When most people hear “action RPG,” they think isometric, hack-‘n’-slash click-fests with skill bars like Diablo or Titan Quest, but M&B is different. You roll your avatar from a good old-fashioned character sheet, and then embark on an open-ended journey to conquer the world. How you go about it is up to you, as there are several options available. Do you join a faction and accept the [dis]advantages that go along with that, or do you stay in charge of your own destiny and carve a new empire out of the crowded land? You can even champion the cause of a banished heir and help them lead a rebellion from within the faction they should rightfully rule. Your first task, however, is to gain some experience in warfare and raise a private army of infantry, marksmen, and/or cavalry, which will require some serious thaler ($$$).
Much of the single-player game revolves around the campaign map, which is rather large and seen from an overhead, not-to-scale view. The world’s conflicts, economies, and politics carry on with or without you as the various factions wage endless war for one reason or another. You will see generals, warlords, and mercenaries with their big armies traveling to and fro, trade caravans and scouting parties scurrying about on their own business, not to mention the bandits and other outlaws lurking about and preying on the weak. Playing Mount & Blade
takes some getting used to, since all of this can be somewhat overwhelming at first. To help alleviate that, the game defaults to being paused while you’re standing still, only coming to life when you are traveling or deliberately waiting.
There is some strategy involved with this, as you must be wary of all the individual parties, including your own, represented on the field by a person on foot or horseback. You have a limited field of view, but if you have the skill, you can see trails left behind by others, which you can use to track enemy positions or follow someone who is faster than you. Your movement speed is determined by the size of your party, number and quality of mounts, inventory encumbrance, and skill in path-finding. Generally, a weaker force can outrun a stronger one, which is good because you don’t want to get into a battle where you are severely outnumbered. Be sure to exercise caution until you have built up an adequate fighting force to defend yourself with.
Of course, the real focus of the game is on the combat. That’s the best way to get money and equipment in the beginning, not to mention the only way to gain experience and level up. You can click to travel to any other party you see and challenge them to a fight, although you’d generally only do so if they are your enemy and you have a fair chance of winning. At this point, you go into moderately large battlefield arena with randomized terrain based on what location of the map you were on and assume control of your character in a third- or first-person perspective (I prefer the former). Your goal is to kill, injure, or rout all of your enemies in a full-on, real-time battle, so hopefully you’ve brought some friends along. Even so, this is often easier said than done, especially when you’re just starting out and your skills and equipment leave something to be desired. Everyone has to start somewhere though, so get in there and crack some skulls! Your weapon proficiencies are improved as you land hits, and you gain experience for every person you kill or knock unconscious. Your party members get experience, too, and can be upgraded. At the end of the battle you get to plunder some loot and share a pool of bonus XP among your party.
New to the franchise is a loosely-knit series of story-related quests, and they’re actually pretty easy to miss. Everyone has to do the short tutorial after starting a new game, which introduces you to one of the main characters. He turns you loose in the world, giving you suggestions as to where to find some work, but you may never see him again, even if you get the task to find him from someone else. It’s a bit odd how they touted an actual storyline with a main quest arc, but then implemented it in a very sloppy way. At the end of the day, it’s inconsequential to the main arena of gameplay, the combat and conquests. Also, if you’re interested in engaging with other players online, you should know that they have made a significant addition to the multiplayer mode introduced with Mount & Blade: Warband
. Previously it was limited to a group of players (normally up to 32, but there were mods to allow more) engaging in small-scale combat, but now it is more similar to the mayhem you’ll find in the campaign: up to 16 players can wage war on each other while commanding their own squad of AI soldiers.