While everyone and their grandmother (and probably their dog at some point in the future) can set up a blog and start writing about video games, it takes a particularly thick skin to tackle some of the comments you might get. When I reviewed the first Mount & Blade, I decided to warn the readers in advance that the more hardcore of the players would probably not agree with me. After all, Mount & Blade was - and is - a pretty niche product. And niche products tend to draw out the more furious fanboys from the pack.
While the initial comments were pretty nice, as I started to get ready for this particular review I went back to my original article (only available in Swedish, sorry) and noticed that a whole bunch of angrier readers had turned up since I last looked. My comments about the game's lacking graphics were not appreciated, and someone accused me of reviewing a beta-build of the game (which I didn't, considering I had the boxed copy...). It's how it goes with games like Mount & Blade - they are not easily accessible and might turn away a lot of people, while the players that stay usually do it because they fall completely in love.
In many ways, I'm glad that I get to follow that review - which still scored a healthy 7/10 - with this review of Mount & Blade: Warband, because this time around I'm enjoying myself a lot more. I am not sure it's because it's a good upgrade to the original game, or because I've grown older and more mature (I am betting it is the former - I don't feel one bit more mature) and have an easier time to look past the sometimes rather lacking gameplay of Mount & Blade.
Let's get the bad part out of the way first, since it will be pretty obvious from the minute you start the game. Mount & Blade: Warband, just like the original, is not a very pretty game if you judge it from a modern standard. The character models are pretty wonky, the animations can hardly be called fluid and the environments are far from the high-resolution wonders of texture work that we might expect from a game released in 2010. The world map still looks like crap. While the controls are pretty standard in the way they are set up - left mouse button for swing, right to defend yourself, etc - the way they work together can be a struggle to learn. It won't take long before all of this becomes clear, and it's somewhere around this point that you either put the game away or you press on.
The thing is, that if you press on - and I think you should - Mount & Blade: Warband offers a lot more than what meets the eye. It's a deep beast of a game, and for anyone that has lamented the lack of an open-ended roleplaying game since the days of The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind it will come like a gift from above. The world of Calradia is big, it's constantly evolving whether you like it or not, kingdoms rise and fall, villages are looted, bandits roam the plains (they pretty much roam everywhere). There are damsels to be romanced, quests to undertake, castles to be besieged and at no point will the game tell you when you should do all these things. Want to be a valiant knight and fight for your kingdom, make your living as a robber baron or a peaceful trader? Your pick.
While you will spend a lot of time on the world map, riding (if you have a horse) back and forth between towns and villages, a large part of the game is about the battles. A good way to describe them, I guess, would be imagining a battle from the Total War-series and then putting yourself down in third person in the middle of the whole thing. You have to command your troops (that can range from a few ragtag beggars to armies of up to 200 well-armed soldiers), while making sure you stay alive yourself. It's truly immersing, it often gets quite chaotic, and the sense of accomplishment is great when your soldiers start to cheer after a well-earned victory. Just like the sense of shame can be crippling when you end up on the ground with a crossbow bolt through your skull.
The battles are also, not very surprisingly, the focus of the game's multiplayer. Built around the same concept as older first person shooters, with dedicated servers, multiplayer is a dirty affair. No instant respawns, no fancy powerups to be found. You, your friends, the enemy and a lot of bloodshed. The horses in Mount & Blade: Warband truly have a devastating weight to them and you better step out of the way when someone comes charging at you - or try to take out the horse, which will send the rider crashing to the ground. Again, the word immersive comes to mind and it's truly a medieval ballet of swords and clubs and arrows in your back when you have your shield turned the other way...yes, I die a lot. Shut up.
There has been changes to Mount & Blade: Warband, even though for me - who didn't really enjoy the game the first time - they are not that as apparent as they might be to an old fan. If you can spot them, you haven't come to hear me list them up for you, considering you already love the game anyway. I've been nodding along to a friend on Twitter who has been babbling about Warband for days now, even mentioning some feature that is usually modded away and something about eating his own testicles rather than have to live through that mess again. Seriously, by the time you're contemplating chewing on your own genitals, you're already so far out on the deep end of Mount & Blade that there's no turning back for you now.
And that's the kind of game Mount & Blade is. Together with a vibrant mod-scene, due to the game's high modability and the way Tale Worlds take care of their modding community, Mount & Blade: Warband is just a second attempt for the devs to try to sweep you off your feet. It wouldn't stand much of a chance if one of the great AAA-studios decided to create a game like it, but the thing is that the big AAA-studios don't do games like this anymore. To that I take my hat off to both Tale Worlds and Paradox Interactive, because Mount & Blade - both this new one and the original - show that ambitious game projects created by smaller developers and publishers can be incredible; that they are needed in this era of HD-graphics and multi-million monster games.