Review: Mount & Blade: Viking Conquest

A strong story campaign and an interesting series of new mechanics unfortunately can't save the absolutely bug-ridden mess that this game is in its current state.  Crashes to desktop are frequent and there are many bugs and design flaws, from enemy armies not spawning to a "ferry" being a horse, this game has a lot of promise stymied by an absolute lack of any quality assurance and bug testing.
Review: Mount & Blade: Viking Conquest
Date published: Dec 15, 2014
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 oftentimes questionable dedication to historical accuracy that offers a Britain, France, and Denmark of old to explore and conquer as you see fit.  Fans of the titular Brytenwalda mod first designed by this team are no doubt wondering: is it as good as Brytenwalda?  No, not even close, to speak frankly, but it's not all bad.  Just very, very, very buggy.  Even my Australian readers have not seen this many bugs, let me assure you.

The technical aspects of the game are extremely lacking

Let's get that out of the way first, because while there's other criticisms of Viking Conquest this is by and large the main one and the largest one: Viking Conquest is a bug-ridden mess, to the point that for this reason alone I am loathe to recommend the game in its current state.  Crashes to desktop are constant, load times are obscene even if I put it on my modest SSD (sometimes into several minutes), textures often do not load, and the game suffers from less a case of rough edges and more just being rough all around.  This is a game where the QA department was obviously either asleep at the wheel, or non-existent.

To a certain degree, it's excusable - the mod is making the engine do a lot of things that it quite frankly was not designed to do - but only to a point.  Load times in particular are something indicative of poor organisation and optimisation on the mod end, and it seems like there's a big tradeoff in the texture load/cache time to have the higher res textures that, while they really do add to the game, don't make up for the load time enough, or the low-poly models they're being slathered over.

Speaking of optimisation, the game has frequent frame drops, oftentimes sometimes well below 30 frames per second.  Considering that I get well over 200 frames per second on the most rigorous settings of Mount & Blade: Warband, it seems rather obvious that there are optimisation issues with the expansion module from top to tail, so to speak.  There's not really any pattern to the frame drops, with some of them happening on a mostly empty field fighting five enemies as often as it does in the large town scenes where it might at least be somewhat understandable.

There's a lot of just rough edges that show a lack of attention to detail as well - ferries show you getting across the river on a horse rather than a boat, there are several dialogue options that can put you in an endless loop, and some textures are noticeably much lower-resolution than others.  It's quite a shame really, and to me, as I've stated, it really seems indicative of a lacking QA regimen.  I had a lot of time to think about that when I was crashing to desktop every 10 minutes or examining another texture that flat-out refused to load.

There are however quite a few rather
exemplary visual upgrades to Mount & Blade

It's funny though, because while the higher-resolution textures are what many might consider the visual upgrade to the game, I actually found the interface improvements much more compelling.  For example, whenever you enter a town now, instead of a dry list of options, you now get a dry list of options and a picture of the town, complete with villagers simulating their daily lives.  The villagers much more present in Viking Conquest's town are an almost entirely aesthetic addition, and yet they do so much to make the game seem much more real and immersive in that fashion, to say nothing of the towns themselves being much larger, and featuring many more buildings than just the services.  It does a lot to make the game seem much more like a cohesive world than it was previously.

A story campaign adds direction and depth to Mount & Blade's gameplay

The strongest addition of Viking Conquest is that of a story campaign mode that actually gives you something of an objective to achieve while you wander the overworld map.  This is something that many used to Mount & Blade may be able to take or leave, but I personally found that the game adding over-arching objectives to your gameplay (starting with finding the old crew to your ship) added a lot to the game and helped provide an early-game direction for the player, something that's usually rather lacking from Warband.  I won't spoil the story, but while it's no literary masterpiece, it's moire than serviceable, especially compared to the story arcs of other comparable open-world games such as Skyrim.  I rather liked it, though with my burgeoning powers of foresight I can tell you that some people are going to just gloss over it.  Like anything else in a sandbox game though, it may be there, but if you don't like it, you can just pass over it, either by chosing the sandbox mode rather than the story campaign mode, or just by choosing not to complete the story quest.

The dedication to historical accuracy is
simultaneously an attractive feature and a questionable one

Dedication to having historical accuracy in their mods is what launched the team's titular Brytenwalda mod to some fame, with realistic depictions of various period clothes and the like that added a lot of flavour, but unfortunately it doesn't seem to have been carried over to Viking Conquest.  While Brytenwalda had a variety of low-level clothing to fill out the otherwise uninteresting lower tier of armour and the like, Viking Conquest has a very paltry selection.  I can certainly understand wanting to make platemail and plated armour feel fare - it was at the time, though not unheard of - it's pretty much absolutely absent in Viking Conquest, and even mail (which wasn't uncommon back then) is fairly rare.  There's also a strange lack of ringmail or the various forms of leather armour that was available at the time.  So while having period-accurate armour is great, it doesn't have much variety of it at all, and so the net effect is it sacrifices Mount & Blade's previously quite numerous suits of armour for a small selection of much more period-accurate armour.

Let's talk about the elephant in the room then, as well.  Or troll, if you prefer.  The dedication to historical accuracy has a kind of large hole blown through it by the games strange obsession with having a pseudo-mythical element to it.  It has, for example, Grendel in it, bridge and all, and a few similar things like that.  It's not something that bothers me too much, actually, but you hardly get to plead a dedication to historical accuracy as a reason for deficiencies in the game when you discard it for mythology.

That mythology aspect actually is rather interesting, though, don't get me wrong, the main aspect of which is the conflict between Christianity and pagan Norse belief, complete with religious strongholds to learn from - or pillage - village and towns supporting one religion or the other, and the like.  It adds yet another level of complexity to Mount & Blade's interactions as well as being something of a focus of the story elements in the story campaign.  Like many things with Mount & Blade: Warband which Viking Conquest is built on top of, it does a good job of being as deep as you want it to - quite easy to grasp superficially but the underlying interactions are quite deeply-modelled.  Towns outlooks change subtly based on your religious acts in sensible ways, but ways built upon a complex system.

In general Viking Conquest has quite an interesting
grab-bag of new mechanics to add to the existing formula

The sea combat is the number one reason most people who were initially interested in Viking Conquest were watching the game through development, and to the developers' credit it's fairly well done, if a bit clunky.  The big shortcoming is that falling into water is pretty much an instant death, but the AI is smart enough to avoid that generally, and unlike the infamous siege ladders of Warband it's not too cramped and driving you off to your death.  There's some interesting maneuvering and ranged combat to be done prior to the melee engagement and it does a pretty good job of opening up the game world and offering another form of combat to the mix.

That's not the only thing that's been added to the expansion or changed in it, however.  Other examples include how the options for businesses to open are now limited by location, creating more diverse economy, while still having the ability to manually influence it by going to the newly-added locations like a quarry or farmstead to trade in otherwise limited resources of the area.  It adds some reasonable depth that remains intuitive and I quite enjoy it.

Viking Conquest also adds a series of optional mechanics with varied success: the armour penalty modifier values light armour more, and would be more sensible if there were real heavy armour like platemail but it does make you vary up troop types much more and makes the game a bit more interesting, a stamina mechanic that in theory would make you be much more tactical but in practice leaves you fatigued if you dare run about 10 feet and swing once, and gore which allows decapitations and the like, not really my thing, but some people will enjoy it in that same sort of historical accuracy bent.

Final Word: Neutral - Viking Conquest is an overambitious expansion pack that unfortunately one cannot recommend in its current quite buggy state.  If and when the bugs are ironed out it will certainly be a great, more historically-focussed expansion module for Mount & Blade: Warband, but as it stands, the constant crashes and general instability makes this one I’d give a pass until it gets patched.