Platform: PC downloadable at (~54MB)
Developer/Publisher: self, Tale Worlds (husband & wife team of Armagan and Altan "Ipek" Yavuz and supporting crew)
Release Date: ongoing development; * indicates changed/no longer relevant content; ongoing updates at bottom of writeup
Genre Keywords: fighter, non-linear, sandbox, rpg

I was halfway to Reyvacheg when it happened. A shrieking horde of river pirates from out of nowhere poured over the hill and descended on us. The first javelin took a peasant in the throat, the rest clattered harmlessly off our hastily raised shields. Chalk up one casualty to single-minded pursuit - we were tracking a poorly armed band of highwaymen holed up in a nearby forest, and definitely were not expecting an ambush by a third party.

Let me backtrack a moment ...

I was on assignment out of Zendar, once I got tired of the overly static tournaments (they're limited to 6 combatants maximum, although still useful for learning the combat ropes)*. I was given a juicy task of patrolling the nearby hills for poorly armed river pirates. Why juicy? Not only are they actually paying me to take care of this embarassment, I get to keep whatever weapons the pirates had; every bit helps. On top of that, the poor saps we sometimes rescue tend to join me for laughable pay. My anti-raiding party is up to twelve able-bodied (well, some are more able than others) men and women. Sure, half of them aren't good for anything but fodder, but with a bit of combat under their, ropes, I might make something of them yet. I have some meager ability to teach them the basics, so it might work out. If they survive the day.

Now that I think of it, that merchant in Zendar had a job for me escorting a caravan to faraway Curaw, but he wanted a strong crew of 10. Weeelll....I can fake the "strong", We had a couple of skirmishes behind us, and only a few followers were completely green. I had my eye on our cook, a jovial peasant woman who found life on the road more satisfying than at home. She was becoming very vicious in a close-up fight, and was a terror with a staff. Two of my townsfolk also discovered some fierce roots and, equipping themselves from the fallen have managed to get a good two-man hack and' slash routine going. It wouldn't get them far, but for now it was proving brutally efficient. So ...

I was pondering future job opportunities when this happened. Let us resume ...

... as one of the arrows hit my shield and stuck. I hate it when they stick. It makes the shield's familiar weight unexpectedly heavier, a bit off. No time to pull it out; I spurred my noble, ah, draft horse (I'm poor, ok?!) and sedately charged that damn archer. Hopefully my crew can take care of the foot soldiers themselves. The archer was in the middle of nocking when he saw me, and rotated quickly, attempting to put one in my eye. I knew from experience that very few men could stand with a horse charging down on them and this was no exception. He broke and ran when I was yards away and I put my sword through his skull, the shock of impact pulling it from my hands. I cursed, pulling out my bow and nocking an arrow. I loosed a few in the general direction of the rest of the raiders. One hit. I retrieved my sword as my crew joined battle. In an amazing frenzy, our cook took down two of the raiders, staff blurring. My two skirmishers were working together, block, feint, then a slash by the second. These pirates were not very bright, and fell for it every time. It was over in less time than it took me to tell about it.

We were all staring glassily at each other in post-battle shock, only barely aware that it was over and that we had lost a companion. One of us started moving towards our fallen comrade when a shout rang out on the hillside. A second raiding party had found us!

Before we could regroup, our entire front line collapsed from a hail of arrows. A tight, well-armored formation was coming fast on its heels - these were no poorly armed pirates. These were raiders out from the coastlines, far beyond their normal routes. All too quickly, they were among us, clubbing down the poorer-armed peasants and cutting down the skirmishers. Our cook did her best, holding off two raiders with her staff but eventually succumbed to a sneak cudgel blow from a third. My horse was shot out from under me, and I was knocked unconscious by the fall.

And I was doing so well, too.

The above describes some of my gametime with Mount & Blade, an indie game with a phenomenal combat model and a barebones, historical (no fantasy elements) world. In this world you can take on missions, trade goods, hire or recruit followers (and train them), join the army and gain rank, improve your combat skills with a variety of weapon and of course, fight. There is no ultimate goal.

While the world is very archetypal, as are all towns and inhabitants - most towns are in fact only menus*, and any interiors use a single basement-like room* - there is something rather addictive about looking for better gear and better deals, or that perfect trade route, or simply trying to make your followers into a lean, mean fighting force. Perhaps it's simple munchkinism, or just the subtle way that every stat or piece of kit influences how the combat handles.

It feels a little bit like Nethack. The placeholder graphics* coupled with incredible attention to detail; the turn-based, yet amazingly suspenseful gameplay (the overworld is simultaneous turn-based, where you need to make quick, ruthless decisions that mean your survival); the fast-paced and sort of strategic, sort of actiony combat; the way you can get repeatedly wiped out to near-nothing, but return to make another try.

The one thing missing in Mount & Blade is a central quest; some may find this offputting, but I find it refreshing. You really are completely free to make your own destiny - even if it means a lack of a satisfying conclusion. It's rather like an MMO in this aspect - you get to make your own destiny with the tools at hand. There are certainly elements of a plotline in there - a couple of unique heroes (that can join you), an ongoing war between two nations (you can join either one, or stay neutral), a couple of figures of state for each nation - but it's just as archetypal as the world map, left for your imagination to fill in the blanks. Too many games lead us by the nose towards the next carrot; it's nice to once again be able to make our own damn adventure.

I admit, I embellished a bit in my description. You can't actually have your sword jarred from your grip (yet), nor does the shield become heavier as more arrows land on it - the combat's visceral enough that it certainly feels that way, however. Everything else though, the fast interplay of ranged and melee, or charging a hapless bowman, or being a hapless grunt stuck in the way of cavalry - all of this is present, and brutally so. No health packs, no buffs, no magic armor, and definitely no revives; the only reprieve you get is that if you win, even if you're the only one left standing, you get a chunk of your party back - your downed compatriots will rejoin you once some time passes (unless they were killed vs. knocked unconscious). If you lose however, you lose your entire party, some items, and some cash - you get to get up and keep going with your XP intact.

Mount & Blade is not a Morrowindy exploration game; the focus is on fighting, gaining experience through fighting, and learning more skills and obtaining items so that you can fight better - you should catch the drift about now. The replayability comes from making new characters to focus on different weapon skills and combat types - would you rather command, plink from afar with arrows, charge with a lance or just wade in with a two-handed axe. Will you stay neutral, reaping benefits from the war, or join one side or the other and rise in rank by running missions for your liege? Either way, combat awaits.

Now get in there and show those Dark Riders who's the boss. The game is free up to level 6, 18 bucks if you want to unlock it - your cash goes straight to the two man (husband & wife actually) dynamic Turkish developer duo of Armagan and Ipek* - stop by the forums and say hi, too. Who knows, your next suggestion just might make it into the game.

Oh, and for those curious like I was, Armagan's given name means "Gift", and Ipek's pseudo means "Silk", according to the translation tool I found.

May 24, 2005 Update: I realized I didn't post which version this write-up concerned - it was 0.623. Armagan is up to 0.632 now, which includes some pixel shading magic, the ability to knock down infantry (I nearly predicted that, with my sword-jarring-out-of-my-hand shtick!) and a more precise aiming system for both projectile and melee weapons - you now know exactly which side of your foe your blade (or stick) will fall on. Pretty cool stuff. The new version was technically 0.63, but 2 bugfixes were required.
October 3, 2005 Update: Version 0.702 is out. Among other changes are:
  • New terrain types: snow and steppe.
  • There is now a correspondence between the terrain type on the world map and the terrain you fight on in-game.
  • The Four Ways Inn has been updated with some non-enterable buildings.
  • New armor types: gloves.
  • Combat AI overhaul, economy overhaul, stats (both personal and party) overhaul.

October 15, 2005 Update: Version 0.703 is out. This one mostly involved bugfixes and balance issues stemming from the introduction of overly powerful one- and two- handed weapons.
February 13, 2006 Update: Version 0.730 is out.
  • Graphics updates including grass, smoother rolling terrain, player body meshes (for body only).
  • Enterable city town centers added.
  • Castles that can be sieged and captured by player added.
  • Hostile towns do not let you enter; you must sneak in instead.
  • Tactical commands improved - command your troops by troop type (archery, cavalry, infantry).
  • Shields now cover appropriate area of body (before shielding provided full coverage irrespective of shield size).
  • Stats overhaul. Speed makes a difference, shields now get permanently destroyed, other tweaks to stats-based improvements.
  • One pistol added in-game with non-renewable ammo. Possibly for modders, possibly just for kicks - still neat (and not overpowered, can't get more ammo after 40 shots).

April 13, 2006 Update: Version 0.750 is out!
  • Face generator has received an overhaul
  • New Launch window
  • A proper configuration window instead of the editing the configuration text.
  • Automatic render buffer resizing. That means no more "out of static vertex buffer" error for mods (unless you really run out of physical video memory of course.
  • Number of Party stacks is not limited anymore.
  • Mouse smoothing. (A million thanks to the kind souls who suggested that!)
  • Unarmed combat!
  • Lots of NPC voices and voice effects!
  • Some new sound effects
  • Anisotropic texture filtering for sharper looking textures.
  • All merchants and taverns have been furnished

With the new face generator (some pictures can be found on the TaleWorlds forum), voice acting and a lot of new interiors, Mount & Blade takes a big step towards "game" status, and moves further away from "tech demo", where certain obvious missing bits (haha, bits, get it...) are taken with a wink, a nod and a shrug (Hey, it's beta!). It is also no longer true that the game is 35MB (it's 53 now) in size, that the development team is composed of only two people, nor that the game sells for 11 bucks (it's now 18, still a bargain for the content). The core, sandbox gameplay of trading, fighting, and running missions for merchants still remains, however.

November 26, 2006 Update: Version 0.805 is out!

  • Arenas in every city, with unique arena masters
  • New types of tournaments added (4 groups of 4, or 7 vs 7!)
  • New water and shader effects
  • All equipment is now shown on characters
  • Improved character screen
  • NPCs can now join battles in progress (3 way battle can occur)

This one was so full of new stuff that 5 patches were needed. As always, check the taleworlds site for the last dirt, including latest bugs found by the dedicated team of beta testers.


October 16, 2007 Update: Version 0.894 is out!

Wow, has it really been a year? Armagan and crew have in the meantime expanded their ranks to 6 people, moved to an actual studio to work on the game, and upped the price to $22. The filesize has increased to ~120MB as well, with tons of new features in all areas of the game - graphics, content, gameplay have all been massively tweaked. Here's an overview.

  • Improved overview screen
  • 4 dynamic new factions all fighting amongst each other
  • Party and faction leaders in combat groups
  • Villages and towns given further graphical polish
  • Villages can be owned by players to provide income, given enough faction renown
  • Villages can be razed and looted, lowering faction renown
  • More options for hiring followers: captured prisoners, wandering farmers, villagers and garrisoned soldiers can all join you
  • Battle tactical screen, allowing complex formations, ambushes and improved handling of ranged, melee and mounted followers
  • Vastly increased battle size allowing for truly epic fights
  • All the usual equipment, NPC, loot improvements
It's quite an impressive patch, and definitely worth the wait.