Review: Mount & Blade Warband

July 13, 2010, Author: Giuseppe Nelva

While this isn’t the only game that allows you to lead a large army (most RTS games do), M&B Warband is unique in the fact that you lead your army from the ground level, and every soldier (friend or foe) has an unique face and combination of armour/weapon, making them recognizable on the field. You don’t see them as “units” but as individuals, with a quite impressive visual result. The engine that “creates” the soldiers is actually very advanced and it saves them between battles. If one of your soldiers has a certain combination of equipment, a beard and a big mustache, he will retain those features until he dies or he levels up. When he levels up and evolves into a more advanced class, he’ll still retain his facial features, while his equipment will change to reflect his new status.

You will lead an army of individuals as an individual yourself, which adds a lot to the immersiveness of the game. That’s something that no strategy game, and ultimately no other title can offer. The fact that every soldier of your army will carry your chosen emblem on his shield (emblem that you can easily replace with a self-drawn one with a bit of Photoshop skill) makes your army feel even more unique and “yours”.

While exploring the continent of Calradia, you will move your character on a 3D world map, in real time. Time, though, will only progress when you’re actually moving, so while you’re stationary the game will automatically be paused in order to let you consider your next moves. Whenever you enter a city, town or castle, the game will change to a full 3D third person view (you can also switch to first person) with only your character, allowing you to explore the settlements and interact with the NPCs, accepting quests and so forth.

Whenever you encounter an enemy army/warband (whether it’s an enemy lord with his retinue or a band of outlaws) the game will generate a randomized map based on the features you were traveling into, including mountains forests, hills and rivers, and the battle will begin. Again, the visual will be in full 3D, with the ability to switch dynamically between first and third person view. You can set the number of troops included in each battle in the game’s options, in order to best fit the processing and graphical power of your PC. While the game allows natively for up 150 soldiers on a single battlefield (which is already quite a lot), there are third party tools to easily change that to up to 1000. Personally I run with 400 with no big slowdowns on an average machine, which makes for extremely entertaining and massive battles.

The combat might remind you of Oblivion at first sight, but it’s actually much more complex and fun. Combining the direction of the movement of your mouse with the pressure of the left button will allow you to strike in four different directions. Left strike/slash, right strike, overhead strike and thrust (only with weapons that actually allow thrusting, it’d be nonsensical to thrust with an axe for instance). Right clicking will instead block with the shield. When you’re not using a shield, you’ll have to manually chose the direction of your block, moving the mouse in the same direction from which the strike is coming. But this is not all: physical interaction between weapons and shields is fully simulated, so striking and blocking is not limited to the above mechanics. It’s possible to block an enemy weapon with timing and skill, by striking it with your own as you prepare your own slash. The shield also offers passive protection, so if an enemy hits your shield, the blow will be bounce off regardless if you’re actively trying to block or not. This means that a shield carried on your shoulders will protect your back even if you’re not using it.

Defending an hill can prove a solid strategy

Defending a hill can prove a solid strategy

Shields come in different sizes. Obviously a bigger shield offers a larger area of protection, but will also be slower to use. While using a shield is the easiest way to defend against enemy blows, it prevents you from using two handed weapons. In addition to that, blocking too many blows (especially from axes) will cause your shield to break, becoming unusable and forcing you to block manually with your weapon if you want to survive.

Different weapons also have a different reach. With a longer weapons you can hit opponents farther away, but you will be disadvantaged if they manage to close in on you. Your weapon will in fact hit for its full damage only near to its maximum reach, inflicting less and less damage the nearer your opponent is. If an enemy is too near it’s entirely possible that a long weapon won’t inflict any damage at all, since you lack the room to actually swing it against him, adding a further tactical level to the combat system, as you have to chose the weapon with the right reach to fit your personal fighting style and the situation. For instance, during a siege it’s better to wield a short axe than a longsword, especially if you plan to be on the forefront of an attack, because you will find yourself pressed closely against the enemy, unable to swing a longer weapon.

Add to this a quite realistic ranged weapon system that includes several kinds of bows, crossbows and thrown weapons (darts, axes and javelins), the ability to perform feints and to kick your opponent, and there’s no doubt that Mount & Blade features the most extensive, realistic, complex and eventually rewarding weapon-based melee combat system I’ve ever seen in a video game. Seeing a duel between two master swordsmen in Mount & Blade is an impressive show. You can get a more effective taste of the basics of the M&B warbaband combat system by watching this video on youtube by Reapy.

From a game named “Mount & Blade” you can obviously expect a complex and satisfying mounted combat system. While riding an horse you can access all the moves described above, and you can also deliver the most devastating attack available in the game, the couched lance. As you ride on fairly level ground you will gain speed, and if you have a lance you will be able to couch it under your arm, in order to steady it for an attack in a straight line. Anyone hit by such an attack will be instantly killed.

Obviously this kind of attack is quite situational, given that it requires level terrain, a lot of space and good timing. It also requires the physical conditions for it to work. If your target is on horseback and moving fast away from you, your couched lance will inflict much less damage or none at all, since the strength of such an attack is entirely based on the difference in speed between lancer and target.

When facing mounted enemies you can also chose to realistically kill the horse (which is a bigger and easier target), and then deal with the unhorsed opponent later, or let your soldiers deal with him. Aiming for the horses has been a real military tactic since the conception of  mounted combat.



If you thought that playing FPS shooters was challenging, forcing you to execute precise and well timed movements in order to hit your targets, you might want to think again. The challenge given by simply aiming and firing a rifle is nothing compared to the complex “art” of sword fighting implemented in Mount & Blade: Warband. Let’s not even talk when you’re riding a horse and you’re trying to effectively hit someone who is riding one as well. Don’t worry, though; while the system is definitely challenging to master, the game provides some aids in order to lower the level of difficulty for the ones that prefer a more relaxed gameplay. The system in itself, moreover, is quite intuitive, pretty much natural to execute once you learn the basics, making for an extremely enjoyable and rewarding experience.

Being thrown into a Mount & Blade: Warband field battle is something no other game prepared you to. FPS/TPS games and Oblivion-like RPGs have a much smaller scope, and are normally much more “Orderly”. A field battle is something entirely different. You are in the middle of hundreds of warriors hacking at each other, with arrows flying around you from every direction, with only your shield and your situational awareness separating you from certain death. On top of it you have to give orders to your troops, preventing them from dispersing on the battlefield while running after routed enemies, and generally keeping a tight grip on the situation. It’s messy, as a medieval battle should be, but also extremely fun and exhilarating.

Sieges are even more chaotic. As an attacker you’ll have to climb a narrow ladder towards a breach in the wall, or use a siege tower in order to reach the defenders, with clouds of arrows slamming against your shield and a porcupine of spears and blades aimed to your face from above. It’s quite intimidating at first, and sometimes you’ll find yourself quite surprised at the fact your survived (if you did survive, obviously, thing that’s definitely not granted). As a defender you’ll have to valiantly stand on the breach, hacking away at the seemingly endless waves of enemies trying to overwhelm you and your soldiers, for an equally intimidating experience of virtual carnage.

Of course you can also chose a more laid back approach, standing back with a ranged weapon picking out enemies from afar, while your soldiers bear the brunt of the melee. But that tends to cause more losses, given that your soldiers will normally be less armored and resilient than you.

Ultimately, battles in M&B Warband are among the most exhilarating and epic experiences I have played in a video game. While RTS games like the Total War series did simulate engagements of massive proportions, you always find yourself quite detached from the scene. In M&B Warband you’re there on the field, at the head of your troops and surrounded by the enemy. You’re not just a deus ex machina moving nameless units, and this contributes enormously to the sensation of immersion.

As you ride at the head of dozens of knights towards a wall of pikes you’ll feel like Theoden in The Return of the King. Standing in the middle of the breach fending off hundreds of attackers in a sea of blood (and there’s quite a lot of blood in the game; as the killing progresses, your weapons and armour will progressively be painted red) will make you feel like Balian defending Jerusalem in the finale of Kingdom of Heaven. It’s not easy to describe it with words, as a simple write-up will always be underwhelming compared to the actual experience.

There are also smaller engagements, as you may be ambushed by bandits as you enter a city, or maybe you will disguise as a staff-wielding beggar to infiltrate an enemy castle and release a prisoner (Robin Hood definitely inspired this one). There are also tournaments and jousts to partake in. Every city you can visit has it’s own unique style of tournament, with different sets of weapons and rules. Sometimes you will be pitched in a battle royale against several opponents, sometimes you will have to fight in team-based engagements, other times you might find yourself in one on one duels with horse and lance. Given the smaller scope of tournaments compared to bigger battles, and to the fact that you’ll have to fight with different weapons, they tend to be quite fun, and a good way to add further variation to and already extremely rich gameplay.

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