Thursday, May 05, 2005

Mount & Blade

I’ve wanted to write about Mount & Blade for several days now, but it’s a difficult game to write about. For one, it’s not finished, so the main story arc isn’t even in the game yet. Then there some cities in the game that are on the map but the associated buildings aren’t there—again, because the game isn’t finished.

So why am I playing a shareware game that isn’t even finished? Because it is unbelievably fun. I’ve spent over twenty hours playing and it's an absolute blast.

As far as I can determine, Mount & Blade is being created by two Turkish developers (husband and wife, I believe). I think calling it “low budget” would be a misnomer, because I’m not sure it has any budget at all. In spite of this, however, they have created a deeply immersive, interesting world.

Here are the basics. At its core, Mount & Blade is a medieval RPG, and it’s old-school all the way. There are no cut scenes, no spoken dialogue, and no high-budget gloss. The core mechanics are relatively simple: your character rides across a world map, visiting towns and facing random encounters with other groups—friendly or hostile, depending on your alliances.

Here's an example of one of the many elegant design touches: while you’re on the world map, if you’d like to zoom in, just move your mouse to the top border of the screen. To zoom out, move it to the bottom. Moving the mouse to the left/right borders rotates the view. It’s a simple thing, but it feels so intuitively correct that it’s very satisfying. And that’s a good description of the entire game—it feels intuitively correct.

Mount & Blade offers a few fundamental departures from traditional role-playing games. For one, there’s no magic. No magic missiles, no healing potions. There’s no way to miraculously heal your wounds in combat, and that alone is a terrific design feature. Two, the skill tree is unusual. Skills like surgery, scouting, and tracking are available. It’s a multi-tiered skill tree, with three different categories of skills, and some of the higher-level skills “feed” the lower ones; i.e., some lower-tier skills can’t be increased beyond a certain percentage of a related skill’s level. It’s thoughtful and well-laid out.

What is it specifically, though, that has kept me playing for such a long time? In a word: combat. Regular readers of this column know that I’m not a combat guy. In Mount & Blade, though, combat is so brilliantly handled that I can’t call it anything else but sensational. To begin with, the geography of the combat regions is so well-designed that it is both visually and tactically beautiful. Mountain passes, deep streams, and generally hilly terrain provide a wealth of tactical opportunities, and they’re beautiful graphically as well.

Second, and I can’t stress this enough: horses. Horses have never been as thoughtfully and beautifully represented as in this game. Combat on horseback is absolutely unforgettable, and since the primary camera is slightly behind and above your character, you get to see it all. The animations for the horses are stellar and entirely convincing, and in rare moments you will see some spectacular things—a fallen enemy being dragged by his horse looks amazing, and a horse collapsing and throwing its rider is one of the best animations I’ve ever seen in a game, period.

I’ve focused on archery as my combat skill, because it’s tremendously interesting in this game, and when I shoot an enemy, the arrow remains. Passing a fallen enemy on the battleground and seeing several arrows sticking out of his chest is a remarkable moment.

The combination of horses and archery make for thrilling combat, particularly when the enemy has horses as well. And there are frequently 25+ units on a battlefield, so it provides a tense, gripping illustration of the chaos of combat. It’s so immersive that it’s almost impossible to stop playing.

I’ve been playing mostly as a solo character, which is possible for a skilled archer on horseback, but it’s possible to build your own army, both through acquiring prisoners from defeated groups and recruiting in the local taverns. There are groups traveling on the map with over 45 armed members, so the scale of battle can be very, very large.

So all I’ve done is wander around the map, engaging in random encounters, gathering loot, and building up my character. Even though the game is not finished, it’s entirely playable, which is an interesting development approach similar to what Sid Meier does, I believe. In the case of Mount & Blade, it absolutely works.

Incredibly, this is a shareware game. If you buy it now, it costs eleven freaking dollars. If I order something from EBGames, overnight shipping and tax alone cost more than that. Plus you’ll get all future updates, and it sounds like there will be plenty of them.

Oh, and even though “shareware” sometimes implies mediocre graphics, that is not the case with Mount & Blade. It’s a very striking game, visually, and the combat animations are tremendous, far better than many high-budget titles I’ve played. This game is full of independence, for lack of a better word. There are unique touches all over the place, and the world is dynamic and interesting.

Here are a few links to get you started. The first is a link to a preview by RPGDot. The second is a link to the game’s website where you can download a demo (full game access, but your character can’t advance beyond level six).

Darwinia provided a big gust of fresh air a few weeks ago, and Mount & Blade has done the same. I highly encourage you to check it out.

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