Cantering up and over the hill, the castle looms into view, the sun eclipsed by its vast stone bulk. Riding into the shadow of the structure, you spur your horse into a gallop towards the gates, head down now; you can’t see the arrows fired by the enemy archers stationed along the battlements, but you can hear them zip over your head. You veer left and right randomly, to keep them guessing about which direction you’re headed.
The throng of the main melee is right up ahead now, footsoldiers dancing around each other, hiding behind tower shields, hacking with axe and sword. You pick a straggler on the edge of the fray, bear down on him, lance pointed and… you miss narrowly. Bugger. Then some enemy cavalry swine blind-sides you with a lance in the testicles. You’re on the floor, you’re dead, but you’re wanting to get back up, respawn, and prove to the world of Warband that you will become a true knight, not a clumsy squire or indeed a hopeless Baldrick.
Warband’s multiplayer battles have that compulsive “must respawn, must get back into the fray, and must keep playing” vibe. Warband isn’t a sequel to the original Mount & Blade, but a standalone expansion, the major addition to which is the bolting on of this 64-player online battle mode. And the multiplayer conflicts will teach you many things, probably the first being that you can’t play the game half as skilfully as you thought you could.
But before we evaluate the new multiplayer in its banner waving glory, first off a quick refresher on exactly what Mount & Blade is. It’s a medieval combat game, with something of a focus on horseback fighting (hence the name), along with RPG style character levelling and skill building in the expansive, open-ended single player campaign.
Warband has seen some work on the single player mode with this expansion. An improved tutorial is a bit more helpful for novices, and a new faction, the Sarranids – Arabian type desert dwellers – expands the campaign map somewhat. Fresh tweaks to the game’s AI give a more realistic behaviour to the various factions’ military manoeuvrings, and some interesting new political stuff has been thrown into the mix. You can now marry, and even become King of the realm, which adds quite a chunk of intrigue to the later stages of the campaign.
There’s been some tinkering with Mount & Blade’s graphics engine, too. The visuals have been fine-tuned, featuring more detailed character models and textures, smoother combat animations and an all round polish. These are impressive improvements, if not huge leaps forward, although we’re secretly glad about that in a way, as the visuals still evoke that gritty feel which rather suits the game’s medieval style and brutal bouts of combat.
The real fresh meat of Warband, however, is the multiplayer, where you really feel both the chaos and tactics of a battlefield in equal measure, given that every soldier is human controlled. A semi-organised army that tries to communicate and marshal itself in team-chat is quite an experience, and we were involved in matches where we lined up our infantry in front of our crossbowmen, protecting them up on a slope while they fired down at the enemy with impunity.
Then a sudden shout of “to the left” went up, and the thundering of hooves signalled the arrival of the enemy’s cavalry charge, which had been organised to crash into our flank, resulting in some desperate dodging and blocking to survive, while we fumbled for our pikes; marvellous stuff. Granted, often teams aren’t that organised, and there are a lot of idiots who run around clueless as in any online game, but on some occasions even large pick-up groups manage to implement a bit of tactical nous.
If you’re playing the straight deathmatch modes, naturally it’s simply about killing, and sticking together so you’re not too isolated in team deathmatch. There are the usual conquest and capture-the-flag type modes, but the more enthralling games we had were on the castle siege maps. Organising an assault up the castle wall, hiding behind your shield as you climb the ladder, then leaping up and cutting down the enemy archers along the battlements makes you feel, well, almost heroic. The full battle mode is also interesting, because when you’re dead, you’re out for the rest of the bout without any respawn. It makes (most) players far more cautious with their lives, as it should be in battle, really.
Server population seems high, and we had no trouble finding a well stocked game, even during off-peak times, although a strange bug meant we occasionally had trouble joining. Apparently this bug strikes on servers which are nearly full, and tells the player he or she has an invalid authorisation key. Hopefully that will be patched soon. The dedicated servers are responsive, and provided us with a 50-80ms ping, with no evidence of lag even in the big 60-player battles of which we partook.
To be frank, Multiplayer Warband is great gobbets of javelin-chucking, portcullis-storming fun, but take heed of one warning. There are a lot of above average players out there, along with some scarily good warriors who have truly mastered the demanding combat system. This makes it tough going to start with, particularly for the beginner, and even for those familiar with standard Mount & Blade combat, as a considerable number of refinements have been introduced in the expansion.
Using a lance to good effect is now harder, as you have to couch it manually, and there’s more flexibility as it’s possible to aim the weapon to the left or right. In melee combat, moves such as kick and parry are now in the control scheme, and when you fight a player who can feint, parry and use these new tools adroitly, you’ll know about it. Warband takes some acclimatisation on this front, but the added depth here makes combat ultimately more satisfying. Good stuff, all round.
Company: Paradox Interactive