Mount & Blade: Warband
Developer: TaleWorlds Entertainment
Publisher: TaleWorlds Entertainment
Available on: Xbox One (2016, reviewed), PS4 (2016), PC (2010)
For being a 6-year old PC game, Mount & Blade: Warband still seems to have quite the following. The medieval sandbox RPG recently released on PS4 and Xbox One, and while it’s highly doubtful the PC faithful will migrate to current-gen consoles, it does introduce a new sect of player to the land of Calradia.
However, as someone with no attachment to the series on PC in 2010, I found the game extremely overwhelming when giving it a go on the Xbox One in 2016.
Mount & Blade: Warband is the epitome of the term sandbox RPG, especially on consoles. Outside of a brief tutorial that only touches on combat, Warband throws you to the wolves after creating your character. You can choose your gender (which, as a sign of the era, actually impacts your standing in the game), tinker with a variety of cosmetic sliders, and fasten a backstory through textual dialogue responses.
From there, you’re then tasked with allocating points in order to determine your character’s beginning stats. Since I was more interested in defending myself and possibly raising an army, I went with a build that focused on charisma, one-handed weapon damage, shield blocking, and a beefier health pool.
Mount & Blade: Warband may be an RPG, but there’s no magic or dragons or anything of that nature. Instead, it takes a realistic approach with kingdoms, hand-to-hand combat, and a massive world that lives and breathes with or without you. I actually thought this aspect was great, as a live feed on the bottom-left of the screen kept me up to date on empire battles, which Jarl was in a spat with another, and so on.
There is a quest structure you can follow from the get-go, which is what I did in an attempt to get my feet wet. Kill a bandit? Sure, no problem. Here’s 500 denars (money) to go recruit men in order to find my brother! Little did I know that by approaching towns to recruit said men, I’d run in to swarms of angry bandits that had no problem dismantling me in a matter of seconds. I laughed it off and moved on, of course.
Finally I had my men, but I got sidetracked by the criminal act of stealing cows. I’m not sure what that even acomplished, but I successfully stole 6 of them. Apparently I was more adept at stealing cattle than I was defending myself from bandits.
You don’t have to follow the quest flow at all, and therein lies the beauty of Mount & Blade. Snubbing your nose at the quest giver, you can instead offer your sword to a Jarl (which is much harder to do as a female character), work as a trader, take prisoners and ransom them off, partake in tournaments, or something as epic as amassing your own army and taking over the land.
This all sounded great on paper, but the reality was that I just couldn’t get in to the clunky gameplay. I’m not sure how the transition from PC is, since, again, I’ve never played it before, but I loathed how sloppy the combat and horseback riding felt using a controller. Maybe I should have opted to roll a trader instead of a hired sword, huh?
Combat offers a variety of weapons, like the traditional sword-and-board, two-handed devastators, a bow & arrow, a crossbow, and more. On the melee front, you’ll take a tactical approach to trading blows by not only blocking attacks, but choosing which direction to block them from. Likewise, while swinging a melee weapon, you have to use the right analog stick to change the direction of your attacks.
Being new to the game, I turned on the auto-block option which blocks attacks from any direction. However, since the right analog stick also controlled the pitch of the camera, trying to swing overhead or commit to a thrust usually sent the camera flailing up and down instead. In a game where one or two missed blocks or attacks can mean death in the early going, even on the poor AI difficulty setting, this became a problem exacerbated by the tank controls of mounting a horse. A horse where you have to aim straight down from a dead stop in order to receive its dismount prompt. Not fun.
I also found the visuals distracting, since they exist somewhere between Morrowind and Oblivion, yet still somehow ended up worse than I ever imagined a game in 2016 would look. Granted it released in 2010, but it clearly doesn’t hold up well.
Between the chunky visuals, unenjoyable control scheme, and wall-of-text dialogue trees with NPCs (since there is no voice acting), it does very little to modernize itself in its recent port. However, there’s no other game like it on current-gen consoles and the open-world nature of its sandbox is unrivaled. That alone is extremely impressive.
With the open-world scenarios not really holding my attention though, I dove in to the game’s multi-player lobby and was surprised to see only 5 rooms hosting games. There were tons of lobbies to pick from, but most had just one or two people waiting for others to join in. I tried on various occasions at different hours of the day, but it was always the same — barren.
In the few multi-player games I did get in to, being Siege and Team Deathmatch, it seemed like most of the other players were as clueless as I was. Team Deathmatch is exactly what you’d expect of the name, but most of the players were cluttered in the center violently swinging their weapons at whatever happened to be at the edge of their blade (teammates included, since friendly fire is always on). Hilarity ensued of course, but my least favorite bit of Warband was the combat. Yet, here I was.
It doesn’t seem that Warband has caught on quite yet, at least not on Xbox One (since I can’t speak to the PS4 lobbies). With lobbies being nearly devoid of players, it might be a good idea to hold off on buying the game if multi-player is your primary focus. That, or, you know, just play it on PC where it’s currently thriving.
The transition from PC seems clunky at best, with the menus and combat largely favoring a point-and-click interface instead of a dual-analog controller. If I had a better grasp of the inner workings of Warband, I’m sure I would have enjoyed it more. But alas, I was absent a Mount & Blade tour guide and did the best I could fiddling around on my own.
Looking at Mount & Blade: Warband from the outside, I can appreciate its tactical approach to combat and the expansive open-world sandbox it offers en masse, but after investing a few hours in to a handful of different character builds, it never seemed to click with me. As a console peasant, this type of game is a foreign territory and I just don’t think I’ll ever have the desire to give it the proper time it needs to sink in.
Clearly there’s a lot of meat on the bones here, which has garnered the game an overwhelmingly positive reception on Steam by more than 43,000 players, but with no prior attachment to the series I found it hard to overlook Warband’s dated feel and technical flaws when it came time to choose which game in my library I wanted to play next. Especially in an age where new games release in droves on a near weekly basis.
Full disclosure: A copy of Mount & Blade: Warband was provided by the game’s publisher.