An anti-review review spurred on by the fine folks at Gamespot who apparently didn’t receive a gift basket from the developers.
To be fair I have been playing M&B since it was in beta 0.610 or thereabouts. It was rough and unpolished then, but it was the first game of its kind, an incredibly immersive and fun steel-and-horses age combat simulator. I bought it immediately, and have never looked back.
This first thing that confuses people including off-the-cuff (Gamespot) reviewers is that this game is not Oblivion. Taleworlds went in a completely different direction, instead of rehashing the same formulaic crap that infests the game publishing world today, and they should be thanked for it. Instead, they get rated down for NOT being boring. This is not strictly speaking an RPG in the way that the industry thinks of RPGs. It is not strictly a strategy game. It is not a shooter. So what is it?
Mount & Blade is a great sandbox game, along the lines of Pirates!, but more interesting (to me, anyway). You get thrown into the game and from there can literally do whatever you want. The game does skew towards combat professions and goals, since its greatest strength is its combat engine, but you can be a merchant, a rebel, a vassal, a mercenary, even a tournament specialist. You can even do several of these things in sequence, defining the career of your character through your gameplay choices.
The combat engine is utterly magnificent. This is one of the rare games where you can come up with a solution to a problem by doing what you would do in the real world, and it works! On foot, you turn your body in the same direction as your weapon swing as you make contact, and you get an increase in damage. Duck in and out of striking range based on the actual length of the weapons you and your opponent are using. Stand on the high ground with your bow for a range advantage that you can see happening as your arrows take a natural dropping flight path. Get back up on the hill to slow the momentum of that gyu riding down on you, step to his blind side, and chop his horse out from under him so you can brain him while he tries to get back up. This is a lot more immersive and gratifying than spending points on various melee skills and hitting control buttons for special moves over and over again while standing in one place.
The political and economic systems in vanilla (un-modded) Mount & Blade are simple, but they work! Build up friendships with local lords by doing stupid errands for them if you like, or else catch them in combat with a superior force and run in to save their bacon, which they’ll be grateful for. Build favor with the ladies of the court so they can funnel bribes for you to lords who mislike you. Gain enough renown and favor with your liege to be put forward as a candidate for Marshall, but make sure you can curry enough votes to win the election. Burn local villages to prevent enemy lords from recruiting there, and kill their caravans to stagnate their city’s economy.
I have seen lack of a concrete storyline mentioned as a weakness in some "professional" reviews. The game lacks a storyline because it’s not supposed to have one! There is a background, there is an ongoing political dynamic, but you create your own story. Honestly, I don’t understand the point of "story" based games where you walk through in a linear fashion, click some buttons, and listen to some voiceovers. To me the last great story-based computer game was Fallout, which also incorporated a sandbox play style as part of its dynamic, in addition to some really great lore. Nowadays, if you really want to follow a storyline, you can probably find better and longer-lasting ones in different media. Books, for instance. (If you lack the imagination required to have a rewarding experience reading a book and prefer the multimedia experience brought to you by some hack writing computer games, there is always television.)
The most important thing to me about Mount & Blade, though, is that it captured my attention back then, and still does. I spend many nights not going to sleep because there’s one more siege I want to pull off, or one of my rebellion faction lords who needs help, or some juicy enemy caravans waiting to be plundered. I would rate its replayability along the same lines as the original Civilization when it came out (and I basically wasted six months of my life on that). Not many games nowadays can even capture my interest, let alone hold it for longer than a couple of days. It’s just that much fun.
Mu rating: 9/10. It still feels kinda like an engine disguised in a game box, but what a friggin’ engine.