The game starts with you deciding your upbringing and background, as well as your looks. Your upbringing is decided with a few questions, such as your father's occupation and your own chosen career choice before you decide to explore the big, wide world.
Your choices affect your starting stats, so choosing to go to university will mean you have a high intelligence score, but will adversely affect your renown score for some reason. Guess they weren’t big readers back in those days.
Once you've chosen your background, you then get to allocate skill points in true RPG style. You'll need to be fairly careful here, and consider how you want to play Mount & Blade
. Whether you want to fight battles or become a trader, you'll need to choose and nurture the skills appropriate to your chosen career path. For example, adding points to your trade skill will enable you to be able to assess and pick out the best trade routes later on.
There are a huge number of options available when designing your look, however the models are quite basic in terms of polygon count, so all our characters ended up looking like variations of famed potato-head, Wayne Rooney. Still, you very rarely get to see your character up close and personal, so you won't be looking at Rooney's ugly mug for long thankfully.
Once you've finished fleshing out your character, you are dumped in the middle of the map and what comes next is up to you. Nearby is a training ground where you can hone your battle skills and a castle to trade in and get some quests under your belt.
Quests are simple "go here, do that" affairs which range from delivering letters to executing convicts, but it's who
you perform the quest for that matters. The more quests you perform for people, the better your standing with them becomes. Performing tasks for village elders means your standing with the village increases, which means that you have a better chance of recruiting troops from the village, or better trading relationships with the village.
Performing tasks for Lords or Kings on the other hand means that you'll eventually get the opportunity to serve them as a mercenary or a vassal. As you progress through the game, you'll gather your own troops and eventually gain control of your own fiefs.
The more renown you have, the more troops you'll be able to recruit. Troops can be made of either unskilled soldiers, recruited from the villages, or more experienced veterans recruited from towns. Veterans are more skilled at battle, but they'll cost more to recruit and employ. All your troops earn experience from battles, and you have the opportunity to specialise their experience as they survive more battles.
You can control battles from the rear if you want, letting your troops do all the hard work, or you can dive in and take part in the battle yourself. It's here that Mount & Blade
's widely touted mounted combat system comes into play. If you're riding a horse, you don't have to dismount to take part in the battle.
As well as weapon skills and proficiencies, weapon damage is also physics-based – the game takes into account speed, angle of attack and so on. This means that if you're swing a sword from a moving horse the damage will be greater than if you're swing from the ground, due to the added momentum from the horse. Horse-based combat takes some getting used to, but given practice it's possible to kill lesser opponents with a single blow. If you get bored fighting with a sword, you can also use your horse to trample opponents. Ouch!
If you win the battle, your renown increases again and you get all the spoils of victory, including the opportunity to take prisoners to ransom later. If you lose, your renown goes down, and you yourself are taken prisoner. You're paraded around the countryside until you manage to escape, less a few troops and possessions. If you had veterans in your troops, some of them may be found propping up the bar in the local town, if you still have the cash to recruit them again.
While you play, the world is living and events are happening: battles are fought, alliances are formed, caravans trade and raiders raid. All of this happens without any input from you, and helps the illusion that you're in a living, breathing world.
The game carries on in this fashion until you decide to retire from adventuring – because there's no real story or objective to the game, when you decide to quit is up to you.