Mount & Blade: Warband:
The only Medieval sandbox you'll need.
When I was ten I hated reading. That’s not an uncommon sentence, even among adults. To me it was a chore, something that belonged in school and got in the way of football or PlayStation. I would spend the intended reading time looking round the classroom, rationing interesting things to look at until time was up. Printed words just did not appeal. This was until I stumbled across the genre of Choose Your Own Adventure, a book which gave the reader a unique experience with every read, and allowed this ten-year-old boy to be the head of an army, conquer castles and marry fair maidens. It was a similar revolution that hit me when I first played Mount & Blade: Warband, a game that like the Choose Your Own Adventure books is seemingly infinite in its possibilities. I was dropped into the game as a penniless, low born male (the game advises against being female, simply because of how limiting medieval times were). I had no castles or villages and no standing army to call my own.
In the words of rapper and soul singer Drake, I started at the bottom.
Despite the ample seating in the taverns, nobody ever sits down.
The training in the game is refreshingly simple. You are briefly introduced to key concepts such as sword play, archery, horseback fighting and throwing weapons such as rocks and axes. All training takes place within a purpose-built area with other aspiring knights like yourself. Once the training is complete the sandbox life begins and every decision you make affects how others treat your character and who wants to join you. Want a life of love? Try courting a fair lady in Sargoth. War is your cup of tea? Build an army of recruits, train and harden them to march into Swadia and take what isn’t yours. A life of crime is what you seek? Hire dark mercenaries in taverns and attack lucrative caravans or raid villages: there’s no need to share the spoils. For me, it was dedicating my virtual life and loyalty to Kind Ragnar. I stormed castles with him, demonstrated prowess in large tournaments and became his chief advisor in the role of Marshall.
Taking this screenshot nearly got me killed.
What I am trying to say with over 1000 hours on this game is that there is no right or wrong way to play it. The satisfaction and frustration comes from the variety that is on offer, and the constantly changing landscape. Unlike other open world RPGs like The Witcher or Skyrim, two fantastically immersive games, you are presented with an overhead map much like Total War, and although not able to see the vast armies you hold on this view, your power is reflected at times when the bandits actively run away from you. The movement is simple, just click and your character moves across the map. Arriving at castles, towns and villages brings up a description of the place and options such as spending the night or besieging. The simplicity of encounters mean that you don’t get bogged down in boring dialogue or feel the constant temptation of fast travel.
I should point out that the Total War franchise is my all-time favourite. As a fan of Airfix model soldiers as a boy, the idea that this could be converted onto my screen was incredible. The graphics in the original Medieval Total War were basic and playing now, one just can’t get past the two-dimensional, terrible appearance (although at the time, this went unnoticed because it was one of the rare games able to run on my computer).
In 2015, stumbling across Youtube videos about what Playstation game I would buy next, I discovered Mount & Blade. In the game I could be on the battlefield and change the course of the battle. No longer would I watch overhead with desperate frustration as my archers all missed the mark or the shield wall didn’t turn quickly enough to defend against the cavalry. I could play the hero or unrecognisable nomad. This game, while not offering the best graphics or even convincing voice acting, has shown how absorbed one can be by a little bit of imagination and a game that seems to offer a huge amount of growth and opportunity.
Buy this game, try it and, like many fans of the franchise, sit and wait for Taleworlds to release Bannerlord. Easy.