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This weekend’s Steam sale is all about the sword, axe, bow, and shield cult classic Mount & Blade. For those not in the know, M&B is a sandbox army building sim/RPG in which you roam around the war-torn world of Calradia, building your reputation with nobles, ladies, and kings while developing your character and army. Your ultimate goal, aside from “whatever you want”, is to dominate every village, town, and castle in the five (six in the Wardband expansion) known kingdoms.
While very strong in concept, the title is low budget. There are tons of different ways things to do, but taken in a vacuum every individual aspect lacks a certain depth. Character interaction, for instance, is repetitive and lacks the rich immersion of traditional RPGs. Amy command, while fun, is generally broken down into simplistic formations followed by “CHARGE!” or “HOLD!”. Individual combat is straightforward and adequate, nothing more. These shortcomings, however, are overcome by a dedicated and diligent fan base. M&B has one of the most robust mod communities I’ve ever seen, and the game lends itself fantastically to fan manipulation. People have created worlds resembling everything from dark-age Europe to Star Wars, yielding nigh endless replayability. Fans have also implemented numerous graphic and gameplay enhancements, like the essential battle sizer, which allows players with better hardware to increase the size of battles to truly epic proportions.
That said, the basic mechanics of vanilla are more than enough for many fans. The combined experience of the lesser parts provides the type of gratification only achievable by standing firm against a cavalry charge, hefting your two handed axe to take down the first rider. Castle siege and defense scenarios are also incredibly fun; charging up the walls with your hardened Nord Huscarls at your back is supremely satisfying. The game is also incredibly unforgiving, creating a real sense of accomplishment when you slay your foes and expand your fiefdom.
Mount & Blade’s true carrot on the stick, however, is developing your army after every battle. Your soldiers gain experience, prompting them to upgrade periodically like units in a tech tree. This mechanic creates a type of addictive gameplay similar to the “just one more turn” syndrome of the Civilization series. Every victorious battle makes you and your army just a little stronger, bringing you closer to your long term goal. You also can recruit individual character companions, each with skills the benefit the entire party and distinct personalities that separate them from the rest of your largely generic AI horde. These characters level in a manner similar to your main avatar, with customizable skill points and equipment.
The Warbard expansion also introduced multiplayer to the game. This feature is great for those who enjoy the battle and combat mechanics on an individual level, but it lacks the true meat of the single player. You cannot develop an army, fiefdom, or kingdom, only a character. Still, it’s a great way to kill some time. Warband also enhanced vanilla with updated combat and many new kingdom building features, making it essential for any M&B fan.
With the latest installment in the burgeoning franchise, With Fire and Sword, coming out on May 3, Steam’s deal is more than timely. This single player overhaul focuses on 17th century Europe, adding firearms to vanilla for the first time. At an impressively fickle $20, these three games are worth more than their weight in denars.