Mount and Blade – Warband Review

Mount and Blade was a game that I actually ignored for a while despite hearing positive things about it. Generally I’m drawn to indie games that explore new ground because they tend to be pretty good with gameplay. Lately a lot of indie games have focused on simple gameplay mechanics with a massive focus on art style, which is kind of disappointing. One of the best things about indie games is that they tend to focus on things that most mainstream developers won’t touch, like major space sims/Elite games or remakes of XCOM, exactly the kind of games that people say should exist, and yet never appear (unless you count X3, which isn’t really mainstream either).

To get back on track, the idea behind Mount and Blade, for those who missed it, was to more or less dump you on a horse with a sword in the middle of a few warring factions, and let you go about your business. You could go recruit some people from the local villages, build up a small band of followers, and raid the local villages. You could join one of the major factions and participate in their wars. You could even just give everybody the finger and start your own rebel faction. There’s a fair degree of freedom in M&B, and really the best thing I can liken it to is like an “Medieval: Total War – The First Person Encounters”. You fight on horseback in a swarm of struggling men beating the shit out of each other with swords, polearms, whatever. That’s pretty cool! And once you’re sick of that, there’s a hell of a lot of mods out there which transform M&B into plenty of other games, like fighting the Crusades, or even playing out your Star Wars fantasies of working to ensure that the Rebel Alliance is actually crushed.

Warband’s challenge to get a pass is to meet its predecessor’s level. To get above that, it has to improve on the original by a fair amount. So what’s new in Warband? First off the engine has received a bit of an upgrade; graphically the game looks much better and it runs a lot smoother. HDR lighting is incorporated and there’s less of the random jerking around that occurred in M&B. Some textures have been redone, while others are apparently taken from the original. And that’s not really a good thing, because M&B wasn’t the best looking game out there. To be fair it couldn’t be because it was dealing with a massive number of objects on screen during the larger battles, but still some more attention to detail wouldn’t go amiss here.

In terms of gameplay, the core mechanics remain mostly the same; you start off with a horse and a sword, and go on to do whatever it is that you choose. There’s a new map and a new faction – a sultanate that exists out in the desert. One thing that interests me is the massive amounts of blank space on the map. There’s a lot of ground to cover but to the south and the west there’s a vast expanse of nothing. Did they include it for modders? Who knows. The interface remains more or less the same but the newer graphics definitely improve it somewhat. Also the text descriptions are more useful; the game gives you more information about events and lets you ask more questions of people. For example asking a member of a faction about what’s going on now lets you ask about what they’re doing, what their faction is doing, and how the war is progressing.

Combat hasn’t changed an awful lot but there are a few new neat additions. Firstly you can kick people. Not sure why I think that warrants a mention, but there you go. Next, you have a bit more control over your units. There are different formations and the AI has been improved. Also the command interface, though it functions more or less the same, has more onscreen elements so that you’re not constantly stuck pressing keys to see who responds to what or guessing at what a key does. Otherwise combat is more or less what you’d have seen in M&B, which is fine because the combat works well in M&B. If you thought Oblivion’s “block and thrust” mechanics were hard, you might want to skip this one.

Outside of combat the two new major additions are the abilities to get married and to become a king, with marriage as one of the options to get more political clout to become a king. Marriage tends to work better for female characters than males. You also get the opportunity to actually become a faction leader and appoint your own vassals and play around with a kingdom. Finally, there’s a multiplayer mode now, not that it really warrants much attention because there’s unlikely to be a community large enough to take full advantage of it.

Now here’s the thing: all of the things I mentioned (apart from MP) have been done before. Much of the improvements are just that – improvements on what M&B already had. Some of the newer elements, like becoming a faction leader, have been added into M&B by way of mods. This really is just M&B with a pretty good facelift and popular mod ideas incorporated into one polished package. The increased engine stability, graphics, and gameplay mechanics are all appreciated, but this still feels like an expansion pack. I can understand why people are apprehensive about purchasing Warband if they already have M&B; there isn’t a huge difference between the two, and given the price of $30 USD, it’s a big ask. Warband is great, it’s a hell of a lot of fun, but it’s like a modded version of M&B. A really good modded version, but still not a significant change.

Then again, the improvements will allow others to stand on the shoulders of giants, and modders will no doubt descend upon this game like locusts on crops, and given the quality of work released so far for M&B, you’ll see some spectacular mods. Ultimately Warband’s success can only be measured based on how the modders support it. If everybody stuck with M&B, there’d be no significant reason to go to Warband. Given how unlikely that is, Warband is pretty much going to be required if you want to keep up with the community.

GRAPHICS: Pass.
They’re still behind the times but the improvements to the engine are fairly good. Mostly it’s the textures that let the game down, but I’m willing to forgive this because it’s an indie game and there’s a lot of things to draw on the screen.

SOUND: Pass.
No changes here as far as I can tell.

GAMEPLAY: Good.
Warband is fun and the new additions are welcomed, but it still feels an awful lot like M&B, especially in the beginning.

LIFESPAN: Excellent.
There’s practically no doubt that the modding community will take Warband to strange, new places.

OVERALL: Good.
Warband, on its own, is not a significant upgrade and it’s very hard to justify the purchase price right now. When it drops in price (or if it appears on a Steam special), then it’s worth snapping up. The exception is if you’re a massive M&B fan, or you don’t have M&B and are interested in getting the game. In the case of the former, you’ve probably purchased it already and are just looking for me to validate your opinion. In that case – you made a good choice etc. If this is your first M&B game then it’s worth getting because you won’t have seen it all before. When the mods run thick and fast (and they will very soon, most modders will be porting their projects across with ease) Warband will definitely be worth picking up. By that point, it should be a bit cheaper too. In all it’s a good upgrade, but it should have been just that – an upgrade. As a stand-alone product, it’s hard to justify the cost at this particular point in time. Wait for the mods.

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