In my entire gaming “career” I can count only two truly magical moments. The first one happened with the release of Dune 2, and the camping of the only PC that had the necessary 2MB of RAM needed to run the game. The second one occurred in a gloomy Internet Café, where I managed to score my first PvP kill + loot in the good old Asheron’s Call, with the crowd cheering behind me. And just when I thought that I was getting too old for such emotions, along comes Mount & Blade and turns my world upside down once more. However, you don’t need to be familiar with the entire gaming history to realize that producers have been playing it safe for quite a long time now, not risking anything with inovative concepts or revolutionary gameplay.
As a result, pleasant surprises usually come from independent producers, such as Taleworlds, a husband and wife pair from Turkey, who quit their day-jobs to concentrate on their little game (which started out as a hobby). With the help of their fans, they came up with a stable and interesting title, managing to sign a distribution deal with Paradox Interactive.
Mount & Blade is an action game with RPG elements, which sets out to create a medieval atmosphere, where spells, life potions and enchanted armors are nowhere to be seen. Instead, the game focuses around melee combat and the direct control over it, with a large array of weapons at our disposal, such as swords, maces, pikes, bows and of course, axes.
This new method of directly controling the combat is based on mouse movement and the blows depend on the relative enemy position or way you lead the mouse in a certain direction. The system has a certain Die by the Sword flavor to it, but if in that game many mice died heroically from exhaustion, here we have a simpler, more intuitive way, while still being in charge and landing devastating strikes. Hits can be blocked by a shield or even the weapon itself and considering that timing is vital for both operations, the end result is that every encounter is different.
However, if for swords and axes it’s enough to swing them from one side to the other in order to prove your point, things are not so simple with the bow and lance. The bow usage is the most satisfactory I have seen in a game yet, and by this I’m reffering to the actual satisfaction you get from using such weapon, not necessarily to the technical aspects. The balistic trajectory is realistic, while the crossbow reflects the historical truth, being more powerful but with a slower rate of fire, as reloading is done with the legs and the weapon itself becomes less effective in rainy weather. All weapons have a few parameters, such as attack speed, damage and range, and we also have different types of damage – slash, pierce, blunt – but the only difference between these is that bludgeoning an enemy will make him unconscious, so you can take him as prisoner.
Perhaps the most attractive aspect of the game is the mounted combat, where, again, the implementation is top-notch. Your horse can be controlled easily and maneuvers quite well and fighting from horseback gives a whole new dimension to the battle. Tactical-wise you get a well-deserved damage bonus when hitting an enemy from the saddle, which makes sense, while the poor beast itself can be used to knock down opponents and even stun them. Most weapons can be used while riding, but the most effective of all is the jousting lance. If used properly (set up in the special holster located on the hip) the lance has the highest damage in the entire game. Fighting from behind a horse’s steering wheel does not guarantee victory however, as the steed may die from combat wounds, in which case you will be thrown in the middle of a not-so-pleased crowd.
The area of impact is also of prime importance, as one blow to the head will hurt a lot more than one in the legs, although only the legs can be targetted when the oponent is holding up a shield. In fact the entire experience looks and smells like a medieval battlefield simulator. And even though we can’t really be sure what went on at that time, the feeling is that the game is doing a pretty good reenacting job, with arrows flying by your ear, or a cavalry charge that flattens an entire company. Initially I thought that the cavalry is a bit overpowered, but this is historically true, as any medieval army that had heavy cavalry was unstoppable. Using horses does not guarantee victory however, since they can be killed or hindered by the terrain, and lone rangers will find their death if caught in the middle of an angry infantry squad.
The AI is clever enough in a game where coordination between speed and strike accuracy is vital, and soldiers from both sides are doing their job quite well. On higher difficulty settings the enemy is quite determined to save his skin, and even capable of spectacular maneuvers, such as turning around and hitting a rider that was attacking from behind.