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Mount and Blade: Warband /15th of October 2016

Originally, Mount and Blade was a PC only title that was released way back in 2010 to pretty much universal acclaim, though playing the latest console version, it’s almost impossible to understand why. It certainly manages to better present the story of a downtrodden noble rising to the top of the medieval political elite than any of its contemporaries, but it does so in a way that belies its ambition, with clunky, irritating controls, repetitive gameplay and dialogue and hideous, hideous graphics.

There’s little explanation as to what’s going on in its world, what the player ought to be doing or indeed how they can do it, sure, there’s a small combat tutorial but that’s it, any other assistance is hidden away in screens of diminutive text that few will even bother to read. There doesn’t even seem to be a way to properly track active quests, which leaves completing a task as simple as delivering a letter as something that feels almost impossible to accomplish, following a Lord as he wings his way across the map with no way of following his movements except stopping off at castles to ask for his current location, which, by the time you get there, has become obsolete information. The only strength to take away from any of this is the clear indication that the world simply goes on about its business, the player and the character that they control have little significance here, rather than being the sole saviour of the entire universe; the people have their own lives to live, and they do this without any interference from you.
Instead, the player simply walks blindly into a world where they can marry to get ahead, earn their reputation in battle, complete tasks for nobles in the hopes of winning favour, deliver cattle for financial gains and so on. It all adds up to an in-depth and believable world, and yet personally, it simply isn’t engaging enough, it doesn’t do enough to draw me in, to make me want to experience everything that it has to offer and quite frankly, I find that rather sad. I want to be able to fully appreciate the vision of its creators, yet sadly there are just too many issues that hold it back.

For one, the core gameplay is intolerably dull and overly repetitive, where simply wandering from one town to the next can become a soul destroying experience, constantly attacked by bandits via a random battle system. This probably wouldn’t be such an ordeal if the combat system hadn’t obviously been lost in translation, brought down with fiddly controls and several other issues. Of course, this is a proper PC RPG, and the move to controller support has certainly not been kind, with the game constantly switching to first-person views at the slightest touch of the left analogue stick, or zooming the camera when the right-stick gets the same treatment. Likewise, the controls are limited to certain buttons, for instance aiming and firing the bow or crossbow is handled exclusively with the right-trigger, a strange decision given that the standard method is to use the left button for aiming and the right one for firing which would undoubtedly have worked better here too. And then there’s the fact that actually hitting an opponent with either a close or long range weapon is simply a roll of the dice, something which infuriates me greatly in any game, this sees melees descend into little more than button bashing in the hopes of landing a crucial hit before your opponent does.
In the PC original, one of the key factors that separates its combat system from the competition is the fact that it is possible to direct where your attack will rain down from, and this has been carried across onto the console version, except that there’s a major issue with it. To direct one’s attack, the direction that it will come from is selected using the right analogue stick, unfortunately though, this also happens to be stick that controls the game’s camera system, so directing an attack usually sees the camera go flying off in that direction. There is a way to circumnavigate this problem though, but it means limiting the depth of the combat system by making the direction of your attacks automatic, so there’s a decision to made by anyone who ventures out into the world of Mount and Blade; is something that you are prepared to sacrifice?

A nice addition to combat are horses though, which can be targeted directly when battling against an opposing rider to take them down and reduce their combat effectiveness. However, this can also happen to you, and if you’re not careful, it will. On horseback, combat seems reasonably enjoyable – possibly because it’s far easier to hit someone (well, assuming that the horse actually moves in the correct direction) – but lose it, and it’s almost certainly curtains for you. Replacing said companion is made brutally difficult by the rather hefty price tags placed on them too, so you’ll likely find yourself on foot for quite some time afterwards, which means combat becomes a chore, movement speed is severely reduced (it’s already pretty slow) and thus, moving from town to town becomes even more of a headache than it was previously. This is made all the worse by a truly evil auto-save system that seems only to punish mistakes, a fact that I found out after losing a battle whereupon I quit without saving so that my grievous error could be undone, only to load the game back up and find myself in exactly the same position that I had been in when I switched it off.
For a game carrying the moniker of “Warband”, you may be unsurprised to learn that it is possible to put together your own squads of warriors, though these are generally just comprised of nameless, character-less peasants that have been recruited by the various towns and villages strewn across the map. This, as one can probably guess by now though, isn’t the only downside to this particular facet of the game. It is possible to deliver commands to one’s troops using the d-pad, but this means cycling through various menus whilst a battle continues unabated, there is no break in the action, and to top it off, the menus can be cut off by the edge of the visible area, which just serves to highlight how awful the UI is in general.

Mount and Blade: Warband is quite clearly a game designed with PC gamers solely in mind, and quite frankly, it should not have made the jump to console without a fundamental redesign. For someone sitting metres away from their TV playing it with a controller in hand, little fun is likely to be derived from its fiddly map, control set-up, tiresome gameplay, miniscule text and two decade old visuals. There is clearly a lot of ambition here though, so I’d certainly like to see what Tale Worlds Entertainment can achieve with a decent budget behind them, but as it is, avoid this release entirely unless you’re going to be picking it up on PC.
James Paton
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