Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mount and Blade

Why, what an amusing coincidence. Just last week i was considering starting up another Mount&Blade character and today i got a pop-up advertisement from Impulse, the online distribution system pilfered from Stardock by Gamestop and re-branded, for a sale on all the M&B expansions.

M&B is one of those gimmicks that'll easily have you forming a cult for it if you're not careful. It's a single-player, freeform, open-ended RPG with FPS mechanics in a medieval setting with no magic, all the ren-faire jousting and roast legs of this and that but in the comfort of your own computer monitor. It has the same addictive quality as the "one more turn"  turn-based strategy games like Heroes of Might and Magic combined with the imaginary friends found in RPGs like Bioware's which let you form your own little band of adventurers. It turns nerds into drooling mental patients rambling "ok, i'm just gonna deliver one more shipment of grain, my village needs grain, must help my peasants" at 3:00 a.m. right before they get an urgent message from the king to marshal forces for an invasion.

The setting itself is a generalized medieval Europe renamed and remapped as Calradia. Saracens clash with knights and berserkers run amok in the lands of the boyars while tartar raiders rampage through the countryside. Castles and villages change hands and caravans crawl across the landscape lugging silk to here and salt to there. The hero can try to marry his (or her) way into the nobility, cart goods from town to town avoiding bandits, become a tournament champion, take up mercenary jobs, swear fealty to a king or help usurp one, capture castles, become lord of villages and towns, and all of it is handled through a first-person shooter interface that has players riding a charger into battles while commanding groups of dozens of archers, infantry and knights across the battlefield.
It's the sheer scope of the game that draws the imagination in, the glamour in romanticized medieval violence and social inequality. "Miniver loved the days of old, when swords were bright and steeds were prancing; the vision of a warrior bold would set him dancing" as the poem goes. That truer-than-usual-to-life (but still romanticized) setting combined with greater freedom to create a personality than is found in story-based RPGs amounts to one of the best escapist fantasies outside of my idealized online virtual world that will never be made.

Sadly, they seem to have started losing their way with the expansions. I bought the first one to come out, Warband, some time ago because it seemed it might become a true MMO. Unfortunately the multiplayer aspect it promised amounted to nothing more than random battles as in any FPS game, with none of the ramifications that were the true spirit of M&B. Luckily the many additions it made to single-player overshadowed the half-hearted attempt at online play. Other expansions introduced story-based campaign modes, undermining the game's main freeform appeal. Even the introduction of firearms threatens M&Bs already shaky notion of balance between weapons. Firearms were the death of the "warrior bold" which the game's escapist customer base loves so much.

I don't think i'll be buying the new expansions after all, sale or no sale. I love my Calradia the way it is as of Warband. Still, i do hope Taleworlds manages to push them on a few new customers. They deserve it for what they created in the first place.

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