Mount & Blade is known for it's grounded nature among RPGs and a sequel has been long overdue. Harry Papadimitriou got his hands on said sequel and is ready to share his thoughts from a first-timer of the series.
The Mount & Blade series offers a sandbox strategy and simulation experience based around realism rather than fantasy. Though there is an overarching goal to unify the land in Mount & Blade II, players are free to choose their own path, living the life of an adventurer, merchant, or mercenary, or to work their way up the ranks to control armies, cities, and kingdoms. The hands-on demo shown at E3 showcased the single character combat and army combat systems. In single character combat, left-clicking on the mouse swings your weapon while right-clicking blocks. In order to perform different types of attacks, players have to move the mouse in the appropriate direction while clicking, allowing them to attack from one side to the other, stab in a thrusting motion, and a number of other moves. There's no unrealistic dodging and invulnerability frames, nor can players heal in the middle of combat. The whole thing has a very physical sense to it — at least as physical as one can get with a mouse controlling a sword. As a new player to the series, I found attacking to be awkward, since mouse movements are used both to control the camera and to determine how your weapon swings. The movements didn't feel realistic but instead sort of slippery and imprecise. At the same time, the single character combat gave a sense of a steep but rewarding learning curve toward mastery and was very tense and enjoyable overall.
In the army battle I commanded a unit of about twenty-five to fifty troops, though it is possible to move up the ranks and command the entire force. As a unit commander, I could give general instructions to my troops, whom I instructed to follow me. Like the single character battles, the learning curve here can be a bit steep, and I quickly got my entire cavalry unit wiped out by charging at enemies who were uphill of my position. Apparently charging uphill is quite ineffective, but these types of details make this game quite immersive. The controls also felt slippery and imprecise, but with some tips from the developers I was able to learn how to manage my horse's momentum and time my spear attack more effectively. Like the single character battle, it was not clear to me how to best achieve my goals in the army battle, nor even what my goals were exactly — there was no waypoint to the enemy commander and a distinct lack of other such gamey features. Luckily for my army, I only commanded one of many units, and the other AI units won the battle for me. When a battle is won, enemy soldiers and commanders attempt to flee, and allowing them to do so will lead to them showing up in subsequent battles.
The original Mount & Blade is known for the depth and breadth of content it provides for each of the different available paths, and the developers promised to double down for this next entry. Though not showcased, many of the systems have been allegedly improved with more depth. This includes things like more types of army troops, deeper and more meaningful politics, and better management of towns and cities. The developers also mentioned a new bartering system where players can trade a wide number of things that go beyond just items. For example, a player may offer to give a town he controls to someone in exchange for his daughter's hand in marriage. He may offer access to trade routes in exchange for a peace treaty. The system sounds very open ended and in line with the game's sandbox philosophy, and though I didn't get to experience it, I am genuinely intrigued.
While the game was perhaps too different and too complex for a first-time player to fully grasp, the steep learning curve had a somehow addictive quality to it, and I felt compelled to try the battles again with the incremental knowledge I had gained from the first attempts — if only time permitted. Unfortunately, Mount & Blade II's graphics haven't been much improved as compared to the original Mount & Blade, and it does detract from the immersion. Hopefully this shortcoming will be made up for by the developers' decision focus on introducing new gameplay mechanics and giving the game's various systems even more depth.