Mount & Blade has been a major series for Taleworlds dating back to 2004 and has come a really long way since then. With two additional releases and a massive community built up, it can be a bit daunting to join in on one of the most atypical action RPGs ever made. Luckily, Paradox has just compiled all three Mount & Blade titles into one handy package for newcomers. Since the collection itself is made up of three games, it makes sense to divvy up this review between each of the three titles: Mount & Blade, Mount & Blade: Warband and Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword.
The original release in the series, and therefore the game that set the unique gameplay in motion, Mount & Blade centers on a vast open world and the absolute freedom to pursue your own goals. You control a customizable adventurer setting out to make a name for yourself. In the beginning, you’ll find yourself on your own in the world of Calradia, with little money and second-rate gear. By travelling to villages and cities, you can recruit villagers and mercenaries to your cause, slowly building up a larger band. With your tiny regiment you can start doing missions and deeds for nobles, or become a travelling merchant, or hunt down bandits and deserters, or even become a bandit yourself. Become famous enough and well-liked by a particular country and they may even offer you a position in their army and your own fiefdom, allowing you to assist your new liege in wars and battles and help propel your country of choice to the dominant power in Calradia. It’s all very fun, and the level of freedom is way beyond what you’d expect from an action RPG/strategy title.
Calradia itself is fictional but heavily influenced by stereotypes from medieval Europe. Each kingdom tends to lean heavily towards one specialization: heavily armored knights or very talented bowmen. You can recruit a variety of units from each kingdom, controlling their advancement and specialty to create a perfect fighting force, but you’ll run into moral issues if you start to put countrymen against their kin. There are all sorts of additional aspects to army management, like special companions to assist your party, the ability to take hostages and receive ransoms, and the importance of morale. Mix in your own character’s level progression and there are tons of ways to customize your party.
However, as open as the world is, it is the battles that Mount & Blade has become known for. The battles are large-scale fights in which you control your lone knight alongside your army. In each battle, you are running or riding around, knocking heads left and right, while you shout out commands to your soldiers. The combat is extremely well-handled and really enjoyable; you can use a variety of weapons, each changing your gameplay style and capabilities. You can become a skilled archer and pick off targets at a distance, a heavily armored knight with a massive tower shield and spear, or a quick swordsman who can destroy a competitor in one-on-one combat. In addition to these fights on the field, you can also participate in sieges on both sides of the wall, leading to some absolutely stunning fights. To put it simply, if you’ve ever played a medieval RTS and thought it would be cool to play the part of a soldier, here is your game.
Or rather, here is the prequel to your game. Because for all the awesome things Mount & Blade contains, it’s almost completely superseded by the next game in the pack. Technically speaking, the vanilla game is easier because there are several unbalanced weapons that make the game a pushover, like lances on horseback. However, it’s far better to learn the newer mechanics of Warband first then make the jump later. The main reason to keep the vanilla Mount & Blade around is that the game has amazing mod support. There are dozens of single-player mods and tweaks, many of which only support the first release of Mount & Blade. If you want to try Mount & Blade but in the Wild West, or in World War II, or as a corpse-animating necromancer, or in the Star Wars universe, the mod community has you covered.
Mount & Blade: Warband
Warband is a standalone expansion pack and a refinement of the first release, and frankly, there is little reason to play the original over Warband. The original game handled combat extremely well but somewhat stumbled in terms of the freedom offered in the over-world gameplay. The game handled the micro moments but couldn’t keep the long game interesting enough to pursue for long periods of time. You could go anywhere, but you were a bit limited in the “do anything” department. Luckily, Warband adds several new elements to the gameplay to extend the macro side of the game, including several new quests and tasks, and the ability to found your own kingdom.
Kingdom-running is a very neat and much needed feature which gives the game a long goal to work towards. Building towards that moment when you break free of the other six spheres of influence is a goal that requires hours of battles and questing. It’s a real accomplishment and feels a little more fun than simply becoming a noble in the first game. Other new features are fairly standard expansion pack goodies, including a new kingdom based on Arab history, several new areas, more units and revamped geography.
The other main new feature of Warband is multiplayer with up to 63 other players. Unfortunately, the game does not go for a co-operative campaign, instead limiting multiplayer to standalone battles much in the vein of dedicated servers you’d find in first-person shooters. Adding to the FPS comparison is a system of earning gold for kills which you can use to upgrade your gear. It’s heavily influenced by things like Counterstrike, an odd comparison for sure, and even the modes revolve around staples like Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag. However, the combat system is so superior that even in this limited form, multiplayer is still a fantastic addition. By taking FPS systems and inserting the unique gameplay of the series, the multiplayer in Warband is a unique experience.
Essentially, Warband is the definitive release of the original campaign. Building on all the great elements from Mount & Blade, Talesworld introduces new elements to keep the game fresh and give it better longevity.
Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword
With Fire and Sword is the odd one out, which makes sense due to its position as the only spin-off in the series. Abandoning all pretense of fictional worlds, With Fire and Sword drops your lowly character smack in the middle of 1600s Eastern Europe. Based on a popular 19th century series of Polish historical fiction, With Fire and Sword began as a mod before getting picked up by Paradox for a full release. With Fire and Sword plays very similarly to many other mods for the vanilla Mount & Blade release, but the game is sufficiently polished and different enough that it does stand as its own entity.
As mentioned before, the game takes place in Eastern Europe right around the introduction of firearms. If you’re not particularly familiar with the rise of the Polish Commonwealth and the Khmelnytsky Uprising, you’re going to be pretty lost here. It is clear Paradox is playing to the dominant European audience that made the first Mount & Blade a fairly big hit, but it does prove pretty alienating for North American players. Luckily, the solid gameplay is still there, but with a notable new addition: Guns.
Guns are a game-changer. They might be slow, and they might take what seems like hours to reload, but they’re way more powerful than anything else in the game. This presents new ways to build your hero: you can become a heavily armored musket man, picking off any horseman dumb enough to get close, or take the opposite route and become a speedy swordsman, using skill to best the superior technology. The armor and accessories have all been completely redesigned to suit the time period as well, with lighter and better armored coats and a wide variety of awesome hats.
The other key element added to the single-player is the presence of main storylines. While the other games in the series completely relied on player-directed goals, With Fire and Sword offers quests for many of the factions, providing a bit of structure to the gameplay. It’s a great addition for players who feel a bit lost in all the freedom, and provides a much needed break from the randomly generated opening quests in the other two entries.
With Fire and Sword is not without flaws. The relatively confusing setting and extreme imbalance in weapons makes the game a bit difficult to get into. Multiplayer is similarly unbalanced and unreasonably hostile towards newbies who don’t know the glitches and tricks. But the single-player is the most fleshed out and guided campaign in the series, and worth a try if you get bored of journeying through Calradia.
The series, as a whole, has a unique style of gameplay. The combat is fluid and excellent, the battles are exciting and huge, and the campaign is extremely loose and open. It’s technically an action RPG, but the series as a whole almost defies classification. If you only pick one entry in the series, go with Warband, but With Fire and Sword is undoubtedly worth a look for the unique twist, and the mod support for the vanilla Mount & Blade extends the gameplay to almost every setting you could want. If you’re a fan of large-scale medieval battles but no other game quite satisfies that itch, this collection is definitely worth your time.
[xrr rating=9/10, max_stars=10]
This review is based on a review copy of the Steam version of the Mount and Blade Collection by Taleworlds published by Paradox.