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Where'd everybody go?

One thing that there definitely isn’t enough of at the moment is action RPG’s set in a medieval environment.  Okay, that’s assuming that you live on Neptune.  Here on Earth, they’re more common than surly bin men.  There are Inuit tribes living in the harshest reaches of Alaska who’ve still completed Oblivion at least once.  But Mount & Blade, a new action RPG set in a medieval environment from Turkish company Taleworlds, at least tries to set itself apart with a great sense of realism and freedom.

Before donning your armoured underpants and heading into the world of Calradia, you first have to customise your character.  The default male appearance is pretty unflattering - imagine He-Man as an unkempt, cider-swilling layabout.  Luckily it’s possible to do some drastic alterations, including the addition of a funky 118-style ‘tache.

Once the physical side is sorted, you can give yourself a background of sorts by filling in the blanks of a hackneyed story.  For example: “You were born years ago, in a land far away.  Your father was a [BLANK].”  You then choose from a list of options, such as thief/warrior/chicken-botherer.  The choices make some difference to your starting stats, but you’re also allowed to manually add points to your attributes, skills and weapon proficiencies.  There’s plenty of skills to choose between, and they’re realistically tied in with your attributes - so you can’t build a weedy character who is somehow a whizz with two-handed axes.

As soon as you’ve distributed your stats and given your character a suitably stupid name (such as Sebastian Slickshaft), you’re basically chucked into Calradia and left to your own devices.  There’s no introductory cutscene (or cutscenes at any other point in the game), and no instructions like ‘go to this town and speak to this guy’.  You can go to any town you please and do what you like.  Some gamers will love the sense of freedom, while others may be a little lost or possibly even disinterested without a proper narrative to follow.

You move around Calradia simply by clicking on locations on a giant world map, then watching your character walk or ride there.  Calradia is a pretty huge place, consisting of many different regions which are - of course - at war with each other.  It’s possible to take sides with any of the different factions at any time, or you can simply let them get on with beating the snot out of each other while you mind your own business.

At first you’ll probably just want to explore some towns and get some info from random strangers.  Quite a few of the NPC’s will hand out quests which you can complete for cash and experience.  These are fairly standard little missions, such as taking out a set target or hassling someone to pay a debt.  Sadly, it’s impossible to adopt a violent approach to the latter.  If you can’t talk or bribe someone into doing what you want, there’s no way to simply stick an axe in their face - your weapons pass harmlessly through any non-confrontational NPC.  Conversations are also less than impressive, with many characters spouting the same drivel.  “Mind your manners and we’ll have no trouble” is a particular favourite.  There’s no actual speech in the game, only text, which doesn’t help matters.

Since the game is open-ended, you can thankfully ignore the quests altogether when you tire of them.  It’s possible to make cash in plenty of other ways, such as trading between regions or competing in combat tournaments.  You can even hire a band of mercenaries and terrorise entire towns, shaking them down for supplies and livestock.  The combat is where the real fun lies, despite a rather steep learning curve.

Hand-to-hand combat is well implemented and mostly a case of timing - block or parry at the right time, then strike and back off.  Dumber enemies will simply charge you and are easy to finish off, but more intelligent foes will actually work together to take you down.  Long-range weapons such as bows are difficult to master as they’re affected by gravity and even the weather.  This isn’t a run-and-gun game - moving while aiming will cause your targeting reticule to go nuts and throw off any sense of accuracy.

As fun as the on-foot combat is, it’s the mounted battles that Taleworlds have focused on.  These are ridiculously difficult to get the hang of.  At first, you’ll be lucky to even nick a target with your sword as you ride past them for the hundredth time - all the while taking huge amounts of damage from any nearby archers.  If you try a spot of archery yourself while on horseback, be sure to have a decent supply of arrows.  Despite a high proficiency in bows, I never seemed able to hit my intended targets, even if I was only a few feet away and travelling slower than an asthmatic slug.  Still, you do eventually get the hang of swiping at raiders at just the right time, and from that point the combat is good fun.

Mount & Blade is a difficult game to score.  Taleworlds have to be applauded for the freedom, the realism, and the sheer amount of detail included in the game.  However, Mount & Blade is also a little rough and at times feels unfinished.  The interior environments are all drab and grey, while outdoor environments are often barren.  No imagination at all has gone into the character or world design, which is a pity.  The boring interactions and generic quests mean that interest would be quickly lost if it wasn’t for the decent combat and sheer amount of stuff you can do.  My advice is, if you prefer realism over fantasy, and freedom over narrative, then Mount & Blade will probably stoke your fire.

Hey, this is our picnic spot!