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Posted on Mar 10, 2008 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Mount & Blade – PC Game Preview

By Larry Levandowski

Thundering hooves, a flashing lance, and nearly a ton of armored man and beast, skewering and scattering a nearly helpless unit of light footmen. Think Braveheart. Think El Cid. Think Kingdom of Heaven. But this time, think that you lead the armored knights in the heavy cavalry charge. Just when we thought the medieval RPG had become as stale as last year’s grog, something new is on the horizon. Mount and Blade, in development by Teleworlds, and to be published by Paradox, is currently in public beta. The game puts you into a first person view of battles across a medieval world of five kingdoms, and nearly a hundred castles, towns and villages. Build your army and fight your way to fame, fortune and glory, in an open-ended, dynamic world. Do you become a bandit, a ruler, a butcher, or all three?

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The game starts like a conventional RPG with the player creating a character with standard attributes. The player also tweaks starting skills like pole-arms, spotting, and horse archery. The early game is mostly about character development, and learning how to kill rather than be killed. The player’s character can develop their individual fighting skills and gain the first handful of levels by visiting a trainer and participating in arena combat. These staged fights are not to the death, and feature two or three combatants on each side. The mix of weapons in these brawls is random, so they are a safe way to see how the various weapons work. A typical arena combat might have an archer on foot, a two-handed swordsman, and a mounted lancer, fighting a spearman on foot, and two mounted swordsman. The mix is always different, and winning can be a challenge.

Combat is very detailed. Weapon strikes are aimed by moving the mouse for swings or stabs. Your opponent will be attempting to block with a shield or weapon, so timing is very important. How much damage is done is determined by the weapon type, strength of the blow, and armor the target is wearing. While the game certainly requires eye-hand coordination, game settings can be used to fine tune the speed of fights so those of us who aren’t normally twitch jockeys can still enjoy the game.

One of the great things about combat in Mount and Blade is the realism of fighting from horseback. Other games have tried, but M&B gets it right. In the game, a mounted warrior in open terrain has a huge advantage over the footman. Horses offer not only speed, but also raw combat power. A sword blow delivered at charge speed will easily kill unless blocked. The heavy horse charging through a line of infantry can bowl men over like so many pins. By the time they get up, the horseman has turned around and is coming back. Horse archers are another breed altogether; riding in, firing, and getting out before anyone can touch them. Then there is the lance; the most powerful weapon on the field, but difficult to use, and requiring plenty of open maneuvering room. Despite their advantages however, mounted warriors are not invincible. In confined spaces, like fighting inside a town, the fighter on horseback can’t turn with the man on foot, and is easily trapped and killed. In these circumstances, the player will probably dismount to fight down in the dirt.

But M&B is more than just a combat game, it is also a first person wargame. The player’s character rarely fights alone. In most combat he leads his own small army, and battles of up to 150 troops on each side are common in the later parts of the game. The game engine only renders about 40 troops per side at once, so as troops fall in combat, they are periodically replaced, until the total number is used. The player wins by directing his troops. Simple commands like follow, charge, hold, and advance can be given to infantry, cavalry and archers. The successful player will approach each battle differently, deciding to attack or defend, and where to place the troops. A typical defense might have a line of infantry, with archers on a slope behind, and cavalry off to one flank. Using terrain in the attack or defense is also critical to winning. Features like steep slopes and streams slow enemy charges, while hills can be used to mask the advance, and open grassy areas are a great place to wipe out infantry with cavalry.

Once the player has some combat experience, the middle game is where he starts to roam the world and establish his reputation. The player navigates a lush 3D map of the M&B world. Gameplay is of the sandbox variety and there are no scripted events. While the player moves his party, the world swirls with activity around him; kingdoms go to war, sieges start, villages are looted, and battles happen in far off lands. Traveling from village, to town and castle, the player recruits peasants and veteran mercenaries to join him. With each fight, those that live gain experience and equipment. But the troops have to be paid and fed, so finding fame and fortune is a constant challenge. Maybe the player earns fame chasing down bands of sea raiders on the coast. Maybe the player offers his services to a local lord or king to track down wanted men. Maybe the player earns easy cash by escorting merchant caravans, or leaning toward the dark side, raiding those same caravans and selling the captured guards into slavery. The open-ended approach to playing is appealing and fresh.

Eventually, the player’s character gains enough reputation that he is invited to become a vassal of one of the kings. There are five kingdoms in M&B, each representing a real cultural group from history. The Khergs, horsemen of the steppes, fight mostly with lances and horse-bows. The Nords fight on foot, but can quickly take down cavalry that ignore their archers. The Vaegers, Rhodoks and Swadians, fight mixed and represent historical groups from Central and Western Europe.

Fighting for a kingdom puts the player into the big leagues. The kingdoms are always at war with their neighbors, so raiding the enemy’s villages and fighting their lords in open battle are great ways to gain favor with your king. Eventually, the player will siege a castle, and if the player wins, he may find himself to be the new lord of the fiefdom. A group of castles and villages are great ways to fund an ever hungry army, and are a spring-board to even greater glory.

Currently, Teleworlds is allowing anyone to download the beta version of the game and play till the character gets to level six. After that, those wishing to continue can purchase a license at a reduced cost from eventual retail. Even in its current state, the game is very stable, playable and fun. So if the thought of donning armor and riding a fiery steed into battle appeal to your inner warrior, you can’t go wrong by trying this great upcoming game.

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