Better Than It Looks
Mount & Blade: Warband is a sandbox RPG that isn't nearly as bad as the screen shots make it look. You take on the role of a leader in a traditional, fictional medieval world. After a brief introductory story, where you determine your lineage and history (i.e. starting stats), you are dropped off into the world.
The single player mode is wide open, and it is up to the player to decide what they want to do and how to pursue it. The game starts off with a minor quest to put some change in your pocket and get you oriented, and then you're released to go into the world. You recruit faceless fodder for your armies from villages, and train them up through the ranks and promote them. Real characters are available in taverns, where you can meet them, hear their story, and decide if you want them or not. Not all of them get along with each other, which lends some replay value to the game.
The inability to realistically raise your traits too high leads you to focus on one or two stats. The game has four stats, each with some small number of associated skills and a small passive effect. This also helps define your character. For example, you can pump points into Charisma to let you lead enormous armies, or into Strength to put yourself into the heart of combat. The game features a large number of skills (most of them combat related) that also help define your character.
The game doesn't really feature many real goals; the player has to decide what they want to accomplish and how they want to do it. I found the game rather boring until I did a little roleplaying in my head to figure out what my goal really was. The character creator helps out a little bit by giving you some history before you go off into the world. I felt like all the faces in the game looked wierd, but the face editor for your character gives you enough control that at least one person in the world will not look bad.
Combat vacillates between a joy and a pain. The game does feature a "maximum number of units on the field" option, primarily aimed at keeping your computer running smoothly, that can also let you rebalance the game a little bit if you find it easier to kill your enemies' armies in bite sized chunks. Large castle battles can be a real headache, although epic battles in the open field can be a confusing but satisfying experience.
The game also features a number of different ways to make money, the viability of each being determined by who you are willing to make mad at you. Burning villages makes money fast, but often leaves you unwelcome if you later want to trade goods with them as a merchant. This also helps add replay value to the game, as you opt for one route in one game and another in the next.
My biggest complaint about the game is the save slots, even more than the headache combat can turn into. You heard that right: A computer game with save slots. With only nine available saves, it can be difficult to reasonably play multiple games at the same time. The game offers to have you play "realistically" when you make your character, without letting you quit without saving, but if I wanted that I wouldn't play a video game.
Overall, I thought Mount & Blade: Warband was fun, although not a classic by any stretch. There was a lot in the game, more than I could even reasonably write about (politics, marriage, starting your own kingdom), so if you were intrigued you should check out the free trial that lets you play to level 8.