Mount & Blade Warband, first impressions

Since yesterday the singleplayer Beta for Warband is out for whoever pre-orders the game (multiplayer beta is available for download as well for those who have the original game). I have been playing Warband for a several hours in the past week now and would like to write up my first impressions of this, nearly finished, game.

Let me first introduce you to Mount & Blade which can be best compared with Bethesda's Oblivion; a medieval inspired fantasy RPG. That's the end of the comparisons however because Mount & Blade is much more combat-oriented with the big plus being the inclusion of mounted combat. You can swing a sword from horseback to chop down archers, use a lance to break through the enemies ranks or remain at a distance and rain down arrows upon the enemy. You don't do this alone however, as you can recruit your own little force of soldiers and NPCs, starting at about thirty men but soon rising to a hundred or even more you will find yourself commanding an army as well as fighting the enemy at the same time. Your troops can be trained and evolve into tough, well equipped fighters and your army will be renowned throughout the realms of Calradia. A little 'sauce' of quests, warring kingdoms and bandits complete the game for a very nice gaming experience.

TaleWorlds, a small developing team (man and wife) from Turkey, started to develop Mount & Blade some four years ago and the game soon turned out to be a success. Mount & Blade is not so much a second installment as a stand-alone add-on. It offers various new things fans have been waiting for a long time: Multiplayer battles, better graphics, better battle-AI and best of all: the ability to marry to a damsel or lady (or a lord if you are playing a female character).

Not being such a fan of multiplayer games (too fast for my kind, I can't think which tactical move to make next) I had looked forward to the singleplayer version Warband and so I set out last Friday on a new adventure in Calradia. Right from the start it is clear the map is bigger then the original. Most of the names of the cities are the same as are the factions, there are new villages however and they are all farther apart making for much larger, but alas somewhat bland, empty kingdoms (I very much preferred the map of the Broken Lands mod for M&B). After a little while you want to read a book or something to pass the time while travelling from one city to the other.

Quite soon I set out to perform some minor quests; train some villagers to defend themselves, escort a caravan and pay the ransom for a merchant's daughter (quest didn't work, remember this is still a Beta!). All is well, there are many more quests in Warband. Entering villages and towns is a real joy now, the look perfectly splendid and lively. Instead of quickly jumping to the tavern or the arms-salesman I like to walk through the gate and navigate the streets until I have found the merchant I need, almost sightseeing. The villages are much more a part of their factions now as well. Nord villages have a real Viking feel to them for example. Then there are the skies. Normally I wouldn't write a word about them but in Warband they need some attention because the look so good, so realistic, and in doing so add to the game's atmosphere and immersion.

In fact, the graphics in general are a lot better. I just love the clothing of the steppe-people and during a battle you sometimes wonder about the equipment and armor of the soldier you are fighting as it all looks so splendidly. It has happened more then once I pick a helmet or piece of armor with a lower armour-value just because it looks better. The once I like best are those which depict your own heraldry (you will pick one at the start of the game). Even more then in M&B your soldiers will carry shields depicting your heraldry which makes for a very nice scene, you almost feel proud of the buggers, when they are attempting a shield-wall.

Then to the actual combat. I found the enemy in Warband behave better then in M&B, wasn't able to crack a superior force early on this time around so that might account for a certain AI improvement. Your own army performs exactly as you ask them to do, in Warband there are even more options such as 'Stand Ground' and 'Withdrawl' but in order to incorporate them a new two-tier system had to be made. I am not very happy with this as I now have to give twice as many commands to set up my forces before a battle and being used to the ones in the original M&B make a lot of mistakes sending soldiers to their death by accident. You will get used to it however and seeing them make a nice line, archers ten steps to the rear, cavalry behind you on the right, gives a lot of satisfaction. Pepper the enemy with arrows, blunt his first attack and then charge them from the flank with fuming horses and leveled lances.
This brings us to the second part of combat swinging the sword yourself. After having made your tactical dispositions and shouting out orders to your men you want to get into the fray yourself as quickly as possible. My preferred modus of operandi has always been to use the lance during the first and second run and then switch to the sword (preferring edged weapons over blunt and thus killed enemies over prisoners). Straight away I ran into an annoying bug, or new future, who's to say. In M&B your lance levels out when galloping and you have to aim it to strike a damaging 'couched lance-hit'. This does not happen in Warband however, I couldn't get my lance to level for a long period. By pressing 'x' it would level for about ten seconds but pressing 'x' all the time is rather annoying, the key being so close to the 'AWSD' you need to control your mount. Let's hope this is actually a bug and something soon solved.
Swinging a sword is different in Warband as well. Your swing is longer and far more realistic and elegant. I had some problems with thrusts however but that's something negligible once I have found my favorite, the curved sabre.

To conclude, a little recap. There are some bugs which need (and probably will be) solved before the end of the Beta-period. The map, however will remain some sort of a problem for me and perhaps for others as well. A mod will solve this issue however and it is something I can live with for now. The graphics are stunning and in big battles they don't seem to hamper the performance, quite the contrary as it looks like the performance in Warband is better then it was in the original Mount & Blade. Battles have become even more fun and I am sure everyone will enjoy them, throw the multiplayer options (siege, deathmatch, skirmish, capture the flag and conquest) into the mix and Warband is a very enjoyable game.

If this would have been a review the score would have been like this:

Gameplay 8
Graphics 8,5
Sounds 7
Replayabiltiy 9

Overall Score 8

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