Mount & Blade: Napoleonic Wars review

A few years ago, when the entire output of the games industry consisted of World War 2 shooters, a common question kept cropping up: why not be original and set a big FPS in World War 1 instead? The answer tended to boil down to one thing: reloading a gun is boring. Thus it was that after this Nazi-bashing period we moved onto the automatic adventures of Captain Dude McBadass in Modern Warfare, rather than the bolt-action japes of Captain Tommy Moustache in Battlefield 1916.

Once you go back to the age of musketry and the derring-do of Captain Nelson Wellington, the problem of reloading weaponry gets worse. Consequently, whether you can get into Napoleonic Wars, the new DLC for Mount and Blade: Warband, will be down to whether you can get into the spirit of the age. If not, it’s a tough sell given that reloading a single musket ball takes about ten seconds, but when things click this is a jolly add-on with plenty of flavour and charm as well as a great deal of potential for hardcore tactical play.

The Drill Manual

The merits of the Mount and Blade combat engine are already well known. It doesn’t look great, but it allows for brilliant real-time melee combat on foot and on horseback. The core melee game remains intact in the DLC, with bayonet-armed infantry mixing things up a little, but the musketry obviously alters the dynamic drastically. Anyone who’s played a firearms mod or With Fire and Sword, the game’s other musketry-based descendant, will know that gunpowder weapons are inaccurate but tremendously deadly. Unfortunately for newcomers, this means firing at a target, missing and then being one-shotted by some blighter behind you.

That’s the price demanded by the historical setting but more importantly, by the skill-based nature of the game. It might seem like much of the shooting is down to luck, but make no mistake: this is a demanding game that greatly rewards players who invest their time in it. Manoeuvring into position, picking a target and keeping your eye open for a flanking hussar are all easy skills to learn but difficult to master.

Newcomers might have to grin and bear it, but veterans of Mount and Blade have some new toys to play with. Aside from infantry and cavalry, the five nations in the game have access to some specialist units: artillerymen, sappers, musicians and generals, each bringing unique and in some cases rather bizarre traits to the battle. Artillerymen can load and fire cannons on the bigger maps, though in my experience most aren’t very well trained and blast their own side more often than not. Sappers construct defensive earthworks, throwing up barricades for reloading troops to crouch behind, whilst generals like Napoleon or Blücher (only one per side, of course) canter about providing buffs as well as another cavalry sword.

Napoleon: The Musical!

These units are all good additions to the combat, particularly the gunners – there’s something oddly appealing in the repetitive task of pummelling a fortress wall from half a mile away, then watching your soldiers pour into any breaches. It’s the musician, however, that tells me most about what sort of game Napoleonic Wars is.

This unit carries a single sword as its basic weapon, a suicidal arsenal for a front line soldier. Alongside that they can carry flutes, drums, bagpipes or trumpets. When they play, they provide buffs for friendly troops, though what these buffs are isn’t at all obvious unless you dig up the manual online and even then they seem negligible. Imagine offering such a unit choice to a hardened veteran of any top-dollar FPS multiplayer game. Imagine if the Engineer in Team Fortress 2 could only play his guitar and whack people with his wrench. What on earth is the musician in there for?

The answer is flavour. It’s a bizarre joy to see a Highland Bagpiper blasting out ‘Scotland the Brave’ as he plods through the melee, and that same odd charm is present in this DLC in spades. Officers carry a spyglass, pointless in most of the game’s close-knit battles but undoubtedly a nice touch. Engineers can build a whole variety of similar-sized earthworks that essentially do the same thing. Most of the units to choose from in the infantry list are different in uniform only, aside from the accurate rifleman. The soundtrack (when the musician units aren’t playing) should be ridiculous, as Beethoven’s Fifth and Pomp and Circumstance thunder over the musketry, but it’s actually ruddy marvellous.

Esprit de Corps

What’s more, from what I’ve seen, players are all too willing to join in with the jolly spirit of the game. Of course there’s the odd team killer or an Engineer who builds physics-defying towers of sandbags rather than proper defences, but on the whole players get stuck in with gusto. People are willing to man the cannons, rattle out a marching beat or shuttle troop-ferries back and forth across rivers (another charming little feature). Most players stick with line infantry (much as I might wish to see an all-musician trumpet-war) but with battles capped at 200 players there’s plenty of room for the other units to make an appearance amidst the smoke and the warcries.

I love the game for that. I love that I can get one kill for every 10 deaths and still feel like I’ve enjoyed myself. I love that I can fire and reload a mortar for a whole siege, with no idea if I’m hitting anything or not, but still find it amusing. Most of all, I love the fact that I’m not disappointed that this is only a multiplayer add-on, given the eons of time that I’ve ploughed into my world-conquering antics in Warband. The combat is certainly an acquired taste and not for everyone, but I really couldn’t care less. Let fly the standards, sound the trumpet and follow the signs for Waterloo.

Game details

Game title: Mount & Blade: Napoleonic Wars
Reviewed on: PC
Available for: PC
Publisher: Paradox
Developer: Flying Squirrel Entertainment
Strengths: Proven combat engine. Plenty of maps and game modes. Bags of character.
Weaknesses: Very specialist.
Score: 8 out of 10

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