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Page 1 of 3Despite what a lot of people seem to claim, sandbox gameplay is not a recent invention. The concept easily reaches back to some of the early Ultima titles, Darklands, Sid Meier's Pirates!, and The Elder Scrolls: Arena. The sandbox (sub-genre), if you can call it that, has occupied a valued niche in the RPG pantheon, usually with the same pros (addictive, open-world gameplay) and cons (quantity over quality, repetitive gameplay).
TaleWorlds' indie action RPG Mount & Blade is no exception in its widest scope. It too has compelling and addictive gameplay offset by repetitive and uninteresting quests and NPCs. But Mount & Blade is a little different. Kind of like Arena, you can tell that this is not a game that set out to be a perfect sandbox title, but instead strove to be a fighting game first and foremost and this has its positive and negative sides.
Mount & Blade utilizes a simple character system: your main attributes are strength, agility, intelligence, and charisma, and each attribute has a number of skills tied to it. Broadly speaking, strength governs combat skills (power strike, ironflesh), agility governs physical aptitudes and combat skills (weapon master, riding), intelligence governs leadership skills (leadership, pathfinding, tactics), and charisma governs personal interaction skills (persuade, trade).
Mount & Blade takes the sandbox principle to its extreme: after character creation, you're dropped into the middle of nowhere with no main quests or clear instructions of what to do. Astute players will notice they're shoved into the world right next to an area marked (training grounds) and head there first, but it doesn't really matter - you can go anywhere you like and earn experience any way you wish.
The lack of guidance might be daunting to players more used to hand-holding, but Mount & Blade does not throw up a lot of conceptual challenges: there are towns, castles, and villages dotting the world map divided amongst 5 factions: Vaegirs, Swadians, Khergits, Nords, and Rhodoks. Each location usually has one or more NPCs (of interest) that can provide quests (lords, guild leaders, and village elders) whereas the other NPCs are just there for the flavor or even better for recruiting into your very own party. Each quest is fairly straightforward, and most simply involve moving from point A to B and most likely bashing someone's head in once you're there.
Combat in Mount & Blade is fantastic, stunning, and easily sports the best real-time swordplay ever conceived in a video game - and that's not even mentioning the mounted combat.
When asked why we're supposed to prefer fast first-person real-time combat to the alternatives, the standard answer is that it's more immersive, immediate, intuitive, and fun. Oddly enough, those four principles usually combine into click-click-click-click combat, like you'd find in something like Gothic 3. To get some direct comparison material for Mount & Blade, I started up Oblivion right after one session, and found myself laughing out loud at the horribly stilted movement and awkward controls.
That's what Mount & Blade does to you. Once you go M&B, you can't go back.
Now that the unabashed drooling is out of the way, let me try to give you a picture of Mount & Blade's combat. The basics of close combat come down to striking and blocking, with you determining the direction of the strike (and of the block if you so desire) while viewing the field from first or third person. Shields block more easily but also wear down during combat until they break and you drop them. You can also block with your weapon if you have no shield, but it is tougher and requires timing. Ranged attacks can be blocked by a shield but not with a weapon, and blocking attacks multiple opponents is nearly impossible without a shield.
Skill, weapons, and armor determine how much damage you do and can take, but player skill factors into it heavily. Not so heavily that you can take down someone in plate mail with a club, but still so significant that all your fancy weapons won't do you any good if you don't know how to use them. What counts in Mount & Blade is timing and momentum. If you fail to block at the right time, you'll be caught off balance and your opponent will likely land multiple blows before you can recover. Likewise, the speed of your weapon relative to your opponent's is a factor, so you have to make sure you hit him head-on, as a backwards swipe while running past him won't do you much good.
Ranged weapons may sound like the odd one out but they're not. They're not recommended weaponry, but whether you prefer bows, crossbows, or thrown weapons, they make a handy backup or alternate attack and can even be utilized on horseback if you're skilled enough. Speed, damage, and accuracy for all weapons are determined by separate combat skills that you can raise each level, though they also rise themselves in a learn-by-doing scheme.
Mounted combat is the core of the title but to be perfectly frank not the part I enjoyed most. True, nothing can beat charging head-on into a group of infantry and slashing someone right in the noggin as the speed-bonus can easily double or triple the damage and kill the opponent instantly. Or the grandeur of two horsemen charging at each other with whoever times his attack right probably knocking the other guy out. But I find that while the initial rush is great, after a while you'll note that open-field battles against infantry involve a lot of circling around the enemy to go in for a new charge, while cavalry versus cavalry is even worse, as the enemy AI mostly avoids you and only cautiously moving in for a strike. This means that fights against light cavalry (the Khergit Khanate) can be an extremely frustrating affair. Still, Mount & Blade easily provides the best mounted combat I've ever had the pleasure of participating in.
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