Review: Viking Conquest: Reforged Edition

Viking Conquest's Reforged Edition is about as expansive as I think you can get in Mount & Blade: Warband, between the day labour jobs, new items, religious system, and other additions.  It's complete, and pretty solid.  The biggest complaints come with its claims to historical accuracy which, while it's more historically-accurate than many games, it has many flaws, and in the relatively small variety of armour and weapons, which is diminished compared to Mount & Blade: Warband (though has been increased since the expansion's debut).  All in all, not perfect, but a very solid expansion and likely worth the money, especially for enthusiasts of Mount & Blade.
Review: Viking Conquest: Reforged Edition
Date published: Aug 1, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Mount & Blade: Viking Conquest: Reforged Edition is the definitive edition of the Mount & Blade: Warband expansion developed by Brytenwalda and published by original Mount & Blade: Warband developers Taleworlds interactive.  While it released to some rocky reception to say the least, since it had significant technical problems on many setups, the Brytenwalda team have since released an update, and now, this definitive "Reforged Edition" with both content improvements and technical fixes.  By the by, I would argue it's the Mount & Blade: Warband Expansion, as there's not too much more that could be added to Warband without an engine rewrite (which essentially what we're getting with Bannerlord, essentially, mind you).  It makes a fitting swan-song to the popular sandbox game, though it is still not without faults, certainly.

A selection of many more creation options
help to tailor the experience you want to play

The first thing I noticed going in was that the game provides you with a plethora of different options in how to start off, and what game options are enabled or disabled in your particular instance of the game.  For example, there's the option of playing the storyline mode, wherein things are more rigid and companions' roles are solid, the classical Mount & Blade sandbox mode with all of its usual freedom, and even options to start in that sandbox mode as a vassal or king, for those wanting to avoid the usual beginning-of-the-game tedium of getting yourself bootstrapped and started up.  I'm sure the last two are welcome additions to many a Mount & Blade: Warband enthusiast, though to me the end-game is much more rewarding when you've gone through all that toil to get there, so my play in those modes was limited to ensuring they do work as described (and they do).

Those are not the only options, however, as Viking Conquest adds concepts such as stamina, needing to give your army resting periods to keep morale and health up, making heavy armour give penalties to make both light and heavy infantry useful, and the option for gore as well, which includes things like dismemberment that were not a feature of the original Mount & Blade.  In the character creation proper, there's also the option for varying heights, as well as different ages in a mechanical sense as well as simply aesthetic one, which comes up upon occasion in dialogue and has some effects on your skills and learning.

All in all there's a lot more customisation given in the set-up of a Mount & Blade game, and the new mechanics introduced are mostly made optional, so if you decide you don't really like them, you can just disable them.  I'll get more into the nitty-gritty of the mechanics a little later, but I definitely appreciated the creation menu replete with difficulty and mechanics options, which allow you to pretty much set up the game to your specific speed and what you enjoy yourself, which gives great dividends in how much fun I had with the game.

The story-mode campaign is a strong
new addition to the Mount & Blade formula

Arguably the biggest addition Viking Conquest offers to the existing Mount & Blade gameplay is that of an over-arching story-line, complete with character arcs and different quests, side-quests, and the like.  I wouldn't say it's as deep as many narrative-driven games, especially since the sandbox you're in means you can lose sight of the overarching goal a little too easily, but the addition of context to that sandbox with a story and motivation for the player is definitely something that makes it stronger.

The game puts you in the boots of your created character, sailing overseas to Friese with your mother, whom is ill, to seek the aid of a renowned healer whom is said to be able to cure any ill.  Your hired boat stops to loot the wreckage of boats that were attacked at sea, only to fall prey to the raiders that wrecked those other boats.  You fight a losing battle then, only to wake some time later having washed up in shore and been patched up by the son of that healer, whom had passed away.  You're then left to set off to try to see if there were survivors of your boat other than yourself, and well into the feudal politics of dark ages England, France, and Scandinavia.

Story itself isn't the games strong point, I'd say, and it relies on a fair bit of contrivance in its framing device, but when it sets down to things it works well enough as a sort of medium to offer the sandbox some context and meaning, as well as motive to the main character.  The main problem I have with it is a common problem I have with narrative games that rely on a framing device such as that - we're expected to care about the loss of people whom we have barely been introduced to.  Beyond that however, I would say the story is fairly interesting, it not particularly remarkable in its strokes.  Some of the quests do suffer from not properly signposting what the victory condition is, though.

However, the story itself does come at something of a cost, which was unexplained in previous versions but at least is now in the Reforged Edition: the higher end advancement of the game is significantly curtailed.  You can create a kingdom, but not assign companions as vassals.  Factions that didn't die off historically cannot be completely defeated.  You won't be able to definitively beat certain lords since they are quest-givers in the story.  It's not the hugest thing in the world to me personally, but it does highlight the traditional trade-off: the story comes at the cost of a degree of freedom in the sandbox.  There would have been ways to work around these problems, but they do require some complexity.  I feel it would have been in Viking Conquest's best interests to do so however, since the appeal of Mount & Blade: Warband, or part of it at least, has always been in the large degree of freedom it offers to the player.

There's quite a few interesting new mechanics as well

Adding stamina in particular to the mix I found made the game more skilful and less drive-by horse stabbings, though ironically the introduction of said mechanic intrinsically makes horses more valuable, since running on foot will deplete your stamina all the quicker.  However, this does somewhat come at the cost of making the already difficult early game harder - its less difficult than it was previously, for the additions Viking Conquest has made, but still not easy.  It's entirely optional, so after giving it a decent bash for 10 levels of advancement or so I restarted without it, but I can see those who wanted the game to be more skilful being very pleased with that addition.

The rest mechanic is the one that does actually both make sense and appreciably add to the game's difficulty without being overly so, but it's not quite what it says on the tin.  What it actually refers to isn't as one might thing, getting a proper night's rest in town or making camp, but rather, rotating armies on the march.  This ties into the new "refuge" mechanic that lets you create your own small camp - and later as you upgrade it, fort - to house troops and other services.  Armies get tired on long marching expeditions, so the rotation of troops is important with this mechanic enabled.  I find it a very sensible mechanic, but it could have been explained better.  It also could do with making it clearer as to what troops are in need of rotation, as there is not any such indication.  The game will merely tell you when some of your troops require rest, but not which ones, or at the very least, how many.  So it's a good idea somewhat let down by its implementation.  Still a good one though, and the ability to create your own fort with the refuge mechanic was very welcome, since it allows an otherwise un-landed player to manage their army effectively and have something of a base of operations - no doubt the intention of the addition.

Heavy armour encumbrance does make light infantry more valuable, but since troops with heavier armour didn't seem too appreciably worse, and cavalry is somewhat prevalent in the higher progression, it seems more of a play-style choice more than anything, so that it's optional is probably ideal.  Nonetheless, it is there, and the affect on infantry at least is appreciable - chain-equipped infantry will move somewhat slower (and tire slower if stanima is equipped).

The three aforementioned mechanics - stamina, rest, and heavy armour encumbrance - definitely seem to be designed to work with one another, and combined, they certainly make the game difficult and more "realistic".  Personally I found it a little too much of a constant frustration to adjust my play-style of a game that I've got hundreds of hours in (old dog, new tricks, etc), but yeah, I can certainly see the appeal of a more difficult game since that is one of the enduring complaints of long-time players of the base game.

There's other mechanical additions, such as the gore, but they're more simple preference with play-styles than anything else, such as the fairly fine-grained difficulty options that expand on Mount & Blade: Warband's already solid offering in that regard.

A variety of day labour and similar jobs
help to even out the difficulty in the early-game

As I commented on prior, one of the bigger bugbears to Mount & Blade: Warband traditionally was how difficult it can be to boot-strap yourself into a successful party of adventurers with army and such.  Viking Conquest has a few solutions to this all available, including more beginning quests with more direction in that regard, but more notably, it has the option to do "day labour" which include small mini-games such as collecting hay from fields and other such things, to earn a starting wage of sorts.

The mini-games themselves are pretty much Farm Simulator-esque time-wasters, not particularly complex or notable in that regard, but they're small, simple, and most importantly kept short - they don't really overstay their welcome.  None of them are really the best bang for the buck in terms of getting money for the time you spend, but that's by design - these are the day labours of peasants in the fields, not of some noble knight of the realm or the like.  Nonetheless, they offer a way to get some starting money beyond shaking down thugs, which could be difficult depending on your starting stats, or mercantile, which tended to need more guards than you'd be able to afford at the start, though you could make it work if you took longer, safer routes - more of an issue in Viking Conquest than the original since it has more thugs and robber types wandering around.  With those jobs added, however, there's several more viable starting routes.

While the interest in historical accuracy is laudable,
it is not very strong in many noticeable places

Being a HEMA enthusiast myself and having quite the interest in medieval and dark ages history I can certainly understand the appeal of having some historical accuracy in the game, but Viking Conquest flubs it in some very strange ways that are to the detriment of the setting, some of them small, others of them large, but most of them in aid of the actual gameplay, so ultimately, forgivably.

For instance, one thing that stood out to me was the ages given in for "young", "middle aged", and "elder" in the character creation, which quite clearly ascribe to modern norms, rather than the reality of the time of the setting.  As Lloyd aka LindyBeige explains in this video, at the age of 12 you became a man (or woman) and were expected to discharge your responsibilities as an adult.  So calling something in the early 20s a youth seems a misnomer at best.  There's a lot of little things like that as well, such as the kind of impractical sheathes, scabbards, and quivers that are common in historical fiction.  Nothing that is game-breaking by any measure, but all things that diminish the claim to historical accuracy.

A consideration more pertinent to the game design is the concept of a non-vassal holding land in a keep.  This comes up if you buy an enterprise in a towne through the mayor, and you can do this irrespective of noble rank, right to rule, or more properly in historical context, being a part of the medieval peerage with a lord or king you serve under.  There was pretty much two ways you held land outside of the peerage in this era of history: you were the Church, and ergo had eminent domain claims, or you were a robber, and held the land without lord, illegally.  Neither of which is presented here.  While it's in aid of the gameplay to not hobble a non-noble starting player in a very appreciable way, I feel there's ways the game could have gone about allowing it in ways that better fit in context - for instance having an advocate in the town who acted as an intermediary.  Again not a game-breaking thing, but there was the possibility here for some thematic embellishment that feels a bit like a missed opportunity.

Religious interplay and sea-faring 
are on the other hand. opportunities quite well-taken

The big themetic elements in the game are right there in the title - Viking Conquest.  The game features quite prominently the sea-faring, "Viking" aspect, which is further embellished upon with the religious element of conflict between the pagan gods of old and the (at the time emerging) Christian church, both of which are the games stronger points.

The sea-faring element is some good fun, allowing both much easier fast travel about the map and some harrowing battles.  The sea battles are somewhat of a gimmick, since you don't have direct control of the ships - but a fun one for the most part, though the lustre I do have to admit fairly wore off after some time and left them as just another battle amidst the many of Viking Conquest.  That said, even with the lustre worn off, I had some fun with them, beyond the occasional aggrivation of losing them because I went overboard.  No swimming in Viking Conquest, it's just instant death, and it's a little easier than it should be.  That said, they add another element to the combat and some greater challenge, both of which I greatly appreciated.

The graphical polish, while certainly still not
"next-gen" is definitely appreciable in Viking Conquest

One of the larger non-design improvements in the game is definitely in the presentation, both in a much better texture quality and also in the town menus showing the actual towns, which is a nice touch.  I'm hardly going to say that this is "next-gen" graphics - this has nothing on something like iD Tech or CryEngine, but it certainly looks much better than the original Moung & Blade: Warband - though there's some definite seams, and the actual models couldn't be changed so those remain rather low-poly.  Nonetheless, the improvements here seem to be as strong as you can get without engine changes, so for an expansion, Viking Conquest has done well in that regard.

The Final Word: Recommended - In its definitive,