is for you. If you want a game where you can do something, anything other than kill everyone and once done, have absolutley nothing happen, M&B is not for you. It's Grand Theft Auto for the middle ages. Only without the awesome police chases and no sinlgeplayer story that makes it worth the money. And none of the fun little side stuff to make it a bit interesting. It's just the combat.
You play the role of a Leader. And I suppose that's the problem. M&B seems stuck between wanting you to slaughter entire parties of enemies yourself versus not being able to without an army. Levelling up is useful and you will notice the improvement in skills. The extra few HP you manage to get, the faster running away but items really make the difference. Better armour (which means having money) seems to make a greater noticable difference than +1 to Ironflesh (which gives you a whopping +2 HP) does. Considering you're often attacked for 20 - 40 HP (or more) damagae at a time and only have about 50 HP. Generally, 2 hits and you're toast unless you're wearing a nice set of armour to absorb most of the blow. Of course, that doesn't mean you won't still get arrows in the back. M&B isn't sure of itself. It means you will always play the same role... Unless you really want to bore yourself to tears by just trading.
The reality is, you will get combat skills. You might ignore athletics but that will be to your detriment when you get ambushed in a town by bandits paid to kill you or when you launch a castle siege like you inevitably will want to do. Trading also isn't that great to be honest. Making money is nice but what do you have to spend it on? More awesome weapons with which to kill and armour which will protect you and if you want the best, you'll need the strength to wear it. M&B is a combat game. The "RPG" skills means there's a bit of work involved before you become super awesome but it doesn't really take long to get there and once there... You're not really all that awesome and you're kind of lost unless you create your own goals. Kill all the Rhodoks? Check. Sadly, the one thing that would've really resolved the lack of story is all around the combat. If every battles victory depends on me being involved (and it will and it does), why don't I get to be King? Why don't I ride into court, slit the guys throat and just take over for myself?
The game seems to want to be a LARPing simulator by preventing you from becoming a God and yet by the same time, it dumbs down every battle by only having bad guys attack you who are on foot. Of course your army of mounts tears them apart easily. It wants to be hard by making it almost nigh on impossible to siege a castle but by the same token, using your men as distractions allowing you to chop away at enemies who have their backs turned makes it all too easy. It is almost impossible (without an insane amount of effort) to take on a party of any significant size on your own by yourself (you really get bored and often run out of arrows and inevitably get a whack or two and fall over when you try to get closer with a sword or the like) and yet when armed with an army, you happily ride circles around your enemies as they wander stupidly around in circles of their own.
... but none of this takes away from combat being M&B's strength. You'll find yourself looking for just one more battle. Just this fight. I'll just sell this stuff. I'll just pop into this town and see if they have a better Sword or Armour for sale. I'll just... Suddenly it's two hours later and you're still killing stuff and you just want to do this last battle... and oh God yes it's boring and this is the seventeenth time I've fought the Swadian army today BUT ALL YOU FUCKERS ARE GOING TO TASTE MY STEEL. DO YOU HEAR ME?
The more hard-core amongst you will find the iron man mode (no saving unless you quit, so when you fuck up, there's no re-loading) a joy.
Where does that leave us?
Your goal in M&B is to mindlessly slaughter everyone you meet. M&B makes up for this by making mindlessly slaughtering everyone you meet boat-loads of fun. Oh sure, the more you play, the more experience you get, the more enemies you face, the larger battles you have. The endless battles just get bigger and more endless. Suddenly your drained by combat and without an army, you have little hope of achieving anything. Meaning you go for high troop numbers, get all the hero NPCs, level-up all their party skills (because they suck at combat) and essentially have the same character no matter what you do.
... but it's fun.
M&B does one thing and one thing only and it throws it at you so many times that you inevitably become sick and tired of it and want something else. Combat encounters with combined war parties of 1,000 troops becomes tiresome when it represents 12 or more battles (of 80 troops at a time) that you must perform in a row, right after each other, without being able to save, quit and take a break from it. Of course you could "leave the battle" and then save and quit but then one of your heroes has a go at you for retreating, even though you got right back into the battle or even in some cases, went and got some help and came back with reinforcements. Your strategic brilliance just isn't appreciated by Marnid. Lords on your side will mention that "you were there fighting Lord X one minute and then you'd disappeared the next!" Well excuse me if you're not fucking grateful I single-handedly slaughtered over 60% of the entire fucking army myself you ungrateful twat. Of course there is always the option to "send in your men to fight without you" but that almost inevitably turns into the "I want to lose, please rape my army badly and leave me with no troops so that I have to build them all up again" button even with a decent Tactics skill.
... but it's fun.
You get sick and tired of fighting the entire Swadian army. Twice. In a row. 800 enemy units slaughtered in battle only to turn around and find, no wait, there's another 800 who decided to attack you too! And then, once you're done with them, you finally siege a few of their castles only to... Wait for it... Fight a third army which appears to have literally been created out of nowhere. While you desperately ride around trying to raise and train your men, they seem to be able to materalise them instantly upon defeat. In fact, defeat doesn't really count for much unless you capitalise on it. And by capitalise on it I mean the minute you've wiped out their entire army for the fourth time, take as many castles as you can and with a bit of luck, you'll only have to fight their entire army another four or five times before you defeat them. Of course, that depends on how many other factions you're at war with at the same time (God forbid there be a peace option in this game) and doesn't include all the battles you'll have to fight just to take those castles. In short, Mount & Blade is a one trick pony which slams that trick down your throat until you become bored with it, quit, play something else for a while (it was up to a week for me between major campaigns) and then come back to maybe, just maybe get a bit further this time. Once you've fought someone's entire army again of course.
... but it's fun.
And yes I know I'm going to have to kill the entire fucking Swadian army again at some point, so I may as well do it now. So you kill all their Lords (that is, knock them unconscious) and take all their castles and rejoice. Only to find? All the Swadian Lords change fucking sides! And you get to fight them all over again. Except this time they're not Swadians, they're Nords. Yay. That's just what I want. The total feeling of helplessness only the victory of nothing can grant. I feel like I'm NOT meant to be single-handedly taking over the whole country-side. Given there's no easy management capabilites for the villages and towns you capture, you have to ride to each one to collect taxes, you can't send an errand boy (like other Lords do you to you with their quests). You have to ride to them in order to individually manage what they're building and there's no overview screen to see what's going on, who's building what and what's about to be finished where (mind you, not that building stuff is really worthwhile as I was only doing it because I'd cheated so I had money to spare).
... but it's fun.
Despite all of these complaints, Mount & Blade's basic combat mechanic is simply fun. Truthfully, it's like one of those old arcade games such as Pong. There's not a lot to it. It doesn't try to change the world. A lot of what it half-heartedly does could be done a lot better (a LOT better). The game revolves around some really simple mechanics which it throws at you until you're physically drained and despise the thing. And sure it could do with a decent economy and some better quests and a bit of background to the story. And in the end all this combat becomes incredibly tiring because you're always fighting everyone all the time. Raid a caravan and fight, siege a castle and fight, join a tournament and fight, do some trading and end up fighting off bandits, do a quest and fight someone for some unknown reason other than the fact that it's what you've been told to do and sure, why not. And yes, the minute you realise that all you're doing is riding around killing stuff and there's no real point to it all, you kind of lose all interest in the game.
... but it's fun.
So is it worth the price of admission? As I said at the start of this, the price of M&B has been increasing since they sold the first beta. I paid about $12.00 AUD for it a few years ago. Since then I've played it and enjoyed it a lot (a lot more than other games in-fact). By the same token - and rather quite oddly given the amount of hours I have put into it - I just can't bring myself to feel the price tag is justified. At $30 USD it's a little more than half the price of a new release which isn't all that bad except these days, you can hunt some pretty good stuff out of the bargain bin for less. You can pick up the Orange Box for about the same price. For the same amount of money you can get The Witcher which I actually found much more engaging. And I think that's M&Bs problem. It doesn't really engage you. It's just a combat game, meaning you play it because you like the battles but that's it.
I reckon I got a bargain. If they knocked $10 USD off the price, I'd say you should definitely pick it up. There's an active modding community around the game and some interesting mods have already been released. Some even add story to the game and are quite enjoyable. I highly recommend you download the demo. If at the end of it you're just itching for that one extra battle or the opportunity to buy that nice sword you saw or horse you spotted, buy the game. You won't be disappointed. At least not for a long while yet.
Sure, I wanted to achieve something in the game and I never really felt like I ever did despite wiping out every other Faction...
... but it was fun.
Epilogue: So why do I like this game?
I'd taken the Throwing Axe in my leg. It looked kind of funny sticking out and that one hit had sapped most of my health, but I was still alive. The horse wasn't though. Running through their lines turned out to be a bad idea. My horse had gone down and I was in bad shape. Fortunately, there was some distance between myself and the men who were now approaching me on foot. Unfortunately, one of the last few remaining enemy horseman was also bearing down on me. I prepared. I jumped and swung, Ninja-style. My jump avoided his axe, my swing avoided his horse and took down the rider. The horse trotted off and stopped as the rider fell off. I ran after it, grabbed its side and mounted it just as the footmen got too close for comfort.
I was away. Bow and Arrow back in hand I peppered their lines. A few arrows hit their shields but those I timed right hit them where their shield didn't cover (the feet are best) or struck them when their shields were down. After circling around and grabbing more arrows from my inventory chest on the field, I finished the remaining warriors off. I'd lost a lot of the rag-tag men I had under my command but I'd won the battle.
[...] A message popped up. One my castles was under siege by King Yaroglek and his 179 troops. I'd only just conquered it. It was my first castle and there was no garrison there. I had to race. When I got close, King Yaroglek's party broke off their siege against my empty castle and followed me. I lead him away and he followed me as I circled back around to the castle again. Reaching it before the King, I garrisoned my entire war party inside now and waited. The attack came the next morning. 60 Troops vs 179. We won. It was a slaughter. For King Yaroglek. It took me two attempts the first trying archery, the second try after a reload (yeah, I play like that - that's just how I roll). I ordered all troops to hold position right at the top of the ladder. I then stood to one side with Balanced Great Sword in both hands and chopped away as they came up. Corpse after corpse fell until the ground was littered with them. My sword covered in blood. We kept at it. Wave after wave after wave attacked and we held. We fucking held. And it was awesome. It was King Yaroglek! And I'd defeated him.
Sadly, because I'd garrisoned my troops inside instead of keeping them in my party, the victory was bitter-sweet. The King had escaped (as per usual) and I wasn't given the opportunity to level up any of my troops. After a battle like that, I surely would've maxed my band of mid-range soldiers out. Oh well, I wasn't reloading that again.
[...] I threw them back. Near 500 attackers with 300 dead on their side and a mere 20 on mine, while a lot of my men were wounded, the great surgical skills of my team kept them alive. The attackers abandoned the attack and fled, I quickly left the wounded behind at Ergellon Castle, grabbed the toughest, meanest, fitest men I had and gave chase. I played it smart though, their armies broke and scattered in three different directions. I went afteer the smallest group of 17 men. It was Lord Mattheas who had lead the siege against my castle. I cut him and his men down. Next I tracked a second group of 65 men, they had circled back to my castle to attack again. I met them there with another band of 100 enemies who'd joined, I passed through the siege lines and defended the castle again. I was low on health but thankfully was conscious enough to join in the battle. Once again I ran to the top of the ladder our attackers had placed and ordered my men to hold position. They held. And held. And held.
The second battle seemed longer than the first and more of my men were lost but we held. At one point in the battle, some overanxious soldiers actually managed to run down the ladder to hold them off there, out of range of my Greta Sword. I ran along the battlements and started shooting arrows from the side until I'd run out. I ran back to the top of the ladder and re-joined my men holding position there. It looked like it was all over when more enemy re-inforcements arrived. But again we held. Then suddenly, cheers went up. We'd won. The Rhodoks were retreating.
With a meagre two groups, one of 19 and another of 9 men, I gave chase a second time. The excellent Pathfinding skills of my companions meant we encountered them quickly on the hills just outside the Castle. The hilly terrain made the battle difficult, with the trees making it even more so. Riding around in battle amongst trees on hills you have to be careful not to run into a tree, lose momentum and be knocked off your horse by everyone who's after you. We picked them out though and Lord Falsevor and his fellow Lords were cut down where they stood. And by cut down of course I mean knocked unconscious and fled but still... Lords Falsevor, Freichin, Reland and Gutlands (or whatever their names were) all somehow managed to escape my men but nonetheless, their armies were shattered. I had cut them down. Near 500 Rhodok men lay dead and near 50 of my own. The Rhodok army lied broken, battered and ruined on the field that day.
We rested at Ergellon Castle over night and the next morning, refreshed, with glorious victory under my belt and party morale at an all-time high, I did what any great leader would. I assaulted Lord Talbar and his party as he made the mistake of riding by. I then spotted King Graveth in battle with my fellow Khergit Lord Imizra. I joined and after a quick battle, had the King of Rhodok as my prisoner. I spoke to him after battle and told him not to run away or do anything stpuid because I'd be watching him. He promised me he wouldn't because that's how that conversation always goes with captured prisoners. The Rhodoks imediately offered me 11,000 denars to release their King. I refused. A King must be worth at least 10 times that much I thought. I lost honour for my refusal but no matter. They'd cough up eventually. Even if I had to single-handedly defeat every Lord in Rhodok.
[...] After wiping out half of Rhodok, I had finally been elected Marshall of the Khergit Kingdom for my valiant war efforts. I immediately decided to finish the Rhodoks off once and for all so I summoned my fellow Lords to my call and raided Veluca. Sadly, about half of the raised army were more interested in chasing caravans everywhere rather than helping me siege the town but with the might of those who remained behind me, we succeeded. I requested the Town be granted to me and it was.
I sieged Jelkala afterwards and with some effort captured that too. Naturally, being now the most renowned soldier in the land and having single-handedly handed half the Kingodm of Rhodok over to the Khergit Khanate for whom I worked, I asked for Jelkala to be granted to me in return for my efforts. I desperately needed the funds to continue supporting the garrisons of troops I required. The Khan refused! Outraged, I renounced my oath and took up the role of an independent King, holding Jelkala and Ergellon Castle. Unfortunately, it pissed the Khanate off and I had to fight them all the time... Still, I would've been fighting someone anyway. At least this time I was fighting for myself and no--one would refuse my just rewards.
[...] After a long and hard campaign, the final battle against the remnants of the Rhodok Kingdom occured at Maras Castle. We conquered and took the Castle after a long battle. No matter, the Rhodoks were dead... Or at least, they didn't have any Kingdoms and the faction page said it occupied nowhere and half their Lords were in my custody but they still offered me money for them... And then the Lords that were left simply jump shipped and declared they now worked for the Swadians. Why the fuck I can't skewer the heads of all the Rhodok Lords on polls outside my Castle and wipe them out I'll never know. I mean why the fuck not? Why doesn't the game recoginse the gloriousness of my overwhelming victory? Where's the reward? Where's the praise from the Khan (Oh no wait, I'd dumped him)? Where's.. anything? I'm now paying insane amounts of money per week to support my army which is about standard to what all the other Lords have (100 blokes in their Castle, 300 in a town and 100 on hand). And yet the taxes I raise barely cover the expenses to pay for the Towns own defense.
God damnit. Oh well, I'll just take on this group of Forest Bandits... Just one more battle...