At a mere 1.5 GB, the disc drive of my Xbox One barely had time to spin up to full speed before the game had installed, and from the looks of the screenshots on the game case the reason was clear – Mount & Blade: Warband is not a game that boasts any graphical prowess – it is however a game that is brim full of medieval adventure.
The land of Calradia is huge – made up of several countries that form its factions – each with its own riches and classes of warrior. The open-world is yours to explore, conquer or simple obey the whims of its lords. The early game takes you by the hand somewhat, but soon you are left to your own devices to seek out fame and glory.
The outdoor environments of Warband don’t look that bad as long as you don’t inspect the textures too closely; it’s the indoor areas with low resolution building textures that let the graphics down the most. Character models look great if you squint, but are otherwise odd looking and rough around the edges but there is more to gaming than just pretty pixels and Warband has a lot going for it.
Weapons feel distinctively different to wield, and once you invest in weapon skills, you can use them far more effectively. Attacks are made with a combination of the RT and the RS, which does mean the camera swings wildly as you attempt to wield your weapon. Similarly, blocking is performed with the LT and LS, which isn’t too troublesome but can set you off balance.
Combat is linked to how your character is positioned – on foot/horseback and where your enemy is located – it can seem rather clunky at first, but there’s a robust system working under the ugly exterior of Warband. Choosing an attack and knowing when to use it makes the combat tough to learn, but once mastered, taking on several enemies at once is a challenge you can relish in – even if at times it seems like your thrusts don’t actually hit anyone.
During these battlefield there are moments you can step back from the action and command your allies from horseback via a set of menus, which while not as slick as the commands of Mass Effect or Dragon Age, still allow you to position your army to repel the attackers or go charging in to break their lines fairly effectively.
If you lose all your health in combat you don’t die. Instead it will up to your remaining troops to fend off the attack. If they fail then you will be captured and dragged around the map until you can escape with some of your gold and supplies. With nothing but a horse, you will then embark on the painstaking task of rebuilding your force, which is a cruel punishment for failure.
Warband’s story unfolds via text on parchment – it reminded me of the Fighting Fantasy choose your own adventure books I used to read. Ultimately there is no goal to pursue; you can choose your own adventure – plundering villages as a bandit, killing without hesitation or siding with one of the nations in a bid to take the throne of Calradia for a lord, or overthrow him to take it yourself – either quest is not for the feint hearted or for those expecting a quick ride to the top – it takes ages to get a foothold in the world of Calradia.
Individually you can fend off small groups of bandits but your first goal should be to raise an army, either by recruiting peasants from local villages or paying for experienced soldiers, but an army needs paying and feeding and so you must also trade to survive, buying and selling, importing and exporting, and setting up your own shops across the land. Those that enjoyed Elite will find a lot of similarities here.
Like Elite, wandering around the huge open-world can be rather overwhelming – not knowing where to go or what to do can be a daunting prospect – apart from the early few missions, there’s very little hand holding in Warband. There are a ton of notes to read, but it’s quite the chore to read through, doing so will give you a greater understand of the mechanics behind the game. One glaring omission is the explanation of troop progression.
You can recruit troops from any region – as long as they don’t hate you – each area has specific specialties in fighting styles. As each member of your army gains XP they can learn different skills, becoming a different class of warrior. Unfortunately the branching tree of soldier classes is never explained or illustrated so you won’t know what lies in the future for your warriors should you choose one route over another.
With a handful of servers, Warband includes a host of multiplayer modes that include the standard fare of competitive modes. Nobody online? No problem, join a battle server and create a poll to increase the bot count and off you go on you merry way whacking and slashing through bots.
The steep learning curve of economics and combat make this a game that can be hard to scratch the surface without being put off, but those hardened enough to PC RPGs will find plenty to love.
The large scale battles are the most fun to engage in, but to get into the big fights your must grind your way up, massing up gold in order to fund an army of your own and increasing your fame so that the lords of the various castles entrust you in leading their armies into battle – it’s a wonderfully hard mechanic that can collapse at any moment if you don’t manage your resources properly, or worse, lose all your men in battle and become captive to your attackers.
Behind its tattered cloak lies one heck of an adventure game, combining RPG, RTS and SIM. Mount & Blade: Warband might not be able to feast with the big boys on looks but its cup overflows with ambition and the multiplayer looks to be a lot of fun if it can sustain enough of an interest with those that pick it up. The medieval battlefields might not look as stunning as Battlefield 1, but whacking each other with swords sure is fun.