Mount & Blade: Warband

Human history and society is a subject near and dear to my heart; before I got my bachelor’s in mathematics, I was a social sciences major.  I studied psychology, sociology, and anthropology for about 2 years before changing my mind for a number of complicated reasons.  And before I dive into the meat of this game’s review, I wanna take a minute here to talk about the subset of anthropology that I loved the most: archaeology.

I’m gonna throw some big ideas at you this time, so let’s start off with a fun one: Archaeologists used to think early humans mostly ate meat.  They’d find evidence of an encampment, and there would be animal bones everywhere!  Clearly, these people ate a ton of animals, right?  This idea, filtered down like a bad game of “telephone” into the popular knowledge, led to things like the “Paleo”-style diets you see now, and some of the philosophical underpinnings of stuff like low-carb diets (which are all nonsense outside of some very specific medical uses, by the way).

Well, the thing about that is, plants don’t leave any archaeological evidence.  They just dissolve entirely.  You can bury a salad, and all that’d be left after a hundred thousand years or so would be (maybe, if you’re lucky), the bowl you used to put it in.  If you’re insanely, miraculously lucky, it might be recognizable as a bowl and not, say, a random tiny potsherd that nobody knows what it does.

In fact, through greater collaboration with other ecologically-focused sciences, taking oral histories into account, looking at place names, and lots of little refinements in scientific technique and analysis, what archaeologists started to find out was that people used to eat all kinds of stuff.  We’d do these big circuits, tending to semi-natural, semi-cultivated “gardens” where all kinds of veggies and fruits and stuff would grow.  Non-human animals would eat from these, too.  People would find and make these, and they’d figure out where food was naturally plentiful, and they’d just roam around in big loops hitting all the stops each year with good timing so they’d have what they needed.  Kind of like crop rotation in a way, but by walking instead of replanting in place.  You go far enough north, you find less plant life abundance and more meaty abundance, because of the climate.  But most people were eating just whatever they could find wherever they were.

So much for early man being mostly carnivorous.  But if you look around, you’ll find all kinds of pop-sci articles talking about “WHY MAN IS NATURALLY MEANT TO EAT MEAT” and “THE EVOLUTIONARY LINK BETWEEN MEAT AND BRAINS” and “SORRY, VEGANS, MEAT OWNS” as if any of this still means anything.

Here’s another fun fact, a little heavier this time: For a very long time during archaeology’s formative years, DNA analysis wasn’t yet a thing.  This meant that getting a definitive biological sex for a corpse was pretty tricky.  Gender was not yet very well understood in the field, either.  Archaeologists would find a burial site, and they’d just have to take their best guess as to the sex of a given skeleton, conflate it with the corpse’s gender and call it a day.  They’d base this guess largely on what’s called “artifacts”, which are the things that were buried with the skeleton.  Throughout human history up until about the industrial revolution, it was really common for people to be buried with things that spoke to who they were in life (you still see it sometimes, but it’s less common).  Now, a lot of the most influential archaeologists back then were pale-skinned, cisgendered (so far as we know) men.  You might say they were “from a different era”.  And the guesses they made, using these artifacts, were based on their pre-existing notions about what people acted like, which they drew from contemporary society.  To put it simply, if they found a corpse with arrowheads or a blade, they’d say it was a male corpse.  If they found a corpse with like, farming implements or weaving tools, they’d say it was a female corpse.

Because, you know, boys fight and rule, and girls tend to the food and the home and the kids!  Everyone knows that.  Girls are physically weaker and more nurturing, boys are aggressive.  Et cetera.  You may recognize a lot of this sort of rhetoric from the largely-debunked pseudo-science known as “evolutionary psychology”, which informs a lot of the bullshit at play in the manosphere.

Later on, when DNA analysis became available, some archaeologists took it upon themselves to return to earlier finds and try to sex those skeletons using it (not in a lewd way).  What they found is that the assumptions those other archaeologists were making were wrong just about as often as they were right.  There were plenty of warrior women, and plenty of house/field/kid-working men.  Furthermore, the farther back you go into human history, especially pre-agriculture, a lot of those seemingly “natural” distinctions as to the division of labor along gender lines simply fall apart and don’t exist.  People did what they were good at, and were remembered in death for what they did, and you could flip a 3-sided coin as to whether they were a man or a woman or a third-gender person.  It was only after a long, brutal, and sustained series of society-spanning atrocities and abuses that what certain people think of as “natural” was shoved into place with great force (by men).

The moral of the story is that as analysis and science pushed forward and got both more powerful and more nuanced, it became clear that a lot of the base of knowledge that anthropology had built needed to be re-examined much more critically.  Anthropologists and archaeologists started actually listening to the stories they were being told by native peoples, taking oral histories more seriously, collaborating with other disciplines to put together a better picture, being more careful in their work sites, taking better notes.  Submitting their work for peer review instead of just writing whatever they wanted in a book and shoving it out there without talking to anyone.  And these massive discipline-wide mistakes now serve to stand as a cautionary tale against being too certain and unwavering in our assumptions about the past and about the unknown, particularly when those assumptions derive from the conditions of contemporary society.

With all this in mind, let’s do one more aside before we get down to business here.  Let’s talk about “historical accuracy” in video games, specifically as it relates to sex and gender.  It’s come to my attention that huge swaths of the fan base for this game are uh, shall we say, real-ass Gamer’s Gamer types, and this demographic tends to respond to the inclusion of women in games with a fantasy/historical setting with a certain very predictable vitriol.  “It’s not historically accurate!” they cry, having a very Heated Gamer Moment™, “You can’t put feeeeeemales in a war!  Only men fought Back Then!” On and on until you leave, basically, to go wash off the grease and then petition your congressperson to make punching these people legal.

So, here’s the thing.  This idea is nonsense on three different levels: the obvious one (history itself being how they say it is), the relation of “historical” video games to actual history, and the functional/ideological level (what does this sort of talk do).

Level the first: women have fought throughout history, alongside and/or in place of men, in every conflict we’ve known as a species.  No amount of shrieking will change this historical fact.  It is true, however, that post-industrial societies have exerted restrictions on women’s ability to fight in wars.  Yep.  True thing, kinda.  Let’s assume for the remainder of this paragraph that no women fought after the industrial revolution and do a little thought exercise, here.  If we assume (quite generously to the point of inaccuracy) a nice round date of 1750 AD for when “The Industrial Times” started (assuming also that it happened everywhere simultaneously, which isn’t even remotely true), then this is a period of human history that accounts for about 0.269% of our total history.  Just over 1/4th of 1%.  Not exactly a great candidate for what’s “historically accurate”.  And also, not really representative of “the beforetimes” / “back then” or whatever pre-lapsarian bullshit they’re trying to talk about here.  The Times When Men Were Men And Women Were Women, or whatever, literally don’t exist.

And hey, guess what: there were plenty of female knights and samurai and other regional warrior caste type ladies to draw inspiration from across wide chunks of history, such as Triệu Thị Trinh, Jeanne D’Arc, Nakano Takeko, Tomoe Gozen, Queen Boudicca, Artemisia (Queen of Halicarnassus), Gráinne Mhaol, Lozen, Zenobia.  More recently, there were the Soviet snipers Natalya Kovshova, Roza Shanina, and Mariya Polivanova, the combat pilot Marina Raskova.  Mariya Oktyabrskaya and Alexandra Samusenko the tank drivers, with hundreds of confirmed kills each.  There were plenty of women combatants in the American Civil War, World War II, look, just … read a fucking book some time.  Women fight.  All the time.  Always have.  This is a fucking thing, guys.  The whole point of a gun is you don’t need to be physically strong to kill a motherfucker, but even before guns, women would just pick up a sword and start killing motherfuckers anyway.  The differences in musculature between the sexes are negligible, it has more to do with how much you work out (and societal beliefs designed to keep women away from strength competitions and workouts, so as to shunt them into reproduction-only roles, or shame them for so-called “miscarriages” etc) than anything else.

Men in contemporary accounts of these women will always write about them the same way, as if they’re super rare and oh-so-extraordinary and oh my god we’re so shocked that a LADY is FIGHTING.  But these accounts number in the thousands, and after a while you start to realize that the Heated Gamers™ are simply repeating the same anti-woman Heated Man™ propaganda that’s always been used, going back to the dawn of agriculture and men’s attempts to curtail women’s right to participate in society, their bodily and reproductive autonomy.  You’re part of the continuity of history, boys, isn’t that great?  Also you sound like fucking idiots!  But hey, you do you.

Level the second: the relationship of “historical” video games to reality.  This is something I’d like to explore more in detail when I do my Civilization 6 series I talked about in my review, so I won’t dwell too much.  The short version is that, hey guess what, video games aren’t always super accurate about how they represent reality, particularly history.  I know, I can tell you’re super shocked.  The reason why they don’t represent history accurately, and more accurately the ways in which they misrepresent it to push a certain political agenda, have a lot to do with patriarchy and toxic masculinity.

Okay, so now that all the ‘Gaters have fucked off in an apoplectic fit (let’s be honest, here, I doubt they made it past the first paragraph), I’ll touch briefly on the function of this kind of talk, then we’ll get into the actual review, okay? Promise.

Just like white supremacist propaganda, the erasure of women from history serves a purpose.  It actually serves almost the exact same purpose as Nazi shit, actually.  It’s not about asserting some truth about history, or saying that women actually didn’t fight “back then”.  What this kind of talk is, is a statement of allegiance to a group.  It’s a way for a certain kind of man to push an ideology wherein women exist in much the same way they do in video games: to hang off the arm of a strong handsome warrior protagonist, have sex with him, and then disappear forever.  By making reference to an ahistorical “back then”, what gamers are saying isn’t that that time actually existed in the past, but that they want society to be like that in the present/future.  By accurately including women in combatant roles in video games, you ruin their little fantasy.  The reason these assholes gravitate to pseudo-historical fantasy games like Mount & Blade and Skyrim is because they use them to reinforce their hero-fascist ideology.  They go, “see? it’s historically accurate”, but what they really mean is, “see? someone agrees with me, get out of here, girls.”  By the way, if you think we’ve made progress as a species in the year of our lord 20 and 19, I’d like to remind you that the pseudo-historical fantasy everyone currently is allowed to like is Game of Thrones, which has more rape than a box full of rape under the justification of “realism”.  That’s Just What The Horsey Swordy Times Were Like, You See.  Even though it has dragons and monsters in it.

And now, your regularly scheduled video game review.

Mount & Blade: Warband is a game with horses and weapons in it.  You recruit up a small army and ride around, fighting in battles, commanding troops, leveling up, doing quests for lords and kings, laying siege to castles, fighting in tournaments, and just generally doing whatever you want in a pseudo-medieval, low fantasy sandbox.  It has little to nothing to do with history; there are no common lands, very few villages that are much too far away from their holds, almost no farms to speak of, way too many lords, castles are beyond tiny and only seem to be a fort with no town, there’s nice clean dividing lines between cultures and troop types, and there’s a “surgery” skill that actually gives a decreased chance of death for wounded troops.  That last one has to be a bug.

It also happens to be very fun!  I have sunk a non-trivial amount of hours into riding around in this game over the years, back since the original (non-Warband) Mount & Blade in all its primitive DirectX 7 glory.  I’ve even had to re-buy it a few times due to losing my key and changing computers and the install forgets it was installed or something.  It’s currently available on Steam, which even though that’s DRM, it should save you the headache of that happening to you.

It also makes playing as a woman the “hard mode” for basically no reason!  If you play as a guy, that’s the normal regular game.  Playing as a woman makes every lord mouth off at you and act super patronizing, it takes like 10 times as long to get renown and reputation built up, and you can’t go about courtship in the regular way by memorizing songs or whatever and must instead beg around looking for anyone who’ll take you.  Also, you get to be the only woman in the world who’s even remotely trying to rule anything.  There’s peasant women, who can be rescued if they’ve been captured by bandits, hired and trained to eventually become “sword sisters”, which are flimsy infantry that die immediately in any serious engagement.  There’s like 3 female companion NPCs that you can give equipment and a horse to.  And there’s you.  Then there’s a host of ladies-in-waiting who just kinda stand around giving directions and waiting for a knightly lord to fuck them.  You’re the outlier, the weirdo.  Of course this is all very realistic and historically accurate.  Ladies don’t fight, they don’t have muscles!  The game is careful to explain that many people in Calradia (an entirely made-up pretend video game world) are “very traditional”.  Guess that’s code for “misogynists.”

This can be partially kinda fixed with a nice little mod called More Women, made by “heydiddlediddle21” on top of “Waihti” and “zParsifal”‘s Diplomacy mod.  Even this mod, however, assumes that women are “universally weaker” than their male equivalent units, and includes a 3 paragraph “semi-plausible backstory” explaining how most of the men are dead which is why the girls can fight now.

Years of constant warfare have steadily depleted the population of young men fit for combat in Calradia, and the rulers have found themselves increasingly turning to women to fill the gaps in their armies. Recruiting able-bodied men in the local villages has become nothing short of a dream, and a hardy adventurer will instead find [a] steady stream of female volunteers eager to leave behind a home with limited prospects for a Calradia that is increasingly accepting of a non-traditional female role.

There’s that fun word “traditional”, again.  Whose traditions, exactly, are we making reference to in this fictional video game horse land?  Anyway, though, we’re being “increasingly accepting” now so I can’t be too hard on this person.  They’ve provided a nice bit of code to give people a more historically accurate way to build their armies, right?  So thanks, heydiddlediddle21, it’s a step in the right direction.  If anything, though, it goes a bit too far.  It would be nice to get a mix of genders when recruiting, instead of it being entirely women.  I guess you can still hire men in towns, but this is just the same problem reversed.  At least enemy armies tend to be about 50/50.

M&B features a really nice melee combat system wherein every attack has 1 of 4 cardinal directions, or a forward thrust, and you can block with weapons in the same way by choosing a direction.  Shields have a directionless block that corresponds to a limited area in front of you when they’re held out, and very limited durability.  I would say this makes the combat more about agility, mind-games and positioning, but in reality what you do is ride around the enemy army in a big circle until they form what’s commonly known as a “death ball”, firing arrows or crossbow bolts into their midst, then once your troops catch up to you, you go in swinging and try to one-shot anything near you.  There’s a lot of subtlety in the engine, should you want to play in a more nuanced way, though.  It should be noted also that M&B was a pioneer of melee video game combat, and its system massively predates the streamlined and very similar one found in For Honor.  Pretty cool!

There’s a ton of variation in weapons and armor, and along with character customization and the ability to pick your own banner once you become a class traitor ascend to nobility, you get to basically jump in and play pretend knights and horses in just about any way you like, provided it consists of killing lots and lots of dudes.  I don’t know about you, but this is definitely, unironically, my idea of a good time.

I love charging around on horseback, particularly after you build up your strength stat a bit and get yourself a lance to use.  Couching the lance once you pick up some speed, zeroing in on your target, dealing hundreds of damage in one big shot, seeing those satisfying messages pop up in the combat log: “Couched lance damage!” in big red text.  Then you slow down a bit, trot into position and make another run.  Good stuff.

You can swear fealty to a king in one of several nations, and this lets you try to curry favor with them and with the other vassals, vying for popularity and proving your loyalty so the king will give you a castle after you help him take one.  Which he won’t, because you’re a girl.  But you can try!  It’s much faster, however, to build up your own army and look for a vulnerable castle in a war-torn nation that you can take on your own.  Then you get to explore running a fiefdom, cultivating “right to rule” points, doing an imperialism all over the faces of the peasantry, and aiming to become Queen of Everybody.  Until everyone comes after you hella pissed because you’re a girl and ain’t no girls gonna rule my dang ol Calradia that ain’t our traditions!!

It sounds like I’m being pretty hard on the game, and I do think it’s important to take it to task for its misguided gender politics.  But it bears repeating that Mount & Blade is also really fun, and I personally find these kinds of slow-burning sandboxes really satisfying as a long-term investment of your time.  The more you put into Warband, the more you’ll get back, and it’s easy to get lost in its world.  It’s also worth mentioning that it has a pretty nice soundtrack.  Don’t go in expecting Crysis-level graphics, this is a very old game.  But Taleworlds have busted their butts over the years to keep it looking pretty decent despite its age.

The closest comparison to a similar game would be the X series, which I haven’t really done a formal long-form review for on this blog yet.  Those are sci-fi games set in deep space, but they’re the same slow-burning sandbox type experience as Mount & Blade is.  Just like X, M&B has several different types of missions (though here they’re things like collecting taxes or acting as a mail service) that are based on the needs of agents within the simulation, and it’s kinda up to you how you proceed and progress, or what your goals eventually will be.  Warband has depth to discover, but no story mode or anything to hold your hand.  There’s one brief introductory quest that goes over recruitment and a few battles, but it’s optional and you’re entirely on your own after that.

I’ll also take this opportunity to give you some tips for starting out, if this is a game you’re looking to get into.  You’ll want to pick options toward the top when doing character creation, as a higher social standing will make your life a lot easier at first.  You’ll also want to start in Swadia.  The terrain is mostly open rolling fields (much easier than Rhodok’s mountains, for instance), and the bandit types are mostly Looters (might as well be popcorn) and Forest Bandits (Looters +1), which will help you grind out upgrades for yourself and your early army.  To have an easier time, you’ll definitely want to spec for 1-handed weapons and shields (going shield-less is like European Extreme difficulty), and focus on your personal stats before trying to raise skills that help your army.  Use companions to fill those out later.  You can see an overview of any battle by pressing backspace.  You can issue orders to your troops using the number keys to select troop types, then the function keys.  So, 1 > F1 > F3 is “Everyone charge”, for instance.  Once you get a lance, you use the X key to couch it (and deal FAR more damage) once you get up to speed.  The red dot by the weapon will turn gray to tell you when it’s okay to do this.  Crossbows are also very powerful in the early game.  Don’t neglect it!

Anyway, if you feel like this explanation has resonated with you, or if you’re a fan of the X series and want to try a game with horses in it and a character to customize instead of just a spaceship without a face, give Mount & Blade Warband a try.  But just remember, kids, video games aren’t history.  And girls have always, always, always fought.

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