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GDC 2009: Mount & Blade: Warband

It's rare indeed to see something one has never seen before. Sometimes this is due to inattention; one can only keep abreast of so many developments in a day, after all. Sometimes the ratio of tried-and-true gameplay to genuinely novel is overwhelmingly in favor of the over-iterated. For whatever, reason, I missed out on Mount & Blade the first time around, and that's a shame, but I'll have the chance to atone when their new expansion, Warband, comes out later this year. Regardless of your experience with this title, I found it completely fresh and invigorating, and if you'll keep reading, I'll tell you why.

Alternatively, you can check out the two GDC video presentations (also available in HD) at the end of this article.

Mount & Blade is a single-player medieval combat game that offers a true real-time environment, from the world you'll inhabit to the battles you'll fight. Doubtless this title won't find purchase with those whose favorite method of mayhem is to box-select a bunch of units and right-click a target, but for those who have felt the need for a more engaging combat system, M&B is quite a wake-up call.

When Age of Conan debuted its melée system, a lot of dyed-in-the-wool MMO players loudly lined up on both sides of the equation: it was either daring and sophisticated, or needlessly gimmicky. I got a hands-on a few months before it went live, and found it to be somewhere in the middle of both extremes -- it had the potential to be fun, but eventually devolved into a repetitive guessing-game, lacking actual nuance. I mention AoC because it's the closest modern take on the sort of real-time battle methods that M&B offers.

The mechanics of fighting in M&B implements a sort of mid-chest and up camera view that takes a little getting used to at first. It seems to be a coding mistake, actually, until you realize that it's a good compromise between full third-person follow and first-person through-the-eyes viewpoints. You only see from mid-chest and up because that's all you really need to see, and because it does help you to gauge the range of your attacks and defense. All combat is immediate, and based on managing the thrusts and swings of both your weapon and your opponent's. You need to learn how to block because that's the only way to mitigate damage, and this process can be chaotic and arbitrary until you get into the rhythm of combat.

It's all about learning to read an enemy's movement, and learning how to anticipate his attack, block it, and retaliate with a counter-blow. The angle of attack matters here; you'll need to parry at different levels and make sure you're not leaving yourself open to a strike from another quarter. This gets even more challenging when fighting multiple opponents, who are frequently smart enough to know to surround you and come at you from all sides. A mitigating factor here is that your fellow brothers-in-arms will come to your aid, but you can't directly tell them to help. You'll just have to try to edge over in their direction and hope they dispatch their enemies in time to help you with yours.


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