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All Sword, No Sorcery

I started my writing career way back in my college days, writing reviews and guides for a long-defunct print magazine, Computer Games Strategy Plus. It was a good gig. It paid well, dropped steady stream of free games in my lap, and gave me a chance to develop my writing skills. The beauty of it is that it makes me a “game journalist”. That gives me an excuse to blow off work and play video games sometimes, as long as I write about it.

I wonder if I can deduct this on my taxes…

Some times, things just work out. The stars align, the gods crack a rare grin, all the ducks arrange themselves in a row, and boom, there you are.

I guess I kind of look like a murdering Santa Claus

In this case, TaleWorlds Entertainment released Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord at about the same time as the world shut down. As a result, while the rest of the world has gone insane, worrying about toilet paper and facemasks, I’ve been chasing bandits, retrieving wayward daughters and becoming overly concerned about the price of clay in Lycaron.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, Mount and Blade is a series of open world RPGs, initially released in 2008. Set in a fictional world based on Europe and Western Asia after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the game features tough, gritty combat, breathtaking large scale battles, castle sieges, and troops, equipment and tactics that are authentic to the time period.

There’s nothing quite like a pleasant stroll through a medieval city.

The player starts out as a lone warrior, builds a warband and from there, well, he does whatever the hell he damned well pleases. You want to follow the gladiator circuit, battling in tournaments for prizes and glory? You can do that. Are you more of the type to build a force of battle-hardened sell-words, hiring yourself out to a desperate lord? Go for it. You can even break into the noble game yourself, become a vassal and later a lord in your own right, fighting for the empire of your choice. Or, you can set yourself up as a trade prince, financing shops and caravans, manipulating trade routes and conquering the world through good, old-fashioned, rapacious capitalism. If you have the guts, cunning and a strong sword arm, the world of Calradia truly is your oyster.

There’s no storyline per se, but there are plenty of quests to be found if you prefer a little bit of direction to your play. There are always town elders and nobles in the market for someone to do their dirty work. But, the main focus of the game is getting troops, beating people up, and taking their stuff. You can hire fighters almost anywhere, and as you carve your blood-soaked path across the countryside, they’ll level up along with you. Your force and renown grow, and more opportunities open up.

Me and the boys just killed a bunch of bandits. Now, it’s ale time.

The coolest thing about the game, though, is the battles. I admit it. I’m a grognard. I love wargames. M&B doesn’t disappoint. The feeling of watching my archers skirmish against an approaching enemy, falling back behind my shieldwall as they draw close and then leading my cavalry in a flanking charge is thrilling. Even if I can’t hit a damned thing with my sword. What can I say? I’m pretty good at tactics, but I suck at actual combat.

It turns out fighting comes with a pretty steep learning curve in this game. That’s not to say it’s a bug or even a design defect. I’m just saying it takes skill. Whereas in most games, you just press a button to do a move, in this game the feel is much more visceral. Timing is crucial. You need to develop a feel for momentum, positioning, defense and attack against a wide variety of authentic weapons, and the AI doesn’t cut you any slack while you do it. That sort of challenging gameplay isn’t for everyone, but if you put in the time and build the skills, it’s worth it. There’s nothing quite like skewering an enemy noble on your lance. Or, if you’re a vindictive bastard like me, running down a fleeing peasant and lopping his head off.

Hey, things were different back then. Don’t judge.

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