Review Update: Mount & Blade: Viking Conquest

The beginning curve is even harsher than Mount & Blade: Warband, but patched to fit the bugs, Viking Conquest is a solid expansion pack with a good focus on accuracy and a ton of new content.  The seafaring combat is a great new vector, the graphical update's basically as good as Mount & Blade is going to get, and the game has a facelift in the interface that makes it on the whole much more accessible.  It's only really marred by a lack of variety in the armour and some curious other lapses in the historical accuracy, as well as in fairly lengthening the time it takes to get a new character started.
Review Update: Mount & Blade: Viking Conquest
Date published: Jun 9, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Mount & Blade: Viking Conquest is an expansion pack DLC for Mount & Blade: Warband designed by Brytenwalda and published by Mount & Blade's original developer, Taleworlds Interactive.  It has a kind of strange and oft-times questionable dedication to historical accuracy that offers a Britain, France, and Denmark of old to explore and conquer as you see fit.  While the original release of this expansion was fraught with bugs and technical issues, the patch has both fixed enough of the technical problems and changed enough of the gameplay mechanics to warrant a second look, after the developer reached out to me that there'd been these big updates.  I'm somewhat glad they did, because while Viking Conquest has issues still in the design department, it's a much stronger entry for the changes and I can definitely see it having appeal to some now that it's been fixed up some.

Most of the technical issues of Viking Conquest are fixed,
although there are still a few that remain

Let's not mince words, the original release of Viking Conquest was about as technically sound as a house of wet Whetabix is structurally sound, but I was relieved to see in revisiting it that the game was much fixed in that regard.  The game runs quite stable now, the framerates are quite reasonable, and the developers have pushed to make some more options available within the technical limitations of the engine.  And let me tell you - the fact that the game seems to have been optimised to load quite snappily is a welcome change, given how long the loading times were before.  That bugbear of the technical problems firmly removed from Viking Conquest's back, I enjoyed it a lot more this time around.

That's not to say everything's perfect, but the things that I would complain about - and indeed will in the following paragraph! - are relatively minor, nit-picking really.  One example, albeit a persistent one, is that the cities and other locations on the overworld map did their best evocation of 90s adventure-game pixel-hunting puzzles in making you find the one part of the city that you can click on that actually enters the city.  Essentially the cities still have the same actual label footprint (ie, click-able area) that they used to in the original Mount & Blade, but the models describing the city on the world map are much larger (and they do so with a somewhat remarkable 1:1 attention to detail within reason I quite like).  There's a lot of little tweaky bits like that, but they're not big things.  A lot of them have to do with circular dialogue, and the occasional bad type that quite stands out in said dialogue, beyond that overworld issue.  Amusingly - no more horse ferries!

The story campaign mode added to Mount & Blade
adds a very tenable over-arching sense of goal and direction

Which isn't to say that it's a masterpiece plot, a classic for the ages, but rather that the sense of direction it gives helps nudge players through what to do in the beginning of the game.  The game starts with your generated character travelling on boat with your mother to see a fabled physician in Friese (France) to have her illness treated, but the boat, a hired mercenary group, stops to investigate wreckage.  This is used as a plot framing device and a chance to teach you the basics of navigation in combat, which you then rapidly get to put into practice in a "supposed to lose" fight with a fabled Viking raider whom attacks your boat for looting the spoils of the vessels he so previously wrecked.  You can put up an admirable last stand, or simply let them overwhelm you, but in either case, these are vastly experienced raiders and you're a level one player, so you get overwhelmed, left for dead in the sea, and rescued by fishermen and left to the son of this fabled healer, since he himself died.  This leads you on an odyssey to find your mother again and perhaps other survivors of your doomed voyage - or, if you so prefer, simply to sod off and do other things that better take your fancy, in classic sandbox tradition.

Given a framing device and a good direction, there is a sense of direction mostly lacking in Mount & Blade: Warband, and that "story campaign" if you choose to pursue it, while no Tolkien-esque masterpiece, is pretty decently written, with some decent pacing and the occasional twist to keep it interesting, and is mostly marred only by some stand-out typographical errors in places.  Nothing game-breaking, but noticeable.

Notable here is that it's been fleshed out a fair bit even since the initial review I did, having for example expanded texts in many sections that only got a staple bit of intermission text.

The game features quite a visual face-lift to Mount & Blade

I'm just going to say it - as dated an engine as Mount & Blade is (and it wasn't exactly cutting edge even for the time) - Viking Conquest doesn't look that bad honestly.  It doesn't look great, but the high-resolution textures on offer, coupled with some additional graphical options, the more realistic if a little adult gore option, and the particularly high-quality foliage (if still done in sprite), this is basically as good as the engine is going to get.  The maps are fairly expansive - especially the cities as I noted, and in that case, full of people to make them seem busy as well - the overland is historically accurate within a reasonable deviance, and the weapons and armour look particularly good, as do the new face textures - much better.  I did very much also like both the new city screen, which features an actual view of the village rather than simple art, and the fact that the villages feel much more vibrant and alive, with layouts that are functional, and many a variety more of both functional and fluff NPCs inhabiting the town to give them some life.

The one problem here comes in the over-done nature of some of the additions.  For example there's something of an effort to make hair and some foliage blow as if in the wind, but it's very exaggerated and comes off ultimately distracting and a little annoying more than impressive, but beyond that, the graphical and animation additions seem pretty solid.

One big area that has got a lot of work that's also a big gameplay improvement in most respects is the interface, which has been cleaned up and organised quite a bit, simultaneously exposing a lot of information to make it more accessible, and making the new elements of gameplay fit in quite well.  This is especially the case in cities, where the clicks have been eliminated quite a bit, and for the overworld options menus.  Perhaps the only thing I don't like is you have to directly access the character sheet now, instead having to go through a sort of submenu first, so that's actually made it a little more of a fuss.  Not a huge thing, but worth mentioning.

A minor niggle, but worth mentioning for the character customisation hounds out there (as I am one myself): many of the new skin textures do not really work well, or in some cases at all, with the age slider, so they're basically what you see is what you get, beyond it changing the hair colour progressively more white.

New mechanics are something of a mixed bag,
alternating between "it's okay" and "yeah, that's brilliant"

There's a variety of tweaks and downright new mechanics to the various armies.  As with most mods the unit tree is of course different to the main game, but that is pretty balanced and strong.  Probably the most welcome change in that regard is that even the beginning-level troops are fairly decently equipped and decent skirmishers - you're not really going to run an army of ill-equipped people unless you start recruiting the thieves and the like you may take prisoner.

The big main mechanical change here that isn't optional is the ability to create a "refuge" which you can fortify, as a sort of home base, without needing to capture a castle.  In theory this would be great, especially if you could fortify that position given the expenditure of funds, but in practice, since it can't be fortified, it just comes down to being able to choose one spot to be able rest in as you would a town, without paying rents.  Likewise you can create troop camps that have a similar sort of purpose, additionally allowing troops to rest if you enable the "realism" option requiring troops to rest to maintain morale.

Another big shift is in how the player character is fleshed out - you can choose a starting nationality, personality, and virtue which all give different conversation options for you to choose at different points.  For example a "melancholic" character can lament how a town leader is wasting their time with reluctance to approve recruiting in the town to attempt to get them to relent without bribing them.  This gives a touch of actual character to the player character I was rather fond of.

The biggest criticism I could level against Viking Conquest is they are all things that basically make the game harder for the player with the exception of the shield bash (which evens out since your troops can do it to) - stamina isn't counted towards AI opponents, so it only penalises the player and makes it even harder for you to fight personally against soldiers, the armour penalty likewise - it's claimed that these affect "all game characters" but I never saw the AI troops tiring as the player does.  It's entirely possible that perhaps I'm just fighting wrong, and there's likely a skill to be found there, but honestly, I just find these mechanics burdensome, not "fun".  Someone else's cup of tea, maybe, but not mine.

One mechanic I just unequivocally liked in Viking Conquest was the religion system.  You can choose to either be pagan or Christian, both have costs and benefits, neither is projected as the good guy, and the choice comes down to what angle you like to take.  Christianity offers an easier route, the ability to learn to read and write and ergo gain benefits from reading books (familiar to Warband players), and safe havens in the monasteries, while Pagan beliefs are more accepted in some areas, offer less support for the player, but is easier to advance upon and the monetary gain from sacking cathedrals is huge.  Neither option is really portrayed as morally superior to the other, which would have been a turn off, merely more accepted by lords/ladies of one religion, of course.  And there's that aspect to the relationships now as well - you can piss off strong believers of one religion if you have taken hostile actions against the others.

The amount of time to bootstrap
a new character has increased significantly

The offshoot of the changes to the troop trees, needing to get permission to recruit from towns, and the related changes, is that the game takes even longer than the normal Mount & Blade: Warband to get going.  While I feel its generally a little gentler on new characters, especially in terms of giving you stronger troops, the route to upgrading those troops is more arduous and also more expensive both in terms of initial upgrade costs and in those of wages.  You also have a barrier to entry added to the higher level troops in that you have to have a moderately high renown (150) to recruit them as mercenaries in the inns, they won't join your party otherwise.  The entry level troops are softened up and you don't generally get mobbed by deserters with high-level troops, so the general net effect here is the game is easier to get going in, but also much more time consuming; something worth noting since I know that many people already feel that Mount & Blade: Warband takes too long to get going.

To be fair to the game, you can enable an "easy recruitment" feature that makes it so you can always recruit from towns, the answer for recruitment is always yes, but the game kind of chides you for it, calling it a "beginner's feature".  No, game, I'd call it a "ain't nobody got time for that" feature.  I am generally not fond of games that kind of get a little sassy with players simply wanting to play it in their way, especially when that way is the status quo for the game it is an expansion to.

Seafaring adds a new dimension to the gameplay,
both in terms of travel, party management, and in combat

The big add to Viking Conquest, the one thing which was definitely the subject of a lot of buzz when the mod was first announced in the days of yore, was the addition of seafaring ships to the game, allowing both a game-world with different and a realistic transit, and combat.  While the combat aspect is the subject of interest, the navigation/transit and management aspects are there as well.

Actually, the management aspect is one of the deeper aspects, you can buy ships of different makes, with different capacities, customise their appearance in terms of sails and painted finishes, and you have to repair them to maintain them as they cross the seas - rough weather will damage them.  While I love the customisation aspect, the repair one ends up being kind of busy-work honestly - it's in dire need of an option to tell the game to automatically repair the ships if you enter a port and have money (if there is one, I couldn't find it), so you end up having to go into the ship menu in town, and go through each ship in turn, and click repair for each one.  At the very least a "repair all ships" button was called for, but it's absent.  The introduction of ships being able to be customised to some degree with a livery also makes the absence of shields with painted noble devices rather starkly apparent  - the shields added by Viking Conquest do not allow for painted noble devices as the base game does, and if the base game's shields are in there, I did not come across them in play.

The big aspect here though is, of course, the sea combat though, and it's definitely a strong positive for the game.  It's a new aspect to the game, adds new aspects of port city attack and defence, and more generally, adds a new combat mode to the game.  The sea combat is fairly tactical, especially so as far as Mount & Blade goes, and adds a new dynamic to the game certainly.  There's definitely something to be said for the spectacle of fighting ship-to-ship as well.  There's not as much to say about it that doesn't get into technical stuff, but suffice to say, it commands using the normal M&B command system so it's a little clunky in that respect, but the actual AI is decent, the pitched fights enthralling, and it is a strong theme component that works very well in Viking Conquest's favour.

Dedication to historical accuracy is an admirable goal,
but one which Viking Conquest falls short on in several ways

From the very start of the character creation you have this evocation of bygone days that's really neatly done, and being someone more than a little educated in both the history and the martial arts of the time that's a huge appeal for me, but one that suffered many hairline fractures along the way.  There's just so many little ways that it's inaccurate that wouldn't really affect the gameplay to be accurate in, it's puzzling.

One example of this is in the modern sensibilities exhibited with the Age selector on the character creation screen, and reveals the modern sensibilities.  "Young" is listed as 16-22 years old, "Adult" is listed 23-40 years old, and "Elder" is listed as 40+.  I'm sorry, but no, that isn't accurate to the time - in this age you would become a man at 12 and be expected to participate in armed manhunts for dangerous criminals, and a child would be considered 7-8.  No doubt this is out of modern sensibilities and some sensitivity to the issue of "child marriage", but the game could have simply just listed the age range rather than breaking the historical immersion.  It's full of very nitpicky examples of that kind of thing, but that is indeed nitpicking, so I'll leave it at that one prominent example.

The big place where this kind of lays debris on the tracks of gameplay is in the armour variety.  I commented on this in the initial review, and while they do seem to have eased the curve there, and given some variety with different colour, it's still a problem here, unfortunately.  Again I cast my mind back to Brytenwalda, where the developers had a variety of period clothing (and believable more modern equivalents) to fill in the lower end of the armour market, but coupled with the curve and a lack of armour in general, there's a real lack of variety here.  It's not any tighter than Mount & Blade was since unless you have the armour penalty mechanic we're talking strict statistical upgrades, but the lack of variety in it makes the progression seeming dull.

Still absent are the many forms of ringmail or various forms of leather armour that would be available in the time, and the game certainly makes a mail of chain seem much less common than it was in the time - full suits with chausses and voiders or sleeves certainly were, but shirts of various varieties and designs were not, as evidenced by the many designs of said surviving in museums to this day, albeit covered in rust.  So the net effect here is it sacrifices the interesting variety of armours present in Mount & Blade: Warband for a degree of historical accuracy.  I wouldn't say it is the best trade to be honest: gameplay should be the first consideration, not accuracy, and I say that as a woman that's complained at some length about the ridiculous ways games are often historically inaccurate.

I think I can best sum up my feelings here as such: historical accuracy is a laudable goal, but it should be done when it embellishes and improves the gameplay, not to its detriment.  And in general, when it isn't being just kind of annoying fractures in immersion, its somewhat dampening the gameplay.  As a whole, it's interesting and compelling, but also limiting to gameplay, so I'd say it is a net neutral, honestly.

The Final Word: Recommended - Viking Conquest, with its patched nature now, is a fairly solid expansion which adds a great number of solid mechanics with only a few missteps.  The biggest misgiving is in how the game makes the initial start-up for a new character quite arduous, and in the lack of variety in armour and weapons, which get samey pretty quickly.  Nonetheless, if the period appeals to you, this is a definite expansion to pick up.