This is part of my 2011 wrap-up series, A Few of My Favorite Things, in which I discuss what I enjoyed this year, regardless of when it was released.
11. Mount and Blade: Warband
PC game, 2009
When I think of indie games, I think of twee platformers and lo-fi tactical games. I think of Darwinia and Super Meat Boy and Atom Zombie Smasher.If you were to have asked me earlier today what my favorite indie game is, I’d have been stumped. I might have settled on Super Meat Boy — a gem I somehow sunk about 25 hours into.
But as I was reading about Mount and Blade: Warband to prepare for writing this, I was shocked to find it referred to as an indie game. I guess I just didn’t consider that the Mount and Blade series was, in fact, made by an small independendent developer. The term “indie” doesn’t refer to a small-scale aesthetic and scope, even if that’s something that most of indie games share.
The Mount and Blade series is certainly not small-scale. It doesn’t feel indie, but I think it’s kind of cool that it is. It shows that an small developer like this really can provide depth, detail, innovation, and replayability to match the big boys. And, yeah — the Mount and Blade games are easily my favorite “indie” games I’ve ever played.
It’s kind of hard to describe exactly what the Mount and Blade games are like, but here’s my best shot: They’re kind of realistic medieval RPG’s. You have a main character who battles opponents and raises an army. There are no real goals — it’s open-ended, almost a sandbox.
Like an old-school RPG, there’s an overworld with different towns you can visit and a separate battle screen. But the dynamics are a lot more complicated than something like Final Fantasy 6. While the overworlds of classic games are essentially paintings that you can maneuver around, Mount and Blade’s is a dynamic, breathing world that functions on its own.
As you wander around the Mount and Blade world — vaguely inspired by medieval Europe — you’ll constantly come across different parties doing different things: peasant farmers, bands of thieves and deserters, armies of one of the six or so kingdoms. You can engage any one of them at any time.
Whenever you go into a battle, the game generates a large battlefield based on the terrain you were on; it’s basically a zoomed-in, high-def square from the overworld. Your party takes on the opposing army, but the battle engine can handle up to 150 soldiers.
Battle itself is pretty engaging. It’s real-time, third- or first-person action. By default, you ride a horse, though you don’t have to. You attack with a sword or axe or bow or javelin or a plethora of other weapons.
The game starts pretty fun right away. You land in the world with rags and a cheap wooden weapon. Generally, a pathetic group of looters will engage you, or else you engage them. You steal their loot, which you can sell or keep. You go from town to town trying to recruit villagers or hiring mercenaries with whatever money you can collect. Slowly, you build power and momentum.
But where the game elevates from “fun” to “epic” is in the late game. In most games, you don’t encounter any new game mechanics after the first several hours. Mount and Blade is an exception; in fact, you only get a small glimpse of the game until you really starts to get powerful.
That’s when the game’s most fascinating and addictive elements open up. For one, as you accumulate wealth, there’s actually stuff to do with it other than buy loot: You can hire bigger armies, purchase real estate in cities, invest in growing towns.
But there’s an entire political aspect to the game, too. When you become strong enough, you’ll be recruited to be a mercenary for one of the five or six kingdoms. If you do well enough on the battlefield for the king, you can become a vassal, with an entire new set of objectives and mechanics.
Mount and Blade: Warband was advertised as a sequel, but it’s really more of an expansion pack or a supercharged remake. It takes the original game and adds a few features that drastically expand the game’s appeal and replayability. First, it includes a sixth kingdom to further deepen the political web.
Next, it introduces a multiplayer component. You can play with up to 64 players in a single battle. The multiplayer battles don’t include the RPG elements; instead, they focus on a single battle. Still, it’s a fascinating and thrilling tactical experience.
Warband also expands the late game options even more. Beyond becoming a vassal, you can rise through the ranks within the kingdom’s elite and become a general or rule over different towns. You can even be made the heir of the throne and become the king.
Or, if you have a more independent streak, you can start your own faction. Just as any real-life rebellion movement, it’s hard going at first; be prepared to actively defend your towns and castles for weeks. But it’s extremely satisfying to slowly expand your boundaries, develop a military, promote your trusted soldiers to self-controlling officers who run their own brigades and follow you to a battlefront.
Each higher level of the game has its own set of balanced mechanics. There are so many features and ways to play, it’s almost intimidating. But the game eases you into it. That’s what makes the gradually expanding scope of the game so accessible and addictive: Just when you figure out how to do something well, there’s a new set of variables to deal with.
And a bit of icing on the cake is that the game is fully moddable, with dozens of great, game-changing mods available for download: Expand the economic structure and play strictly as a merchant. Introduce naval warfare. Immerse yourself in a fully created world with a deep backstory and expansive cast of character. I even played a Game of Thrones full conversion, leading an army from Winterfell to Lannisport and taking on Tywin Lannister myself.
It’s not as polished or cinematic as something like Skyrim, but Mount and Blade is at least as ambitious and deep. The series, especially Warband, gets my highest recommendation.
Previously: #12 Grantland