Mount & Blade is like that quirky girl who sits behind you in art class - you don't talk to her because you're afraid the much-hotter girl who sits next to her won't talk to you if she sees you talking to the quirky girl. The much-hotter girl in this case is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, with its uber-amazing graphics and wide-open story land of medieval fantasy fun. Mount & Blade, like that quirky girl, has very little to do with Oblivion beyond the fact that they're the same gender. It too, is a wide-open adventure for PC, but the similarities stop there as Oblivion persists in creating epic fantasy while Mount & Blade focuses on recreating realistic 14th century life.
Scared off already, huh? Shame on you; the quirky girl always has a great personality.
Mount & Blade's personality has had nearly eight years to grow into the in-depth medieval sim it's become today (currently running on a near-final .9-something version). You might not get any of that if you were to look at the beta version currently online (using a way-older version); the chunky graphics might turn you off before you even gave the game a chance. But from its humble origins as a realistic sword fighting combat simulator, Mount & Blade has evolved into a deep game with a rich, dynamic setting tied to some very boss gameplay mechanics.
It's the 1300s in some parallel version of Europe called Calradia, and you're a wandering rogue/disgraced noble/dirty peasant out to make your fortune the way people did back then: the sword. The overall game has a skeleton plot about something to do with war between two Calradian countries - but the end "goal" for the game is for you to gather your own army and create a fief. That, for me, is a check in the "good" box - Oblivion gave me some houses, but Mount & Blade gives me a freaking castle.
...If I can take it, that is. After some time spent in beta and an interview with developer Armağan Yavuz, I got the idea that Mount & Blade won't be holding my hand through each skirmish, siege and battle the game throws at you. You pick up a scant tutorial in the basics of fighting: blocking, swinging, shooting arrows and mounted combat. And after that, you're on your own. You do level up as you go around completing missions given to you by the nobility and killing the odd vagabond who tries to jump you; but no amount of XP or gold will buy you superpowers or the most amazing weapon ever. You've got master combat through practice, earn the respect of your NPC posse so you can send them out to do battle, and pillage your way to that castle. So add another check to "good" because this means it doesn't matter how many levels I gain in the game; I'm only going to be as good as I learn to be. And I get to pillage - big plus.
Yavuz talked a bit about his inspiration to create Mount & Blade. He and his wife both have a thing for history and there weren't really any games out there that recreated the medieval period all that well (at least not without adding dragons and magic and stuff). Yavuz started out with just a basic combat sim - tweaking the mechanics so you dealt more damage when moving during a strike, and having the AI counter your block if you held down the block button instead of waiting for it to attack you. From there, an online community sprung up like so many mushrooms and the developers reached out to them, giving them mod tools to make their own additions to the game. Turns out Yavuz liked some of the modders so much, he hired them on as writers and programmers - and this is where the game began to evolve some kind of plot.
Creating your character is a lot like Oblivion - moving sliders this way and that way, choosing a class and allotting skill points and so on. But instead of starting off at the centre of an epic story in some dungeon that's about to get attacked by red-robed ninjas, Mount & Blade drops you into the middle of Calradia with nothing but a weapon, a horse and a shield. The world map is huge, providing plenty of places for you to travel.
I found all that freedom almost overwhelming, but after I went into a town and talked to a lord to receive a quest, I was on familiar territory. I went where the lord told me to go and talked to some peasants to find the guy he wanted me to find. This guy didn't want tobe found, so he took a few swings at me with his sword and I put a crossbow bolt in his chest - but he still kept coming and I found out the hard way that you can't reload a crossbow while you're running away (no wonder France had trouble in The Hundred Years' War).
After getting "knocked unconscious," I wound up on my horses back, half-sliding out of the saddle somewhere on the edge of the town. Most my life bar was gone and some quest text told me I had failed. I'm pretty sure you can go back and re-try the quest if you talk to the lord again; but I got jumped by some bandits on my way back and died again. This is where that NPC posse would have come in handy - I can make them do all the fighting and just hang out in the back, feathering the bad guys with crossbow bolts and healing my party with mad first aid skills (not magic spells).
The realism in Mount & Blade was inspired by Sid Meier's Pirates! and by the novels of Bernard Cornwell. Sid Meier's famous game did away with the normal type of adventure plot and let you carve your own fate out of the seven seas; which is pretty much the same thing you'll be doing in Mount & Blade, only with horses instead of boats. Cornwell's books (all bazillion of them), are gritty historical fiction pieces that cover everything from Napoleonic captains to Viking conquests. I'm actually a fan of Cornwell - playing Mount & Blade reminded me so much of one of his books, that I brought it to the interview. I showed Yavuz my copy of The Archer's Tale and was rewarded with an excited squeal more appropriate to an 8-year-old girl than a developer.
But cut Yavuz some slack; he's living his dream. He wanted to make a game that was realistic and he won a fan base. His fan base expanded his game and he won Paradox Interactive as a publisher. He wants to bring the world Mount & Blade and thanks to Paradox, he will.
So even if the game looks ugly to you and you'd rather be off
screwing the hot girl playing Oblivion, I defy you to say there isn't depth in this game after completing just one mission. Go check out the official site for more details and maybe hit up Wikipedia for some background on the factions (because there are a lot). Mount & Blade will be on shelves September 16 - and keep your eyes peeled for an announcement about digital downloads...
And for the record, quirky girls are always dynamite in the sack.