Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Mount and Blade: Warband - Napoleonic Wars DLC Review

This review is done by our latest apprentice, Sean. His knowledge of non-mass market Steam games has few rivals.

Think back to your favorite video game of all time – yes, right now, just do it. Now ask yourself this -- how much do you really know about it? I don't mean where the Knights of the Round summon is located in Final Fantasy 7 or where the secret dragon boss is hidden in Dragon Age: Origin. I mean solid facts and details, such as where the title was developed, what the nationality of the team was, and other titles the team worked on prior to beginning work on the game. Did any of these elements from their previous works factor into the game being a resounding success? Take a look, the details may surprise and delight you -- as they did me when I delved into the background of my favorite title in recent memory- Mount&Blade: Warband and its recent DLC Napoleonic Wars.

Before I get to commenting on the new DLC, Napoleonic Wars, a little background on the original game is in order. 

Mount & Blade is a title from the Turkish development studio TaleWorlds and was the studio's very first title. Mount&Blade started as a single player game which was a blend of action, role-playing and strategy game play. It was developed by two people; Armağan Yavuz, and his wife İpek Yavuz, neither of whom had any previous experience in creating games. They set out with a simple idea in mind: make a game, and make it fun.

After four years of development, the game was released in 2008 on the Steam platform, where it became a cult classic. The game garnered a loyal following and modding community, which remains with it to this day. Over the past four years, there have been two large expansions for the game. The first expansion was Mount&Blade: Warband. The expansion added multi-player to Mount&Blade, allowing players to create guilds and compete in custom sandbox maps which supported as many as 150 players. The mix of fighting, strategy, and role-playing was unheard of in any game before, and in any game since Mount&Blade: Warband's initial release.

TaleWorlds is known for their interaction with their modding community, and their newest DLC on steam Napoleonic Wars (henceforth referred to as Napol) reflects this. Napol was developed from a mod formerly known as Mount&Musket developed by FlyingSquirrel Entertainment. The mod had such a large following that TaleWorlds contracted FlyingSquirrel to develop it into a full-fledged expansion for Warband. 

Napol is multiplayer only and requires the original Warband edition of the game in order to run. In Napol, you take on the persona of a soldier in the Napoleonic Wars Era. The game features a very detailed face creation option for your persona. You may edit everything from the size of your pompous British chin, to the half-smoked cigar sticking out of your oversized Irish pie-hole.

You may not edit your armor or weapons directly in the character creator; however, once you join a server, your armor and weapons are dictated by your faction, class, and military rank – which you are allowed to edit upon joining various servers.
Each team has a limited number of slots for each class and rank; for example, only one player may be the captain of a regiment, while there can be two sergeants, and an infinite number of recruits. You could be a light infantry in the Kings Legion, who is the rank of captain, and starts with a spyglass, pistol, officer's sword, and he completes the look with an outrageously tall hat. On the other hand, your friend is the sergeant of the same regiment, and starts with a regiment colors (flag), saber, and a fancy uniform to display your regiments pride on the battlefield!

Newer players may like to note, this game is not for the faint of heart. The game is a mix of third-person shooter and weapon based melee fighting. This isn't your Call of Duty-style click-button-when-close-and-instantly-kill-target melee fighting.
The player is in charge of everything in melee combat. If someone is charging you, bayonet affixed and aimed at your groin, you better be blocking your groin else you will be a eunuch for the remainder of your sad days as a soldier in Napoleon's legion. While varying from weapon to weapon, the combat system is simple in that you may choose from four basic attack directions: high, left, right, and low attacks. Defensively, the player may also choose between the same number of blocking directions. If your opponent is attacking low, you block low; he attacks left, you block left. Once these basics are mastered, more advanced blocking techniques become available to those willing to take a highrisk highreward approach to their defense. Chambering is a technique available in which the defending player may attack in the same direction, mere moments after the aggressor has released his attack. If successful, the player will effectively take "priority" and deflect the aggressors attack, and land one of their own. However, this tactic is incredibly risky. If you miss time your swing by even a millisecond, your face is about to eat the pointy end of that Russian peasant's sharpened branch (yes, this is a real weapon). One more basic technique available to the player is the kick. If an opponent is sticking to you like glue, not giving you any room to raise your swings, you can get his ugly Austrian mug out of your manly chest by giving him a well deserved kick to his family jewels. If it lands, the kick stuns the opponent for a moment, giving the player the opportunity to counter-attack the dirty Austrian. These combat elements combine together into an incredibly satisfying and intense gaming experience.

The melee combat is by far my favorite feature of all in this game. It is simple in theory, but is incredibly difficult to master. The game has those godly players who can take on five opponents by themselves and come out victorious. Additionally, nothing feels quite like taking your opponent on head-to-head and belting him in the face with the table leg your Russian partisan ripped off his family's table, since he was too poor to afford anything made of steel. The amount of customization put into every class and rank is downright astonishing sometimes. Also those hats.

Napol has a fair amount of melee combat, but the defining feature of the game is, of course, the muskets. The game prides itself on twice weekly "line battle" events. During these events, in an emulation of old style warfare, generals from various regiments command groups of soldiers and compete in massive 250 man battles. And yes, all 250 of them are real. No bots here, people. 

These battles also rely on another new element added to the game, cannons. Capable of devastating massive amounts of enemy troops in one blast, the cannons are a destructive force to be reckoned with. While vulnerable to cavalry charges, and subject to long reload times; the cannon can easily sway the tide of battle with a few well placed shots into enemy formations.

This mod has no story. The original game had a  sandbox-style single player game, in which the player took on the entire world in an attempt to become king of the entire realm. This is still present, but the DLC adds nothing to it.

There is a great sense of community in Napol, a carryover from the games predecessor Mount & Musket. If you are the last player alive, the enemy team will generally allow you to surrender, though you will be executed by firing squad shortly thereafter. Additionally, there is a sense of honor in the game. If a player is in a serious melee duel with another player, many veteran players will allow the duel to play out, not interrupting them or attacking from behind. It is generally seen as dishonorable to shoot an opponent in the back, unless they are cowards fleeing from combat because all cowards must be shot on sight, for the glory of Mother Russia. None of these rules are enforced by server administrators, but the player base is fairly tight knit, so if you are caught breaking these unsaid rules multiple times, most players will afford you no mercy if you suddenly expect fair treatment in the future.

Napol boasts a staggeringly impressive soundtrack. Keeping with the theme of Napoleonic War, the game features full length orchestral masterpieces and operas, such as, Bach's Brandenburg Concerto - Movement 1, Beethoven's Symphony - Number 5, Brahm's Hungarian Dance, Chopin's Polonaise Militaire, and Mendelssohn's Wedding March Recessional.

The biggest downside to this DLC is the graphic quality. While not downright terrible, the graphics clearly show the game's origin as a 2008 title. However, they also give it a great rustic feel, and allow the game to run great on lower-end gaming rigs. This game can easily be played on max settings by a gaming rig four years behind in modern hardware.

It should be noted that this game is not without its faults. Maps are often optimized for 200 players, and when you join a smaller server, it can take a few minutes to get to the action, which is frustrating at times. Additionally, the melee combat is not novice-friendly. If you engage a veteran player in melee combat mano a mano, you will die. This can be incredibly frustrating to newer players to the series, as you start to feel you have one shot at killing your enemy before he overwhelms you, but if you think about it isn't that exactly what it was like?

Line battles can also make or break this game for the average consumer. While my machine can handle the massive number of players easily, a lesser machine or internet connection would have a very hard time rendering and loading all the players without a significant hit in the performance of the game or latency. Also, the net code for Warband was optimized for 150 players, not 250, so occasionally there is a serious amount of lag when participating in these events, even with a great gaming rig and fiber optic connection.

Verdict: Small problems aside, if you are willing to put in a few hours to figure out the melee combat, and take a few practice shots in to get the distance and bullet drop of the various muskets available to you, Mount&Blade and its associated DLC are unbelievably rewarding and entertaining experiences, which have nothing even remotely similar to them in gaming history. With a distinctive background, and a dedicated community, the game evolved over the years from a rough gem, to a glimmering diamond. I cannot praise this game enough, and you owe it to yourself to give it a try.

(Reviewed on a 3.2 Ghz AMD X6, Radeon 5770. 1920x1080 resolution)

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