I haven't talked much about games lately, but that doesn't mean I haven't been playing my share. Currently at the top of my play list is Mount & Blade, a game designed by an independent developer called TaleWorlds. It's basically a game in which you become an "adventurer" in the medieval world (it's not fantasy as there is no magic) of Caladria. Caladria is composed of five competing, fully realized kingdoms. By "fully realized" I mean that each kingdom is a fairly well defined feudal society of towns, castles and villages that dot the landscape. Each settlement has some kind of lord in charge of it and that lord pays his (or her) homage to that kingdom. If you've ever read the George RR Martin Song of Ice and Fire novels, then you've got a sense of what this game world is about. Lots of factions, lots of lords, lots of chaos.
Throw in a little bit of that old PC classic, Elite, and you get Mount & Blade. The world is completely dynamic in the sense that it goes about its business regardless of what you do. Kingdoms war and make peace, bandits raid caravans, etc. By that same token, you can travel anywhere you want, whenever you want. It sort of defies convention in that there doesn't appear to be any kind of central story or goal. So when you're dropped into the world, you're very much looking at a blank canvas. You don't have any allies or adversaries. You're not out to avenge the death of your family. You're not on a quest to rule the world (at least, not really). And you're not hit with a sudden does of amnesia requiring you to find out about your mysterious past.
You're just there.
This is the sort of thing that will drive some people to love the game and some to loath it. If you require structure and direction, this is not the game for you. If, however, you want to construct your own story based on your travels and encounters, this game's open-ended model becomes more and more compelling the longer you play it. The first few hours, I thought were an excruciating experience and now every time I leave the game I look forward to finding out what I'll encounter the next time I load it up.
I've spent roughly 60 days in Caladria (game time) and in that time I've roamed the countryside doing small errands and tasks, amassed a small group of soldiers (10-30 or so) to follow me into battle (your solders are paid and get better with experience), had my militia wiped out and had to build it up again, become a mercenary for a local lord, taken part in a successful siege campaign, ridden to the rescue of fellow countrymen, become a vassal for the king, rescued a kidnapped girl at the request of a guild leader and been granted fiefdom over a small village that now pays its taxes to me in return for my protection. (I can also build structures there that give my party or village bonuses and provide protection.)
All that and I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what this game world has to offer. Plus, I haven't even gotten into the character and party development part of the game. Like any RPG, you choose your arms and equipment, place points into attributes and skills, and level up to become more powerful. As the title infers, there's even using horses in battle which is all shades of cool in part because the quality of your mount actually matters.
All in all, I'm loving the game. Graphically, it's very dated. But I got over that fairly quickly. The lack of a central story means there's not a lot of fine details and there's a lot of repetition in the sorts of quests you can take on. At first the only quests I seemed to get from local lords was playing messenger boy, delivering messages all over the place. It's like being the PA on a movie set. But as much as some of these quests repeat themselves, the more you play, the more the game world opens up to you, which is often the opposite of how games play out. Even titles I like a lot, like Mass Effect, tend to start with this seemingly unlimited scope only to find that this huge pool is only a foot deep. With Mount & Blade it's like diving in the ocean: The further out you go the deeper it gets.