The Steam Summer Sale ended this week, and like most years, I was unable to resist the allure of all those savings. I was more restrained this time, though: I only bought two games. Styx: Master of Shadows (which I haven’t touched), and Mount and Blade: Warband.
Mount and Blade is something of a cult classic among the PC fandom, but for console peasants or people with no interest in real-time strategy, you’d be forgiven for not knowing what it is. It’s something of an open-world sandbox low-fantasy… thing, where you play an adventurer looking to find fame and fortune in a magic-free medieval world. You can join a faction and help it claim dominion over the land, you can become a brigand and rob from peasants and loot towns, you can be a trader and help ship goods around, or you can raise your own army and found your own nation. The mechanics of the game are fairly simple, but all the things you’re allowed to do with them are nothing short of extraordinary.
I’m going to forewarn you all now, if you’re looking for anything other than a glowing review and anecdotal stories about how Mount and Blade: Warband is consuming my life, then you’re going to walk away from this article very disappointed. But if it’ll help ease what’s coming, I’d be more than happy to list some of the game’s flaws: the AI is rudimentary, the tactics in battle are severely limited, there’s barely a tutorial to speak of, the graphics are dated, it’s the very definition of a “pop-up” game, a term that has become so alien to many fans I bet you might not even know what I’m talking about. Dialogue is long and stilted, the seams of the open world are obvious if you play for more than an hour…
But here’s the thing, all of those problems? Window dressing. What Mount and Blade is, and what it does better than most games even of this generation, is provide you with a Sandbox where it truly feels like you have the power to become whatever you want. Sure, combat is going to be inevitable, bandits are everywhere (even in towns), so being well-armed isn’t exactly an option. And I’m not going to say it doesn’t lean heavily towards mercenary work. But it really felt like, when I first stepped into my first low-res town and saw a few dozen NPC’s walking in circles, that for as old as this was, the world was my oyster. There was no grand quest to undertake, no underlying motivation for you or the world: the world will move on its own, regardless of what you do, and you can either be an actor in that change or you have to act around it.
Case in point: when I first played, I was something of a Bandit-slayer, hopping between towns, building a small troop of soldiers, and attacking whatever bandits I could find on the map. Good experience, good money, but as my army grew I slowed down and bandits simply avoided me. I didn’t do any chores for the nobility so no one knew me, no one would hire me, and I wound up going bankrupt and in ruins soon afterward. I could have recovered from that - as near as I can tell there’s no permanent death in the game - but I was still figuring out the mechanics so I wanted to start off with a fresh slate and a new character.
My second character was a right and proper gentleman who kept his army small and elite, slaying bandits and quick to get into the good graces of a local lord, hired to do a few tasks before enlisted to act as a mercenary, and finally, a minor lord. Despite the fact I was single-handedly winning many battles (thanks, easy mode’s damage reduction) and I was wed to an affluent young lady, the king of my land didn’t seem to care for me, and while I got a castle and a desperately poor plot of land, I wasn’t ever able to get his ear long enough to win his favor. He would go on to conquer the land, and while I lived a comfortable life in my poor-as-frick-frack village, I never excelled at anything. Except fighting. Easy mode means you take 1/4th damage from attacks, and pairing that with heavy plate armor, it meant you were basically as untouchable as real medieval knights. Like I could cut my way through huge armies on my own. A bit broken, no doubt, but I learned and accepted long ago I don’t play games for the challenge anymore.
I’m on my third playthrough now, armed with the knowledge of my last two runs (with the occasional visit to the Wiki), a mod that adds a bit more visual flare and options to the diplomacy, and a desire to be the best that I can be. So, I started just like my second character, except this time, I was trying an archery build, which did not lend itself well to my combat style. Needless to say, I spent a great deal of time as the prisoner of bandits, but I was eventually able to build up an army and some money with quests and some revenge bandit-killing. When I had enough, I hired a bunch of mercenaries and villagers to start my one-man quest to build my own kingdom. I threw myself at a Nord Castle… and was destroyed.
I didn’t know this at the time, but the Nord heavy infantry made them very good at keeping castles. I wouldn’t figure that out, though, until I brute-forced my way across the entire Nord countryside, taking their cities and castles until the entire Nord side of the continent was redubbed the Skylark Kingdom, my own personal monarchy. I sent letters to fellow lords looking for acknowledgment. I handed out vassals of land to my loyal subjects and even got a few Nord noblemen to defect to my bludgeoning empire.
I know there are other games that do this. Age of Wonders 3 has far more detailed combat and comes with a slew of magic and customization options this game lacks. Civilization allows your entire empire to develop more holistically, taking on roles and managing relationships in a much more realistic fashion. But this game is the perfect combination of those two and trimmed down to be accessible (more or less) no matter how you want to play. There’s detailed kingdom management, and there’s real-time tactical combat, and while neither is as deep as the above games, I’ve found nothing to match it yet.
It’s the perfect canvas for my imagination, and it trips all of my triggers. It’s been consuming my thoughts every time I’m at work or playing another game. I always want to go back, try to continue my ongoing war with the Kingdom of Swadia, the next on my growing hit list of countries to eliminate in my quest to conquer the entire land. And on top of my campaign against this huge empire (the Nords were weakened and small, which was probably why they ultimately were still the best foothold to attack), I also have to manage my lords relationship with each other, keep my relationship good with the even bigger Viager empire,(which is also on my hit list, as they’ve captured a Nord city right in the middle of what’s now my territory) and maybe even organize a feast. But I’ll need to get married to do that…
There’s a lot to do in a very big world and it’s enough to make my head spin, in all the best ways.
And it’s 7 freaking years old!
Although granted, it looks 15 years old. If these character models were walking around in a Thief game they’d be only slightly better quality. The mod helped some, but we’ve got this weird problem where my face skin doesn’t match the rest of my body, so it looks like I’m wearing the skin of someone else over my head when I’m shirtless (which is often: apparently I can’t train a peasant army while wearing my armor).
Anyway. It goes without saying I’d recommend the game to anyone with even a passing interest in this kind of thing. It’s especially good around now, the gaming world has slowed down a bit for the 4th of July weekend and I have a lot of free time to throw into this mammoth endeavor. But I am going to ask that you send some help, too, because if you don’t hear from me again in the next few weeks, it’s because I’ve gone full South Korean and probably died in front of my laptop.
It’s nice, I should mention, that nothing so terrible happened this week I couldn’t take the time to write this fun little story. I could go with more slow news days as of late… things are just moving too quickly for my old brain.
Anyway. Back to conquering fictional lands…