Mount & Blade: Warband Preview

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Paradox Interactive
Release Date:2010-03-30
  • Action,Role-Playing,Simulation,Strategy
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • First-Person,Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
The Mount & Blade: Warband closed beta has been running for some time now, but it wasn't until it hit open beta that I jumped for the opportunity to play the upcoming expansion pack. With multiplayer being the biggest addition it brings to the table, this is what piqued my interest most. Keep in mind, though, that the public beta only allows you to play multiplayer and skirmishes in single player (not a full campaign) and that I played both the .711 and .720 versions of the beta. TaleWorlds is constantly updating the game based on feedback, so it's possible that some of the details contained in this preview may well not match the final retail version.

A lot of the single player additions have already been revealed and quite a few are on display in the beta even in multiplayer. The promised features not on display are the campaign-specific additions, such as the ability to pursue romances and marry (for political gain, if that's your thing), the ability to become a king, and expanded realm management both for your realm and for individual locations, amongst other things.

Other features could already be glanced, such as the addition of new factions and weapons, which is a nice if small extra. More options have been added to besieging cities, as you can now lift ladders, go through the back gate, or infiltrate the guard tower to raise the main gate. The graphics have been overhauled and updated and it shows, but not to the degree that you'll suddenly think you're playing a mainstream release. Mount & Blade: Warband looks better than Mount & Blade but it still looks like an indie game.

All the single player additions aside, multiplayer is the big selling point of Warband. It plays with a bevy of familiar gameplay modes, such as Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Battle, Capture the Flag, Conquest and Siege, I also spotted some specialized, mod-based sessions running, such as a Roleplaying server, or a "Hunt" server which had enough users to join, and provided a very enjoyable experience significantly different from the other Warband multiplayer mode. A good sign that Mount & Blade's adaptability is poised to leak into multiplayer too. The only regular multiplayer modes I freely got to try were Team Deathmatch, Battle and Capture the Flag, the servers running the other game modes never having any or enough users on them. Of these, Battle plays closest to Mount & Blade as we know it, consisting of multiple skirmishes of up to 5 minutes, in which the players do not respawn, and the last team with a man standing wins.

Each session has two competing teams consisting of troops from one of Mount & Blade's factions. When you join a session, you get to pick one of the two competing factions, then a troop from said factions, made up of familiar faces such as Nord Huscarls, Rhodok Crossbowmen or Khergit Lancers. Once you pick your troop, you have an amount of gold based on server settings with which you can buy equipment to upgrade your character. Stats cannot be updated, and characters are reset for every new session. You can even switch equipment and characters in between respawns. Clearly, the idea here is to experiment as much as possible from session to session, seeking to exploit your skill set and specific tactical advantages of the different available maps.

Because that's the big, obvious advantage of multiplayer: no more opposing infantry charging your cavalry in an open field, or men defending a castle by bunching up near the ladders. The fact that real people are now behind the opposing troops means that even the traditional wimps of Mount & Blade, the cavalry-free Nords and Rhodoks, can put up an excellent fight, even in a fairly open field.

Part of this is due to the fact that the combat is significantly tweaked from Mount & Blade itself. It's hard to say anything definitive as it is clearly still evolving, but it seems the intention is to weaken cavalry, and strengthen ranged weapons. Right now that leads to hilarious imbalances, such as lance charges becoming completely futile, or an archer running around accruing kill after kill.

While I assume such things will fix themselves before release, I'm more curious as to how well TaleWorlds can remove exploits from the multiplayer experience. Because as awesome as the Mount & Blade combat system still is, it seems you get killed too often by people doing ridiculous jumps with two-handed axes to strike you from your horse, or simply spamming kicks or feints or circling you in a twitchy manner in one-on-one combat. It lacks the feel of realism and careful dueling of the original Mount & Blade, and that would be a shame to see go.

Niggles aside, it's clear multiplayer and Mount & Blade's large-scale, tactical battles make a perfect fit. Roaming the streets of the village with three others looking the last survivor, making a brave last stand as an archer on the hill, being dead in observer mode and seeing the lone surviving teammate single-handedly take out five opponents and win the match, the opportunity for classic moments with friends are endless.

The game is prepared for problems with players and matchups, with the capability to poll your fellow users on kicking and/or banning a user that's not playing by the rules. Similarly, said polls can be used to change factions/maps if the specific setup is not working, and the battles are too one-sided (such as Nords spawning inside a fortified village while Rhodoks spawn outside). What helps here is that at least so far the Mount & Blade online community is a really good one, with no real griefing, flaming or noob-baiting going on, being instead made up of a bunch of people either dedicated to honing their own skill and kill-counts, or downright crazy blokes having fun. Considering how important community is to these kind of multiplayer experience, this is a big boost to the game assuming the community stays this way.

One unsurprising thing should be obvious from the above description: Warband's multiplayer opts to focus purely on one side of the Mount & Blade experience, that of medieval warfare simulator. Sure, stats are still there for different troops, and you can customize to some extent, but as characters are dumped for every new session, it doesn't allow you to tie a single character to your account, nor does it allow for experience to be gained and progress to be made. There is no imbalance between characters which is a good thing for the multiplayer experience, but also means the outcome of fights is purely dependent on the player's (twitch) skill.

That means out with the sandbox action-RPG gameplay, and in with battle simulations. I can't help but feel Mount & Blade does both these things at a very high level, but what hooked me in personally was that it combined both well, and pushing for that next level or next castle taken was as big a hook as the excellent combat in general. That, specifically, does not carry over in to multiplayer, but that's no reason to get discouraged. Multiplayer is still fun in its own right even if it'll be less appealing to people who like me found that the sandbox gameplay is what tipped Mount & Blade from "fun" into "incredibly addictive". But even for us there's material to look foreward to, as the additions promised already look good from the glance given in multiplayer, let alone in its expansions for single player campaigns.