After a hard day looting and pillaging, Chopa heads to the mall

 Mount and Blade: Warband is the eagerly-awaited sequel to possibly my all-time favourite medieval combat game. Armagan and Ipek Yavuz, the Turkish husband and wife team who gave us the original ground-breaking M&B game have made a few changes to the original single-player game. Graphics are improved dramatically over the slightly gritty look of the original. There is a new faction, Sarranids, a desert-dwelling race in the South. The map of Calradia has changed. There are new quests, armour, and weapons. Dynastic alliances by means of marriage have been introduced. These tweaks have not drastically altered the winning formula of the original game in my humble opinion. The single player game is still "sandbox" in nature, the changes are sufficient to keep it interesting and replayable in it's new form for veterans of the original. But, to be honest, most of the new features have already been seen in various mods that are currently and freely available via the "TALEWORLDS" forum and download site. This is due to the development team's original far-sighted decision to make the game easily moddable, and the tools to do this freely available.

  What is new and different is the "Multiplayer" mode in Warband. Now you can meet many like-minded thug wannabes with medieval warrior-complexes online, strap on virtual armour and beat each other about the head with assorted pointy objects.....And all from the relative safety of your own fetid little computer pit.  Currently there are almost 100 Warband servers on a good day, some of them serving up to 64 players. That's an awful lot of axe-wielding barbarians to wade through! Almost infinite replayability is possible due to the  hundreds of permutations of new maps featuring match-ups among six warrior-type factions interacting with different game types: Deathmatch, team deathmatch, battle, capture-the-flag, siege, seek-and-destroy, and even some for one-on-one dueling with their own esoteric "honour" rules like no stabbing in the back...no shooting a duelist etc. Gord, it's almost Medieval! 

  The original M&B won its place on the hard-drives of many gamers not for it's beauty, in truth it was graphically rather basic, with a grainy, gritty look and feel to it, but for it's innovative combat system. Using W,A,S,D keys and mouse it gave us intuitive sword and shield combat more akin to first person shooters than the button-per-attack systems used in most sword-and-sorcery games around. Direction, timing and swing release became the skills to practice....and it was addictive! There is a weird, sick fascination in seeing your little chap (or chavette) on my little pwny zipping up behind some fleeing low-life looter, swinging his sabre high, then your perfectly timed swing connects with a meaty thunk and the baddie does the rag-doll. Mmmm, anyone for counselling?  Well, having mastered all those moves with sword, spear, lance, mace, two-handed great-axe etc. etc. you think you are ready to pit yourself against other psychopaths in multiplayer? Think again! Some of them have been practicing block-swing-parry-kick-stab like black-belts while the rest of us were watching TV, drinking beer and queuing for buses.....And they have the reflexes of teenage mongooses (mongeese?) on speed! You'll soon find out who they are and figure out ways to slide an arrow or crossbow bolt into the back of their heads from 50 yards out. Indeed, if like me your reflexes have been dulled by years and hard living, there is always the alternative of going "Archer" and using your "sneaky" rather than your speed to humble the Achilles of the server. Scary as it may seem there are treatises on CAVALRY, INFANTRY and ARCHER techniques, and much else besides over on the Taleworlds forums. A little studying can save much frustration as you don the ragged leather jerkin of the multiplayer noob.

   "Meet hideous friends with beards, bash them on the head, and steal their gear!" Well, for some reason, many online players have used the character generator to create the most ugly, misshapen gargoyles imaginable. The array of beards would grace a Mullah convention, and most of the female characters running around are likely 300 pound truck-drivers from Pittsburg. But we aren't looking for face-book friends here, just victims who we can induce to go dead-chicken, and give up that shiny two-handed sword and Huscarl's shield. Just watch out while you loot as there is a server full of sneaky predators creeping up on you intent on stealing YOUR chainmail boxers. Multiplayer starts with you choosing a loadout as cavalryman, infantryman or archer. This will give you a basic skillset and weapons. The skillsets seem fixed so no-one can import an uber character to own you right off the bat. Weapons can be traded up with "coin"gained by slaying baddies...or looted off the dead, so while you kill and survive you can upgrade as the game progresses and you respawn. Sounds just like real-life doesn't it? Oh yes, you can also catch and mount loose horses with saddles still warm from the butts of their deceased owners if you really want to get around fast. Chase the black horses as they have the lowest riding skill requirements, it really bites to chase a horse for ten minutes then find that you don't have the skill needed to ride it.

  Gripes? I have a few  though mostly trivial: My old favourite mounted weapon, the jousting lance, which was great for knocking bandits senseless so they could be sold into slavery, thus funding my dynasty in singleplayer, has been changed. Couched lancing (a la joust) has given way to lancer-type thrusting which increases range at the expense of sheer shock impact. This works in multiplayer where chainmail is the toughest armour you are likely to face, and getting in the first hit is vital. Against plate armour in singleplayer couching is still the way to go....but it's more fiddly now, requiring a key to be assigned (I use middle mouse button) and first person view for an accurate hit. During single player I got some weird colour flashes off NPC's armour and helmets in the taverns. This was also found in earlier M&B mods using DX9, so the solution may be to drop to DX7 in the start-up options panel....but the rest of the graphics in DX9 are so nice I'm not going to make the sacrifice. Finally, multiplayer would really benefit from a good VOIP (voice over internet protocol), one for each team like in Battlefront games.....The occasional "Ware behind you Chopa!" would save me countless deaths, and the benefits to rudimentary tactics such as shield-walls and flanking cavalry charges would be great. Many of the clans that have sprung up around this game have Teamspeak or Ventrillo servers so comms are possible if you can stand a little "leetspeak" and pre-teen "yer mum" banter.

  Should you buy this strange game from an obscure husband-and-wife team in Turkey?  Unreservedly YES! This is that rare beast of the gaming world, a sequel that builds on, and outshines it's prequel. Already there are several good mods out there, my favourite is "Hunt Mod" which pits werewolf-faced "prey" with knives and axes against hunters with bows, crossbows and muskets. If the modding activity surrounding the original "Mount and Blade" is any guide, "Warband" will be a HUGE mod platform as new mods emerge, older M&B mods and those in progress like the Samurai, Viking and Roman era mods get ported to the new game. Buy one game now and get hundreds more free! "Mount and Blade and its various mods has been a staple on my hard drive for two years now, Warband will be there for the next two.....Why isn't it on yours?

I did NOT see that one coming!