Monday, November 4, 2013

Game Review: Mount and Blade (Clash of Kings Mod)

As some of you already know, I recently got married. The lucky fellow's name is Patrek Mallister. He comes from a wealthy family, has a warm personality, and he's a fictional character in George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series (upon which the hit HBO series Game of Thrones is based.)

Despite arguably not existing, Ser Patrek has turned out to be a wonderful mate. He cooks me breakfast, we gossip and laugh together, and we stand shoulder-to-shoulder in bloody siege battles, dismembering and disemboweling Lannister knights as they pour onto our castle walls from their ladders. Most important of all, Patrek isn't just my husband. He's also my best friend (at 97 relationship points.)

Perhaps I should back up a bit.

"Joan, there's an arrow in your boob."
"So there is."

Mount and Blade was the sleeper hit of 2008. It's a sandbox game of medieval combat and politics, in which you roam the shattered lands of Calradia, build a company of soldiers, then get them to kill and die for your profit and glory. It's pretty awesome.

It features a dynamic world map in which every lord and faction is doing their own thing while you're doing yours. So you might sally out of a friendly castle to kick some ass, but return to find that it's been captured by the enemy in your absence. Battle is first or third person, from horseback or on foot, with sword, lance, ax, bow, javelin, or bludgeon, as you prefer. Companions may be recruited, bringing their own particular talent for trade, tactics, engineering, scouting, or medicine to your company.  And, of course, soldiers (the little people) must be recruited and developed into a fighting force that match your tactics and style.

The follow-up game, Mount and Blade: WarBand, improves the graphics, adds a feature here and there, and includes multiplayer battles.

It was also built to be moddable, and the modding community has had a field day. Modders have added new features and graphical skins, and even changed the entire setting, replacing Calradia with such locales as Imperial Rome, Greece, China, Turkey, Byzantium, the American Civil War, Middle Earth, Arrakis, Asgard, and, of course, the Westeros of A Song of Ice and Fire.

While in the scenic Riverlands, don't forget to visit the legions of bandits who want to kill you.

UPDATE: In the comments,

[Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones Spoilers Ahead]

The Clash of Kings mod for M&B opens at the same time as its namesake book (or season 2 of the Game of Thrones TV series.) Stannis, Renly, and Joffrey all claim the Iron Throne, while Robb Stark has just declared himself King in the North. With so many competing factions, it's a seller's market for mercenary companies. You can set about recruiting fighters, gain some acclaim, and offer your services to the highest bidder. Or you can become a bandit, exploiting the confusion and preying on the weak. Or you can make a name for yourself on the list field, fighting in tourneys to win prize money. Or you can form a merchant caravan and make your money in trade goods.

You can aspire to be a lord of the realm, or even King or Queen of all Westeros. It's a sandbox game with no set path to victory, so you get to pick your own aspirations and goals. You can even eke out a meager living by dedicating your life to delivering mail, if that's your kink.

It's an ever-changing world, though. As you advance in your quest to become undisputed empress and/or best mail carrier ever, the flavor of the game slowly changes and you'll have to adapt your strategies to the needs of the moment. As a mercenary, I was focused on finding and fighting the nastiest enemies I had a chance of winning against, to quickly make a name for myself. When I became a freshly ennobled bannerwoman of the Riverlands—which were bleeding out from the defeat and capture of so many river lords—I had to play Scarlet Pimpernel and rescue prisoners from Westerlands dungeons. As a sophomore bannerwoman, I turned to politics, doing favors for other lords to gain their trust and support. When I parlayed that support to gain a castle of my own on the edge of enemy territory, my focus changed to recruitment and training, so I might weather the inevitable assaults on my walls and replenish the losses. When I was finally a famous enough badass to be awarded an entire city, I turned to stewarding its economy and increasing the wealth of the small folk (which, of course, means more tariff and rent money for me.) Eventually, I did settle into something of a routine, but the game still found ways to throw curveballs at me from time to time.

A Song of Ice and Fire is the perfect setting for a M&B mod, save for the fact that M&B doesn't provide a mechanism for lords to be betrayed and murdered by their former allies. Lords don't even die in battle in M&B—which is an odd design choice, if you ask me. In Native M&B, I just roll with it, but in Clash of Kings, I only came to terms by building an escape-proof dungeon and dropping Gregor Clegane and half the Lannisters into it. I go down there frequently, just to taunt them.

"You know, we do have shirts for you."
"I know that!"

The Westeros of the Clash of Kings mod is massive. It's much larger than the lands of Native M&B, packed to the gills with locations that you'll recognize from the novels or TV show. I squealed with joy the first time I walked through Riverrun and noticed the water gate—a nice little touch if you've read the books. Winterfell is there too, exactly as it appears on the show. And of course there's King's Landing, Storms's End, Dragonstone, Old Town, and a dozen other locations you'll want to visit, if only to take a sightseeing stroll.

Many of the characters you love, the characters you love to hate, and the characters you hate to love are here. There are some notable absences, however, including everyone who isn't a full-sized adult human. M&B doesn't seem to support child, dwarf, or animal NPCs (except for horses,) so you'll never meet Joffrey, fight an Other, or be roasted alive trying to steal a dragon. Still, there are plenty of canon characters for you to befriend and/or piss off and fight duels with.

These guys seem trustworthy, right?

The faction balance feels about right. The Westerlands have a huge advantage in riches, and their troops can be trained into deadly longbowmen, unstoppable knights, or solid billmen. Ironborn train up to ax-wielding tornadoes of death, but have no cavalry units. The Northmen aren't particularly strong or weak in any area, except that their low-tier infantry are very vulnerable to cavalry. The Reach specializes in knights. Dorne produces troops that you never get emotionally invested in, so you'd rather just be finished with them and get back to Arya or Tyrion's story (cough.)

The Riverlands, of course, are well and truly fucked. They start the game already under assault from the Westerlands, their economy ravaged and their villages about to be looted and burned. Their cavalry is terrible, starting weak and vulnerable at low tiers, and training up to only mediocre knights. They have pretty fierce pikemen, however, which you'll need when those Westerlands knights charge at you in seemingly endless waves.

As the player, you can recruit from other factions with varying difficulty, but recruits from a faction you're at war with will suffer morale penalties that grow larger the more often you win. It's hard to make soldiers kill their own countrymen, even when their countrymen are total jerks.

The Clash of Kings mod comes with the popular Floris mod already integrated. Floris, itself an amalgam of other popular mods, brings huge improvements to the tactical and formation features of Native M&B. Native M&B's battle AI tends to favor charging in, with no plan and little organization. Once you realize that, countering the enemy becomes easy, and you find yourself repeating the same strategies over and over, in a string of battles that all start to feel the same.

"Glaivemen! Assume cavalry-pwning formation!"

The Floris mod introduces formations, an expanded command tree, and real coordination between enemy units. For example, you can no longer count on the enemy leaving their archers exposed and easy prey for your cavalry, as it usually does in Native M&B. Conversely, if you leave your own archers exposed without tying up the enemy cavalry, they'll sweep in and cut your archers to ribbons. The AI responds intelligently and battles play out in their own unique ways.  This is the Floris mod's greatest strength. Native M&B can easily become boring once you're a lord with a big army, moving from victory to victory but feeling like you're doing work instead of having fun. The Floris mod keeps you on your toes and prevents the gameplay from becoming stale.

Floris gives you fun new options, corrects several inscrutable and annoying aspects of Native M&B, and makes what was already a fun game into an absolute blast. Incorporating it into Clash of Kings was a good choice. However, I do have a few nits to pick:

1. Avoiding melee doesn't mean whatever the hell you people think it means

While the added formations are generally a very positive, very welcome addition to vanilla M&B, they can also cause some problems. I've had particular trouble with the "avoid melee" order, which would otherwise be useful for skirmishers. Groups under this order have a nasty habit of "avoiding melee" with enemy cavalry by running directly toward a much larger group of enemy infantry. There are few things more annoying than watching a single outrider chase your entire contingent of horse-mounted archers directly into a wall of pikemen.

They died as they lived: as complete morons.

2. And you assholes were planning to help out when, exactly?

The formations mod also makes allied armies too skittish. These allies (whose troops you can't give orders to) like to stand around, basking in their fancy new formations and waiting until conditions are just perfect for their attack. So when you order your own troops to attack, your men often end up outnumbered and fighting a desperate delaying action until your allies finally decide it's time to saunter on over and help out. You can avoid this by waiting out the AI. Eventually, someone will attack, and then you can wade in with your allies at your side. But seriously, who has the patience for that? If I wanted to sit around doing nothing for five minutes, I could do that in real life.

3. What if I ordered you to jump off a bridge? No, wait, come back!

Despite the easy interface, the learning curve for issuing commands is steeper than you'd expect, especially with the expanded command options of Floris. Although the command tree is conveniently displayed on screen when needed, you can't use it effectively until you've memorized most of it and know the key combinations by heart. Things move quickly in M&B battles and your attention will be on the fight, so it's often impractical to read through groups, categories, and individual commands to select the right order at the right time. When you start playing (and for quite a while after that,) you'll find yourself giving the wrong order, or giving the right order too late, or giving the right order to the wrong group of troops. As you might expect, the game is not forgiving of these errors. Accidentally ordering your archers to charge instead of your cavalry can be deeply embarrassing for everyone involved.

"Wow, our archers sure are being slaughtered over there. Hey, you wanna get coffee after this?"

4. Ahem.

Finally, and at the risk of delving into uncomfortable territory, where the fuck are all the Westerosi warrior women? I mean, there are plenty of female fighters in A Song of Ice and Fire. For that matter, you can recruit stout female heroes and soldiers in Native M&B. But they're noticeably absent in the Clash of Kings mod. The only other bannerwoman I've run into is Asha Greyjoy, and I haven't met even one recruitable female companion. The only female soldiers I've found are non-upgradable rabble—good for nothing but arrow fodder. Apart from the fact that this simply does not feel like the Westeros I know and love, the absence proves awkward when my feet hurt after a long day of killing Lannisters. I mean, there are only men around to give me a foot rub, and Ser Patrek is starting to get jealous.

But in the end...

Clash of Kings is an amazing addition to an amazing game. If you enjoy any two items from the following list, you owe it to yourself to play this game:

  • The Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones series
  • Sword fights
  • Medieval Politics
  • Close-in tactical games
  • Sandbox/progression games
  • Awesomeness

And that's why I'm awarding this mod five fire-breathing dragons and a rating of, "If it even piques your interest, give it a try."

To get the Clash of Kings mod, you'll first have to buy Mount and Blade: Warband. It's available on Windows PC for only $20 from TaleWorlds, the game's developers, or you can get it anywhere cool indie games are sold. That's already a great deal, considering the amount of fun, action-packed gameplay you get.

Once you've purchased and installed M&B: Warband, you can download the latest version of the Clash of Kings zip file at ModDB, here. If you never installed a mod before, don't worry. M&B makes it easy.

First, go to the "My Computer" folder, then navigate to the "Modules" directory of your M&B folder. That directory will be somewhere similar to (but perhaps not exactly like) the examples below. Just double-click on the appropriate directories (the parts between the "\" backslashes,) moving left to right:

      C:\Program Files (x86)\mountblade warband\Modules

Or, if you bought M&B: Warband through Steam, it'll be somewhere like this:

      C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\steamapps\common\mountblade warband\Modules

Now that you've found your Modules directory, drag the Clash of Kings zip file into it.

With the zip file in the Modules directory, right click that zip file and select "extract all" to install.

And that's it! Now when you run M&B, you should see the option to run the Clash of Kings mod in the drop-down menu of the launcher, like so:

Just select "ACOK" from that drop-down and click "Play Mount and Blade."

Just be a little patient. You may have to give it some time to start up, because Clash of Kings is a massive addition to M&B. There's a lot of awesomeness to load into memory.

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