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Brainwaves From Beta: M&B Warband

Mount & Blade is going multiplayer and the beta is in progress as we type. We've taken a look at the very specific ramifications for that knight being another actual living person in the unforgiving horse and sword game we love so much. Will you be joining the Warband? Let's find out.

Blood stains the chainmail you could barely afford to wear. Your shield lies in shatters at your feet, victim of a barely deflected lance thrust. The last, shuddering breaths of your steed flutter the grass in front of you, the pike through its chest proving to be just as fatal as it looked. The knight who previously shattered your shield turns and comes thundering towards you, his lance couched, his eyes invisible behind his helmet. Death is fifty feet away.

Try and stand him down, and that’ll be met with death. Everything rests on this one throw, and praying it’ll do something. You pull your arm back, you feel like you can almost feel the heat from his mount’s breath on your face. You throw.

It catches his horse clean between the eyes, the animal collapsing, sending its rider flying forward to skid to a halt at your feet. You dispatch him quickly, feeling as though fate was finally on your side. This is Mount & Blade Warband, at its best.

Most of the time, Warband is getting killed with the lance that destroyed your shield. It's getting caught with that pike that went through your horse's chest. It's getting hit by an errant arrow that was meant for the guy behind you. It's getting killed by one of the dozens, hundreds of things that are oh so deadly. At it's worst, Mount & Blade is ten seconds of expectation met with the business end of a sharp bit of metal, leading to minutes of slowly unwinding disappointment. It's risk/reward at its finest, pushing you to outsmarting your opponent, leaving it until the last possible moment to thrust your lance forward, catching him in the chest. You always know why you were killed, but you're never sure whether it was fair. That final thrust always questioned in your mind as to whether it should've gone your way. The mechanics behind Mount & Blade's hit detection always were a little nebulous.

Mount & Blade was always a triumph of game over graphics. It looked old when it was released, and even with a wide range of mods giving it HDR and high quality textures, it still looks considerably worse than some games released even 5 years ago. Thing is, none of that stuff has ever mattered, because it gets the feel of being in a medieval battle perfectly. It was glorious, running down pathetic peasants on your courser, axe held high, ready to lop off heads. It was glorious because it was, for the most part, easy. You were the badass on the field of battle, racking up the kills and making a name for yourself.

Take that online, and suddenly you’re the underdog. It’s the same as with any single-player/multiplayer transition, moving from protagonist to just another guy, but here it feels that much more powerful and jarring, if only because it’s taken this long for TaleWorlds to get multiplayer working, and you're still just as vulnerable as you were in singleplayer, it's just now the people you're fighting are that much more handy with their pointy sticks and shiny swords. If you charge a pikeman, you're more often than not going to come out with an extra hole in your body.

At the start of each game, you’re handed 1000 gold and some basic equipment, dependent on the troop (read: class) you’ve picked. (There are three for each faction, of varying levels of unbalance.) You can usually get a better main weapon and perhaps some better armour, but for now, that’s it. Moving onto the battlefield, you earn money by winning rounds and getting kills. You can save up for better equipment, or try and keep a reasonable set each time you respawn.

Of course, this being Mount & Blade, the equipment only does so much. It might mean you can take a little more damage, but an arrow to the head is still an arrow to the head. Vulnerability is key, and luck is everything. All of the ranged weapons have an element of randomness to their flight paths, with arrows merely landing somewhere in the area you pointed, and thrown weapons more so. When you hit, it’s the best thing in the world. When you miss, you’re that tiny bit closer to catching that knight’s attention, and becoming a kebab.

There are a few game modes, from the classics like Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag to the more interesting such as Siege and Conquest, both of which revolve around the capture and retaining of flags; in Siege there’s one inside a castle one side defends, and in Conquest they’re scattered across the map. There’s also Battle; a one life-per-person slugging match that always starts exciting, but fitters out towards the end as you try to find those few who survived the initial charge.

Regardless of which mode you’re playing, one thing remains abundantly clear; fighting like an army really fought in the Dark Ages is far more successful than fighting as a lone fighter. To begin with, I played a hammer wielding maniac, able to take on anyone alone, and I dominated the scoreboard. That was until some of the opposite team started to patrol in a group with shields, and proceeded to surround and poke me to death with pointy bits of metal.

Similarly, if you stick a few knights together, you can do serious damage that wouldn’t be possible as a lone horseman. You create a group that isn’t so easily avoided by the footsoldiers, and suddenly they’re a lot more scared of you. It even works for archers, creating a quick flurry of arrows that make it more than difficult to just hide behind your shield. Sticking together, than having certain groups go off to harry a cropping of archers, or creating a line of horsemen and having a makeshift cavalry charge are some of the best moments of the game.

Balance issues are slowly getting ironed out, and the prevalence of cavalry that so dominated the early beta is slowly fading as people get better with spears and pikes, and a guy on a horse isn't the threat he once was. There is the odd bug in the system concerning joining teams and the like, but as beta goes on, these too are getting fixed.

The real thing that's going to dictate how much longevity and enjoyment Warband provides will be the players; if they continue to gravitate to a more organised style of play, (as they're already doing so), it'll become harder and harder to resist getting caught up in it, finding yourself part of an impromptu strike force tasked with using the riverbed to sneak around behind the fragile archers and dispatching them, while your footmen harass the horsemen with their pikes, slowly dwindling their numbers. The temptation to pull a group of friends together and talk tactics on voice chat has never been quite so strong.

It's a pity the multiplayer doesn't extend to the campaign, or provide any sort of persistence; any gold earned is only useful for that map or round, and not beyond. Added to that is the inability to start your own server in the current version, which means any settings or changes can only be done through a limited vote system, making the ins and outs of how it all works still slightly vague.

It's very much just a multiplayer component, and not an entire reworking of how the game works, but then again, it's something that has been asked for since the game was around, and with a whopping sixty-four player limit on the servers, the possibility for some pretty grand battles is certainly going to be a big draw. Now, it's just a matter of getting those thirty-two players into some sort of fighting shape.

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