Mount and Blade
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10
10

Both Seebaruk and Danny have written excellent reviews of this game, both marked it fairly low and remarked on poor graphics, low "candy" levels and hard-to-learn combat. I love the game, play a little nearly everyday, and give it a 10. And I'll tell you why:

"Mount and Blade" ties together many of my favourite game features. Strategy, Tactics, shooters, squad leadership with disparate individuals who you can spec and equip as you choose, even if their conversation is less than stimulating...... and a heavy dash of medievalism.

As you grow your band from just you-and-your-horse to an army of 100+ you will make a couple of changes in direction, I generally start with an archery based band. Armoured juggernauts who can filet half your band with a blade that looks like a piece of machinery off a combined harvester can often be put down at the 10 yard line wimpering with a few well placed arrows in the eyes..:-) As skills and armour (generally looted, but sometimes bought) improves, it becomes time to transition from a slow moving missile heavy crew to a more mobile, mounted and armoured spear-tipped striking force. Why? To catch the bad guys with the better loot, and get away from those who experience will teach you will own your sorry bunch. Horses, ridden, and in your inventory as "pack animals" plus high group morale increases your group speed on the big map! This growing band of tanks are what will take you from a looter-and-brigand harvesting vigilante to a puissante vassal of your chosen king capable of being "Marshal of the Realm", leading the king's other vassals to war, capturing the castles and towns that YOU choose and eventually wiping the floor with one after another of the factions in the game until you own the whole map.

Spears? But they have such low cutting and piercing stats.... Yeah, but they are long and pointy, and keep Mr. Combine Harvester away from your tender flesh. While you practise flailing swords, maces and reaping hooks at the squishy looters as you ride by them you may notice that you sometimes connect, and then the paltry stats of your found-under-a-hedge-rusting golf club get multiplied by a "Speed bonus"..... And Mr Combine Harvester, who takes 5 blows from a 2 handed axe to even dent his plate armour, gets knocked on his left cheek by a single strike from a couched lance with your fat little body plus 1/2 ton of fast-moving horse behind it.....Sorta neat huh?

Of course, you have to hit him first....So let's start from the beginning. You are thrown into the world of Calradia as a level one noob with a little cash, some food, maybe a Walmart sword, perhaps a bow, maybe a shield and usually a horse plus the odd tradeable item, depending on how you answered the first set of questions. I ran about 10 characters to level 8 (the limit permitted by the demo) before I bought the game and found the horse-archer is the most potent low-level route. Of course it is....this game is about mounted combat, and if you can reach out and touch them without them getting close enough to sniff your medieval after-shave then you are waaay ahead of the game..:-) As soon as you are beamed down to Calradia freeze the action...hit space bar then have a look around...chances are you will be close to a "Training Field" and there may be some bands skulking around nearby. They are probably not your friends! Looters are the bottom-feeders of Calradia and all we can handle at this point, and then preferably less than 4 at a sitting. Hopefully you have a horse and can work around these bands...Lets check: Select the inventory subtext and see what you are carrying (right side) and what you have equipped (left side) if you have an axe take note if it "cannot be used on horseback" since just after you fire your last arrow and roll the mousewheel to equip your melee weapon to pwn those last two looters is NOT the time to discover that you will be doing it with your fists, or that you have to leave the comparative safety of Neddy to flail your axe. The top item in your equipped display is the first one you will enter the combat field with. If you have a bow, put it at the top, assuming you have the power-draw skill to use it.....Horse-archery helps too as it improves your moving accuracy. Arrows can go at the bottom, but unless you have some equipped somewhere, your bow is nothing but expensive kindling. Next down comes your spear, sword, knife or cudgel, then perhaps a shield. You rotate through the weapons with the mousewheel.

Okay, now you are as equipped as you can be to face the world, the best place for you is the training field where you will improve your weapon skills, get a feel for striking and parrying and gain at least one level, freeing up more trait points just like you used to spec your character in the beginning. A point spent in "Attributes" on intelligence rather than strength, agility or charisma allows an additional point for combat or management skills. If you are going archer spend on "power-draw" and "horse-archery".....don't neglect "Weapon-master" as that helps boost the weapon points you earn in combat and through levelling. Looting and prisoner-management also should be watched as they will effect your ability to make money.

Great.....so now you are a trained killer, and ready to bash some heads! Assuming you ran through the opening tutorial, and have exhausted yourself at the training field, you will have a pretty good grasp of the fairly intuitive mouse-and -button combat moves, and the timing needed to actually hit something. (Don't worry, it gets easier with practice, and as your weapon skills increase so does your hit chance and damage done....soon every arrow you loose will be a "Head-shot", well, nearly.) Let's go and smack some peasants around and start earning a crust. Target for today is "Looters" the lowest form of life....apart from "Farmers" but you don't want to mess with them yet as that upsets the local lords and peace-keeping forces.....both of whom will bomb you back into the stone-age without breaking a sweat as you stand at the moment. Alone, 4 looters is probably as much as you want to take on. Find such a group on the map, ride carefully around bigger and badder groups and sneak up on them.......then POUNCE! After suitable exchange of insults you will beam to a combat field that pretty much reflects the terain you saw on the map when you jumped the looters......forests and mountains are not your friends....as an archer you want long sight distances and killing fields, as a horseman you want plains and the wide open prairies to thunder across. You start a fair way from the foe so there is time to admire your buffed self as you gallop towards your prey swinging your golf-club. If you have a bow now is the time to finger it! Find the baddies okay? If not use the mini-map accessed with the backspace key....they are the four moving dots....or just stand still, they will soon find you! Approach with caution, the buggers throw stones! You can stop and shoot then trot away as they run after you, shooting behind you as you keep just out of their evil clutches, or you can single out the laggards for a little GBH if you are not an archer. Try not to hit them with your horse as at this level even a looter can stop your horse in it's tracks whereupon he will start hacking at you and your ride as his fellows crowd around for a piece of you. Bigger and heavier horses will later give you the ability to bowl over adversaries and will inflict damage of their own. But for now look after Neddy. Mobility is your big advantage....hit and run, then hit again, preferably the same chap till he stops moving and throwing things...Rinse and repeat until all the looters lie dead or stunned....Stunned is good, as these become your captives, assuming you have at least 1 point of "Prisoner Management". Blunt damage...clubs, maces and quarterstaffs increase the wounded....and the "bag". Prisoners can be sold in towns to "Ransom Brokers" in taverns, or recruited to your party via the "Camp" menu. (Deleted predictable double-entendre). However, such recruits have been known to desert that very same night..:-( After tying up YOUR captives the worm has turned and any captives THEY held can be set free...or invited to join your party at no hiring bounty....and these guys will not desert!     Finished with captives? Then move on to the looting screen! Loot everything, assuming you have the space, created by your inventory management skills. To start with this is not a problem. Some of the loot you can put to immediate use as upgrades/new equipment for your character, The rest will be sold in town.      As you leave you will hear the "Kaa-ching" of looted denars falling into your pouch. (Tip: If you run out of arrows before you run out of targets, there is a little trick you can pull: Gallop back to your baggage....You do remember where you left your baggage right? "F" to open the the chest and hey presto you have full arrow load again....A smart archer always has some spare arrows in his bedroll..:-)

Next let's find a town. And get to it without being bushwacked. First stop is the tavern for a few beers and to sell any prisoners to the "Ransom Broker" who may be there. Sometimes "Companions" can be found (These are characters just like yours who can be dressed, just like a Barbie doll, and given nasty pointy weapons to poke at your enemies), and nearly always there is a mercenary looking for a job. Mercenaries are an expensive way to get troops that we can't afford just yet. In fact, unless you need trained troops in a hurry such as for a summons to war by the "Marshal" or a castle siege, it's better and much cheaper to recruit from villagers and train up troops yourself. Companions on the other hand should be snapped up on the spot......if you have the bounty they ask, and some ask no bounty at all. Check the companion's inventory via the "Party" menu, select the companion, "Talk" and "Show me your equipment" (Deleted second predictable double-entendre) just in case they can use any of your loot before you hit the merchants.....which is our next stop here in town. The higher your "Trade" skill the better prices you will get on bought and sold items. Sell any trade goods you spawned with, they can help finance a companion's bounty or that shiny new sword you just have to have. There is the possibility to trade your way around the map as different towns have different prices. This can help your perilous finances but its pretty secondary, killing people horribly is what this game is all about, if you were looking for a trading game, why aren't you trading stocks online and making real money instead of denars?

Congratulations! You have sold your prisoners and your loot....your bankroll is the fattest it's ever been.....You are well on your way to a career as a murderer, a slaver and a fence of stolen property, wouldn't your mother be proud of you?

Before we go back into the field....How is your health? I can't believe you pwned all those bad guys without a scratch? 30% hmmmm? A night in the tavern and a back-rub will work wonders for you.      Troops heal alot faster resting in the tavern. As morning dawns bright let's go to the nearest village, flush with the proceeds of yesterday's looting. Here you can buy food more cheaply than in the towns and also recruit peasant boys to join your fledgling warband. They aren't much yet, but as you loot and pillage your way across Calradia they gain in skill and armour until they become the elite tools with which you will build your empire.....Unfortunately, as they improve so do their wages, so think carefully before upgrading them and outstripping your income!      Right, all in good health? Armed and armoured with room for loot and prisoners? Time to find the next small group of rubes who will fund tonight's supper and drunken excesses. Stick to looters untill you are despatching them with contemptuous ease, forest bandits are bow-armed and tougher. Unless you have lots of missile troops it's better to rush them than get into an exchange of arrows that they are equipped to win. Mountain bandits are mounted, unless you have a strong cavalry it's best to form up on a hilltop with your infantry in front, dismount your cavalry, and put your archers behind and above to shoot their horses out from under them. the F keys allow you to give rudimentary tactical orders to your men such as: "Hold here","Follow me", "Infantry advance 10 paces", "Cavalry Charge" etc. For now Sea Raider are way too rich for our blood, but later they are a great source of chain-mail, axes and longbows. While you are unaffiliated with a kingdom you can move freely between towns recruiting companions and fullfilling quests as you wish. The Guild masters in towns give delivery quests, lords in castles and in the field will use you as a mail carrier and enforcer, then, one day, one of them will offer you a contract as a mercenary band. Later a king will offer you vassalage with your own village to lord it over. And eventually you will be chosen as "Marshal", wielding the might of the entire realm on the King's behalf......On the way you will kill, loot, and pillage in the best medieval traditions...just try not to die..:-)

I called this M&B, "Money and Bad Choices". Money will always be a problem. Troop costs can quickly spiral out of hand, watch carefully as your weekly wage bill goes up as you upgrade your recruits. The price of a set of plate armour, a caparisoned charger or a masterworks fine double bladed Stanley knife is not what it was in Good King Wenceslas' day. And nothing spells "Bad Times" like failing to meet the weekly payroll. See how fast your morale drops, your companions wander off, and your highly trained Panzer Grenadiers desert when you miss a couple.....Then the food runs out....Soon you are back to begging in the gutter and peddling whatever it was you pedalled before you met me. Try to always keep a least a couple of weeks wages on hand and just skim off the top for the new spike-heeled kinky boots you saw in the window of "Vittorio's Secrets" that you just HAVE TO HAVE. This is hardly a problem now when your wage bill is 5 denars a week, but 2,000 a week, 5,000 a week 10,000 a week equals an awful lot of looted floppy hats and ragged nomad boots.....don't worry, the loot gets better, and a lord's ransom really brings a smile to your accountant's pale, pinched face.

Bad choices...there are a ton of them waiting for you, build too big too fast and outstrip your income, blow all your denars on a new suit of plate the night before pay-day, run out of food, disappoint the King or the Marshal when they send for you, and the big one: bite off more than you can chew in the field and you could well find yourself at the end of a rope being dragged behind some sweaty bandit's flatulent fleabag.

I have tried to cover some of the opportunities and pitfalls that will at least help you get started in the game to a point where the fun of combat starts to outweigh the frustration of not knowing what on Earth to do next. It's a "Sandbox" game in which you forge your own destiny, not a closely scripted movie remade-as-a-game. It's strength lies in the combat system, especially mounted combat. After years of pressing the combat move buttons in MMORPG's like Everquest, Starwars Galaxies, Guildwars and Lord of The Rings Online, it's great to find a combat system that you control and can really enjoy. The satisfaction of an adroitly delivered axe upside the head, or a 200 yd headshot on a speeding Khergit lancer has to be experienced to be believed. If the MMORPG's had this system I know I'd still be paying them my tithe.....in time they all will!

Once you master the "Out of the Box" game and get bored as the Shogun of Calradia life is just beginning. There are many fine mods out there to be sampled. This game was designed to be easily modded, and the modding community has not disappointed. A quick visit to the "Taleworlds" forum will present you with many new worlds and eras to conquer, from games built on novels such as the Arthurian legends of Jack Whyte in "The Eagle and the Wolves", the Alfred the Great era of Bernard Cornwell's Uther of Babbington series in "The Age of Eternal Youth" to Samurai warriors in "Onin No Ran", The Crusades in "Holy War", England at the time of Edward Longshanks(Britain 1297), France during the "Hundred Years War" Romans, Gauls and Goths in the "Hegemony Series", (268BC is coming out with its own professionaly composed soundtracks) to tweaks and expansions of the original: "Brutality Mod", "Native Expansion", 'Extended Gameplay III"... there is "Majick" for those who can't live without it, early firearms in "The Eagle and the Radiant Cross", Horse and Musket and even a "Star Wars Mod" ...:-s.

With many of my favourite games: Close Combat series, Call of Duty, Age of Sail, Red Orchestra, IL2 (WWII air combat sim) as soon as I got into online multiplayer, the single player game sat unloved on my hard drive, relegated to a training role. Fighting other humans online is so much more challenging and satisfying than even the best AI can hope to be. When the Mount and Blade Warband online multiplayer is released this fall we are in for a world of serious sword-swinging fun.

I urge you to download the demo....run a few different character configurations and see what you think. If you like shooters, air combat sims, strategy games, have an interest in history or ever just wondered why no-one could make a hand-to-hand combat game to match the great shooters like "Red Orchestra" or "Unreal Tournament" then check this one out.....And maybe, just maybe, you'll be ready to pwn the rest of us noobs at "Warband" in the fall..:-)

Oh! "No screenshots?" you ask? Well, the previous two reviews included a couple and as they said eye-candy is not this game's forte, but for hi-res glowing technicolour go to the "Taleworlds" site and check out their Gallery.....most of the mods subforums also have screenshot sections showing new armour, horses, weapons etc......Oh, alright...here's a couple..:-)

 

Accountant: It would make our bottom line look great if you four could just scamper up the ladder and capture the castle.