Let's get straight to the point. Mount and Blade: Warband is not the prettiest game on the market. If games were women, Mount and Blade: Warband would be that girl with a hormone disorder that made her have kind of a beard. But like beard-girl, Warband has a really good personality and if you close your eyes when you kiss you can pretend that the facial hair is just a scarf or something. Know what I'm talking about?
Warband is the stand-alone expansion to the original Mount and Blade, released towards the end of 2008. Being a stand-alone, you don't need the original game to play. In Warband, like the original, you take the role of an individual on a fictional landmass known as Calradia, and are basically free to do whatever you want. The game definitely nudges you in certain directions, but following those suggestions or completely forging your own path is ultimately up to you. In this sense it is very similar to the Elder Scrolls games, except not even remotely technically groundbreaking.
At its best, Warband looks like the missing link between Morrowind and Oblivion. At its worst – which is basically any indoor location, most towns, and the overworld – it looks like it was released a decade ago. Character models and structures all have quite low polygon-counts, and most walls have pretty low-rez textures. Open areas look a great deal nicer, but even then, there's never a jaw-dropping or even a "ooh, that's pretty!" moment.
But for all the ugly, Warband has a lot going on under the hood. Gameplay has a few different layers, and each of these layers houses a great deal of complexity. Take, for example, the game's combat system. Each weapon deals a certain kind of damage, and most can be used in several different ways. On horseback, a voulge may only function as a thrusting-weapon, but when you dismount, you can swing away for much more damage. That's just the basics, though. The direction you swing from, whether or not you're moving – and which direction you're moving in – and the proximity of your enemy to you can all affect how much damage each swing of your weapon inflicts. Thrusting forward while you're on horseback will deal much more damage than trying to back-slash someone as you ride past them. Learning all the little tricks to maximize your damage, and even just the timing of your hits, means Warband has a rather steep learning curve that must be tackled before you start having fun.
The complexity of the combat doesn't detract from the brutality and the feeling of impact that you usually experience when you swing your blade at some poor dude's face. I say 'usually', because there are times when you feel as though your attack didn't register when it should have, or a strike you thought probably missed just killed someone. This is especially apparent during online play, which is one of Warband's newest features, and is arguably the main reason for the expansion's existence.
Online is unfortunately strictly map-based multiplayer, although the main game would – with some workarounds – make for excellent co-op, or even versus, play. There are eight game types, most of which stick to a standard FPS game-mode; deathmatch, capture the flag, battle etc… The more 'original' game-types such as siege, where you have to fight your way to the center of your opponent's castle, aren't played nearly as often as the more familiar modes. This seems mostly due to balance issues – one team almost always has a distinct advantage, usually due to terrain. Latency also means that you don't get that same feeling of impact when you hit or are hit by an opponent. That said, it's a great deal more exhilarating and challenging playing against people.
Landing a kill in multiplayer rewards you with gold which you can use to buy gear a la Counterstrike, but the gear you can buy depends on the faction and 'troop' you are playing. The factions seem pretty well balanced, and the troops consist of your basic footsoldier, the archer, and the very fun cavalry. It would have been nice to see some connection between my single-player character and my multiplayer character, or a means of customizing my multiplayer character's stats (as opposed to just gear on a cookie-cutter type), but the gear selections do make a very large difference to the way a match may play out. Maps range from frustratingly hilly (the slope of a hill slows player movement) to interesting little town-areas, and some maps definitely favor a specific troop type. It's also worth noting that in my time playing multiplayer, the community seemed a great deal friendlier than your typical FPS audience.
Singleplayer is extremely fun, but not without its flaws. If you ever find yourself laying siege to a castle that requires a ladder to breach its walls, it's almost guaranteed that your allies will somehow forget how to walk up a ladder, and block all of the other units, including you, from making any progress. This is exceptionally annoying and can end up getting many of your units killed because they just stand there waiting for the chump blocking the only entrance to get out of the way. Quests also haven't gained any real depth since the original, and although there is now a romance quest section that has interesting political implications, the actual romance component is shallow and requires little more than frequent lady-visits and some poetry-learning. It can also be frustrating trying to advance in a realm when no one will give you quests, as your standing with other characters is largely dependent on doing things for them.
The economy-side of the game is fascinating, and it can take a while to learn what's worth buying at what price, and where the best places to sell it are. Trying to balance your income and outgoing expenses adds yet another complication into the game's thick broth of gameplay elements. As you gain ground and become stronger, you will have to fend off attackers, manage your lands, keep your allies in line and keep your growing costs down, making the game's steep difficulty curve even steeper.
Combining hardcore roleplaying with deep combat, and throwing in a Counterstrike-esque multiplayer mode, this sort-of-budget game has more longevity than most full-priced, big-name-studio games. If you can get past the ugly façade, Mount and Blade: Warband is well worth a look.