Mount & Blade: Warband was originally released on the PC six years ago; after having several friends go missing for months at a time, only to turn up at my door raving about their exploits as the emperor of Calradia, I thought it was about to time to see what all the fuss was about when the PS4 version landed on my desk a couple of weeks ago.
If I’m feeling kind (and I am, because the game is cracking overall), graphically, Warband looks a little dated. If you’re the kind of person that can only enjoy a game if it looks ‘next gen,’ then you’re going to want to claw your eyes out. While most ports to the PS4 get the ol’ remaster spit and polish, Warband is straight up port. That being said, I doubt my PS3 could have dealt with the sheer amount of bodies and the ensuing carnage going on during one of the game’s huge battles. With hundreds of archers, infantry and cavalry all busily massacring each other, last gen consoles probably would have thrown a fit and burst into flames upon attempting to run Warband, which is probably why it has taken so long for the series to make the leap to consoles.
Its functional visuals aside though, Mount & Blade: Warband is one of the most ambitious, challenging and open-ended RPGs I have ever played. Players are tasked with ultimately ruling the realm of Calradia and becoming its ruler. This achieved by raising an army and uniting, (or subjugating) the lands warring factions. Sound easy? The road to rule is a long one, fraught with dilemma and tough choices, and even when you finally take the kingdom, it ain’t easy being the new King/Queen/Tyrannical Despot.
As with most RPGs you start by creating your character, and with it some pretty hefty decisions that will greatly affect how easy the road to the crown will be. Your gender and social status have real impact in the same way they would have done in the actual Medieval era. For example, playing as a rich nobleman will make your route to power a lot shorter and easier than deciding to play as a peasant woman with a thing for upward mobility and communes. Though, it isn’t impossible to become a virtual Khaleesi, upending the apple cart in Mount and Blade’s feudalistic society, it is a lot harder to make your way through the early game. That being said, if you can tough it out, ultimately it feels a hell of a lot more rewarding in the long run.
What’s more, the game pretty much throws you right in at the deep end. It doesn’t hold your hand at all. In fact, it it does quite the opposite. After quickly telling you which is the pointy end with a variety of weapons and the basics of battling, it then cuts off your hand and feeds it to the pigs for insulting a local lord.
The early hours of the game are tough, as you slowly attempt to build your reputation and your coffers by taking on various jobs for the counts and lords which rule each of Calania’s six warring kingdoms. As your renown grows you’ll be given better jobs and more opportunities to earn cash; like hunting down criminals and taking part in larger battles.
Meanwhile, you grow your forces by recruiting new followers from villages and taverns you frequent while on your travels. Each village allows you to recruit basic recruits, so long as you have the cash to do so, while taverns allow you to hire mercenaries and named heroes who offer various special abilities. I would try not to get too attached to your named characters as, chances are, like every character you get attached to in Game of Thrones, they’re likely to pull a Sean Bean at some point in the game’s early stages.
To begin with, you’ll spend most of your time fighting groups of looters and bandits that ambush unwary travelers and hold small hamlets to ransom. Be warned though — just because they look like a scruffy bunch of deserters, looters often contain skilled fighters that can overwhelm your fairly inexperienced forces even if you outnumber them. If this happens, and all of your soldiers are cut down before your eyes, you’ll be taken prisoner. Eventually, you do escape and are free to rebuild you warband and get revenge on the buggers.
The game’s tough early stages may be off-putting to some as they are fraught with failure. Often, you’ll find yourself running into a group of enemies when you’ve already taken a beating, or picking the fight with the wrong faction and ending up a prisoner of war.
However, as your character gains experience and improves their stats and skills, the tide slowly turns. Battles that would have almost wiped you and your band out initially become an easy source of income. Bandits become a great source of tradable goods, which will improve your standing with local merchants, as well as fill your coffers if you can figure out which towns pay preferable rates for certain commodities. This in turn allows you to hire more troops and better mercenaries. Alternatively, you could simply become a bandit yourself, raiding caravans and terrifying local farmsteads, but that route will piss off a lot of powerful factions who will send troops after you.
Though your character’s prowess is a factor in battle, if you want to be victorious you’ll need to learn to properly organize and command your warband. How well they perform in battle is linked to their morale and their health — keeping them healthy and happy keeps them alive and stabby. Losses are inevitable, but those that survive an encounter will gain experience and can be trained to become specific troop types like infantry, cavalry and archers.
During battle you can bark orders to either select groups or your entire warband, telling them where to go, what to fire volleys of arrows at, when to charge and when to change formation, like a medieval Sharpe (forming a square always beats cavalry, right?). You’re best off sorting out how your forces are going to act early on, because once the fighting starts and the armies meet, it descends into historically accurate chaos. By the time you’ve cycled through the cumbersome menu system with the d-pad to issue orders to your troops, half of them will probably be dead.
During battles you can take control of several different troop types in either third of first person. You can choose from bowmen, infantry men with a sword and shield, or even charge into the fray as part of the cavalry (my own personal favorite). You control each arm of your character independently by holding down the relevant shoulder button (left for left, right for right) and then using the analogue stick to swing your sword or block attacks. It takes a little getting used to, but you can make things a little easier by adjusting the controls to make your character automatically block attacks.
When you’re not in a battle, you can get some much needed practice (with the game’s arguably tricky combat) by trying your luck in gladiatorial arenas in larger towns. Arena fights boil down to beating up topless men with sticks and wooden swords and being rewarded for your efforts with cash and experience.
Outside of the campaign there’s also online multiplayer for up to 32 players to hack and bludgeon each other to death. Match types include team death match, siege, and conquest.
Mount & Blade: Warband is not an easy game. In fact, it’s a bloody hard game. Practically every part of the game takes a little getting used to, from the dated graphics to the analogue combat. However, if you can persevere through the game’s difficult opening hours, and numerous set backs, you’ll be rewarded with some of the most epic battles in gaming. When it all comes together, Mount & Blade:Warband is one of the most ambitious, challenging and ultimately satisfying RPGs in recent years.
Mount & Blade: Warband was reviewed on PS4 with a copy provided by the publisher
Publisher: Deep Silver | Developer: TaleWorlds | Genre: RPG | Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One | PEGI/ESRB: 12+/T | Release Date: March 30, 2010 (PC), September 27,2016 (PS4, Xbox One)