Mount & Blade (PC)
Medieval combat in gaming really hasn't been done that well so far, every so often we get a game that manages to get some of the elements right - such as Oblivion - but not until the release of Mount & Blade has a truly great game based on the concept been put out. Previously independent shareware designed by Turkish designers TaleWorlds, it was recently picked up by publisher Paradox Interactive. The resulting release won't appeal to a wide base, but for those interested in open world medieval combat there isn't anything approaching the level of professionalism and fun packed into Mount & Blade.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The noble steed has been neglected in gaming for far too long, but now we've finally got a game that will allow us to kill a man as easily from the saddle as from any other position.
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Civil War Is Good For The Mercenary Business
Players start out in Calradia, formerly a unified kingdom that has fractured into five smaller kingdoms - the Swadians, Vaegirs, Khergits, Nords, and Rhodoks - which variously substitute for generic archetypes of the medieval world such as vikings and mongols. From here you create a character, largely assigning his or her starting skills by a series of questions such as what occupation you had before turning to the life of an upstart mercenary captain, etc. After finishing these prompts, you're dumped into the world with little more than your person, a horse (probably lame), and some rusty weapons. With the paltry little coin you have at first you're given more than a few options that generally end up with you putting together a small group of men either as a small mercenary company or eventually as a petty nobleman to one of the five kings of Calradia.
There are two important things to amass in the game besides men, money and renown. The first is self-explanatory, allowing you to purchase supplies and pay your troops weekly wages, among other things. Renown is harder to accumulate, mostly done by achieving hard victories on the battlefield and winning tournaments, but allows you to eventually be offered vassalage by one or more of the various kings. Vassalage is one of the larger aspects of the game, for upon becoming a vassal you are given a village for which you act as overlord to. With enough money you can add improvements, and also recruit more men faster. As your renown grows and you participate in military campaigns at the behest of your king, more possessions will eventually come your way - maybe even a castle if you're lucky. Since the game is fairly open ended you can take the opposite track and stay an independent mercenary company for as long as one wants, attacking only brigands, pirates, and other like minded scum.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers...
Where Mount & Blade really shines is in its actual combat gameplay, far and above the best rendition of medieval warfare yet put onto computer screens. Most types of weaponry are available for the player to use, ranging from crossbows, poleaxes, swords, axes, and spears - though there is a distinct lack in the various types of blunt weapons or flails. Battles are usually small, on the order of twenty to forty men on each side, but can accumulate to far larger numbers when more than you take on another vassal from a rival kingdom. Players take direct control of just their own character, who, on the whole, are no more powerful than most of the men under his or her control and can't generally take on more than two or three enemies at once. Therefore the emphasis is on leading one's infantry, archers, and cavalry properly - setting them up so that they play to their strength. Archers behind infantry on top a hill might be more ideal than charging onto the battlefield Rambo-style, for example.
The actual fighting is simple enough - attack with the left button and block with the right. This isn't that hard with a shield, but those eventually break under repeated blows, and so one has to block regularly with just their weapon which takes practice and proper timing to master. Horse combat is just as simple, using the movement keys to control the horse and the mouse to use ones weapons - lining up a lance or firing a crossbow from the saddle for instance. The horse-bound combat works perfectly, and in many battles the cavalry combat plays a far larger role than infantry combat, often with several dozen horsemen riding around a battlefield firing arrows and attempting to line up perfect lance hits on their opponents. Occasional sieges also occur, either attacking or defending, and these are also well done, even if they're a bit too rare in occurrence.
There are certainly some faults with the game - most notably the lack of a random battle generator and the overly repetitive nature of the quests given by NPC lords - but all in all, these are minor faults when looking at the big picture. For a game with such a heavy emphasis on medieval combat, Mount & Blade is just shy of perfection.
PROS: Best simulation of medieval combat so far made; horse combat is fun; community has already made more than a few good mods for the beta that are sure to be updated for the retail version.
CONS: Repetitive quests; elements outside of combat are rather weak.