Friday, May 5, 2017

Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword - 20/20 hours

I should be careful what I wish for. Joining the Cossack Hetmanate gave me all the action and adventure I could want (and then some), but it came at a terrible cost. First, my relations with the Crimeans took a serious hit, then, later, the Polish joined the war, and suddenly in two out of the five factions, I was an enemy. My previous freedom of movement was gone. It made me sad, you know, like I destroyed something fragile and precious for the sake of excitement.

And on a less ridiculous note, I will say that seeing my trading empire hollowed out on account of a single bad political decision has solidified something for me - I really, really like Mount & Blade . . . and I can't stand Mount & Blade.

It's one of those occasions where the game is so close to being exactly what I wanted that the small gap between it and perfection becomes completely insurmountable. I find myself unable to silence the tiny critic and just accept the game for what it is. I keep dwelling on all the improvements (a few big, but mostly small) that would make it into my ideal game.

In my last post, I claimed that gating so much content behind your renown score was a major flaw in the game, but having gone from about 20 renown to nearly 100 in the space of a few hours has taught me that the problem is actually deeper, but more nuanced than that.

The short version - many of the quests are terrible. The long version - the game has only an incidental story, but in that skeleton of a story there is a natural arc. You start as a wandering hero, evolve into a mercenary, then either a political power player or warlord, and possibly from there into an emperor. And as far as I can tell, the game doesn't acknowledge that. And not out of a principled commitment to verisimilitude, either, but just because what it has you do seems to be more or less random.

For example, you could be just starting out, a nobody with no reputation, and wander straight up to a feudal lord (why you're even allowed to see him anyway is never quite explained) and he will task you with collecting a substantial debt from one of his fellow gentry. On the one hand, this seems like an incredibly sensitive task to entrust to some rando off the street. On the other hand, it's implemented in a way that sucks all the fun and dramatic potential out of the event.

Because it always unfolds the exact same way - go to the debtor's home, ask them to repay the debt, pay them your share of the reward money (possibly modified down an insignificant amount pending the results of a Persuasion check) and then deliver the rest back. It's possible to skip the bribe, if you are already friends with the noble, but that isn't going to happen at the start of the game, so why are you even there?

All-in-all, it's something you shouldn't be doing, story-wise, for a virtually non-existent reward, that involves no challenge or interesting gameplay. But what's really frustrating is that the game could potentially ask you to hunt down bandits or slay a fugitive, and those are things that are both thematically appropriate and actually fun to play.

And its because the game assigns you quests seemingly at random, with no respect for your powers, interests, or skills, that the implicit narrative arc never really builds any momentum. You have to hunt for the fun in the game, and it only really comes regularly if you successfully get yourself in trouble. You can't just pop into a random village, because most of the time the elder doesn't even have a quest for you, and while nobles are more reliable about assigning jobs, most of those actual jobs are not things you'd really want to do. Only when you are actively at war with one or more factions are you guaranteed to run into interesting challenges.

But what makes Mount & Blade so uniquely aggravating is that its central vision is so . .  fucking . . . amazing that it almost works in spite of this. It is a living medieval (or in this version, late 18th century) world that allows you to participate in grand strategy and world-shaking politics from a ground's-eye-view. It absolutely nails the scope, but flubs the scale. The map should be 100 times as big and villages should be ten times as far apart, and you should have a dozen random encounters of all sorts (from friendly and beneficial to "omg how am I going to survive this") whenever you travel between them. Providing the logistics and support for your mercenary band should be hard. Individual villages should matter. The supplies-to-party-size-to-speed ratio should be so unforgiving that you'll need to plan out a detailed village-by-village travel route to get all the way across the map. Those pointless quests where a noble gives you a letter to deliver to another noble should be fucking chapter breaks.

And yet, as your personal power becomes greater, you should be able to abstract a lot of that away by acquiring companions and hirelings to take care of the details for you. Your band has a skilled quartermaster and suddenly that detailed list of foodstuffs you carry around in your wagons becomes a weekly purchase with currency that you can still optionally micromanage if you so choose. You acquire a trusty lieutenant and you can fast-travel a set distance based on your officer's skill on the assumption that their scouts and vanguard will automatically clear out troublesome random encounters for you. But the abilities are tied to characters in the game, and if they die, you have to take their responsibilities on yourself until you hire a replacement.

And the NPCs should recognize this. Villages will have plenty for a lone adventurer or small band to do, so much that you could grind for hours without visiting a second location, but then they will know better than to ask trivial favors of a traveler with a lordly retinue. And hell, maybe those warring armies don't let you into a besieged city at all (though you might sneak in if you're alone), but will attempt to threaten, bribe, or otherwise co-opt a powerful military force with no known allegiance.

Of course, designing hypothetical video games is easy. There are almost certainly a lot of technical barriers that would stop my vision from becoming reality, and it is completely unfair of me to judge Mount & Blade by what my wildest imagination can dream up, unconstrained by budgets or the actual difficulty of implementing my desired features. Yet that's what the series does to me. It gives me a taste of a world of incredible depth and potential and then frustrates me with an uneven and unfocused implementation.

On an intellectual level, I know it's unreasonable to ask for a single game that gives me a whole game's worth of action-rpg wandering that seamlessly transitions to a whole game's worth of small-unit real-time action-strategy that in turn seamlessly transitions to a whole game's worth of top-level grand strategy while allowing me to directly control the same character the whole time, maintaining a continuity of resources (ie the noble has the same stuff as the adventurer, just more of it) and letting me lead from the front in massive battles. But that's what Mount & Blade makes me want. I love the game, but it makes me hungry.

So I don't know, I guess I'll just wait for the sequel.

No comments:

Post a Comment