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Page 2 of 3Mount & Blade does not stick to only one type of combat. At the start, the open-field batches will be mostly small, pitched battles between your party and assorted forest bandits, mountain bandits, sea raiders, or looters. As you advance in levels and renown, your maximum party capacity grows and it will be needed, for if you join one of the factions you'll find yourself involved in full-scale open-field battles, where armies of hundreds face off. The game does not handle all these NPCs all at once, instead putting two initial teams against each other and sending in waves of replacements as combatants fall.
On top of that, Mount & Blade has non-lethal combat in training (in Mount & Blade, you train people by beating them up true hard knocks philosophy) and in arenas. Arenas are usually a welcome change of pace, as they pit two to four teams of size varying from 1 to 8 combatants against each other in the small confines of the arena, using a variety of weapons and often mixing mounted and non-mounted combat. In the final release of Mount & Blade, arenas have some added flavor in that the equipment is adapted to the tastes of the regions you're in - Khergits sending gladiators in on mounts and with javelins or bows, while the Nords often arm them with axes. Arena fighting offers a good source of revenue (if you're smart and skilled enough to bet on yourself and win), as well as a welcome change of pace.
The combat I personally enjoyed the most was during sieges. Sieges are not what you might expect them to be as forces storm up a ladder or a siege tower to fight the defendants on the battlements. It doesn't feel quite like a real siege, but what it does feel like is a massive and often challenging slaughter, as you swing your sword through ranks of recruits until you emerge victorious and very, very bloody.
Now, I'm making it sound like combat is all there is to Mount & Blade and that's not really fair. For one, TaleWorlds went all-out in making the world living and breathing in its own right: the wealth of villages, castles, and towns changes as they prosper in peace-time or suffer under prolonged sieges or lack of caravan trade. All lords move around the map, and if they're at war, they will engage in battles with one another, even besieging towns and castles, all without any need for instigation from the player.
The factions are all basically similar: each owns three or four towns, has a single ruler and a single pretender to the throne (who you can support in a full-scale rebellion), and a number of lords (about 20) with their own estates. But the culture of each faction is different, from the Middle Eastern Khergit Khanate to the wealthy merchants of the Kingdom of Rhodoks to the hardy sea people of the Nords. The makeup of the armies is influenced by these outlooks: the Vaegirs and Swadians depending on heavy cavalry, the Nords on heavy infantry, the Rhodoks on light spearmen, and the Khergits on light cavalry. All factions also have bow or crossbow infantry, except the Khergits who are all mounted.
In open-field battles, this gives a clear edge to the Vaegirs and Swadians. A few of their knights could easily cut down two dozen Nord infantry. In sieges, this advantage is lost, and the heavy infantry of the Nords and sharpshooters of the Rhodoks will do the job just as well. The Khergits are kind of the third wheel in this story, as their light armor means they're nothing but arrow-fodder during sieges, while their inability to seriously damage heavy cavalry means they're just an annoyance in open-field battles.
These 5 factions warring to rule Calradia (Mount & Blade's setting) is the game's backdrop. As stories go, it is not fleshed out very well. While you can get a lot of flavor text and history from various NPCs there never seems to be one consistent line or story to tell. It doesn't help believability that every king (or khan) has one single pretender to the throne, who has a good story for which the king (or khan) has an equally good counterpoint. To put it simply: the setting is fleshed out enough to serve as a somewhat believable backdrop to the swordplay, but nothing more than that.
Dialogue is the usual horrid sandbox affair: standard boxed dialogue choices come with standard boxed replies, the only real variable being when you're trying to persuade someone (an NPC to stay with your party, or a lord to pay back his debt) in which case your rarely-used persuasion skill comes into play. The only dialogue of more interest are the lines where you try to convince a lord to abandon his liege and join the rebellion, a dialogue influenced by the lord's personal liking of you, the strength of the rebellion versus the kingdom, and your choice to either keep a consistent line of argument or try to tell the lord what he wants to hear.
The quests aren't much for adding more substance, either. Guild masters have boring quests like escorting caravans or herding cattle while village elders are even worse, sending you to find and fetch cattle or food. Lords are just as bad at the start, trusting you only to deliver letters or go out to claim debts. A lot of fetch and deliver quests, in other words.
It gets better later on, though not by much. The problem is that interesting ideas never have interesting execution. Sent out to pay the ransom for a kidnapped girl? No intrigue here, just hand over the money and you get her - the only trouble is of the type you can start. Have to track down a killer amongst his kinfolk? Just look for the guy with a sword. Need to follow a spy and capture him and the person he's reporting to? Just follow their tracks, equip blunt weapons, charge in and knock them over the heads to knock them out and take them back. You should be seeing the pattern here: it's almost exclusively fight or fetch, and since there's only about 2 dozen quests you'll start running into the same one over and over soon enough.
Music, Sound Effects, Graphics
The game's music is well suited to the setting, but not really good enough to be called memorable. It is kept well in the background of the noise of war, so the chances of it bothering you are slim. The sounds range from the somewhat weird (some of the attack sound effects are a bit odd) to the immensely satisfying thud of hitting someone on the head with a hammer or your bow twanging as you release an arrow.
Mount & Blade's graphics are detailed enough to make out all the necessary details and then some, as combinations of armor, gloves, boots, helmets and weaponry make for unique NPCs. The face generation system allows you to get creative when making a character and is equally released on the game world, making for a wide array of lively characters to meet. As one might expect, there are a few points where the graphics stand out (the sky often looks great, particularly at sunrise or sunset) and a few points where they obviously fall short (texture detail is wanting, there are a number of odd graphic glitches, and at times the world looks a bit repetitive). A lot of the animations have been spruced up during the game's development, and character movement looks fairly realistic. The ragdoll deaths can still act pretty weird, but at the same time bodies hurling about in random fashion just enlivens the battle.
Ultimately, if you're looking for top-of-the-line graphics and animations, you're on the wrong side of the industry. Independently developed games typically lack the manpower and/or money for graphic fluff. As indies go, though, Mount & Blade looks pretty damn good.