So far, the closest I have come to feeling the stories of The Saxon Chronicles is the Viking Conquest conversion for Mount & Blade: Warband. I am almost ashamed to say it, but it is my story and I’m sticking to it. Viking Conquest is also, for me, a very addicting game; much like Patrician III and for pretty much the same reasons. The campaign games for both the original and the conversion are open ended worlds where one must build power over time. The necessary money can be made by trading between cities or by taking on quests (which often involves fighting). The grind gets very repetitive but for some reason it is difficult to stop.
Mount & Blade was a long time being developed. After it finally came out, it was a long time before I broke down and bought it. Even after buying it, it took until now for me to even try the Viking Conquest version of the game.
The first beta versions of the game were released in 2004. At the time, the concept had me very excited. The idea was to create a realistic, first-person game of medieval combat; no magic or fabulous creatures – something historically plausible. A particular emphasis was to be placed on mounted combat. I recall, first, my thrill with the whole concept but then I lost track of it as development drew on. I may have even tried an early beta-build and couldn’t quite get the hang of it.
Eventually, the full release came out and the mixed reviews delayed my decision to buy. I really should have started on this article back then, because I don’t remember what my concerns were – only that I had them. Even at release, some of those free pre-release builds were still around, which made the price point for the release version seem even more expensive. Did the game look all that much better than the version that I had downloaded for free? The original game was released in 2008 and an upgraded version in 2010. One impression I had of that second release is that, once multiplayer was supported, this seemed to de-emphasize the single player experience. Some critics complained that single-player was under-developed. For myself, I was only interested in single-player.
More years slid by and eventually versions of the game got discounted to a point where I couldn’t say no. By then, another expansion had been released, called Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword (2011) as well as total-conversion mods for the Napoleonic Wars and the Viking Age. I think I bought the base game when it went on sale as a teaser for the DLCs and then a packaged version when that went on sale. Confusingly (for me) my licenses for the games are split between GOG and Steam so that I have to be sure to install from the right source, depending on what version I am after.
So now I had the full 2010 release of Mount & Blade: Warbands copy in hand and it was time to try it. The game has you take on the persona of a wandering warrior in a mythical medieval land. There is a tutorial to teach you the combat system (more on that later) before you begin your campaign. In the campaign portion, you can wander from town-to-town taking on quests, buying high and selling low, or just fighting people and taking their stuff. It is an open-ended environment you can use to build your own story as you collect wealth, followers, and status against a background of politics and warfare between kingdoms. On several fronts, the game didn’t completely thrill me, but these were all minor issues. The killer was the mouse configuration. While the assignment of the mouse buttons to in-game actions is configurable, the defaults for the game override your Windows settings. I played for a few hours (I can see the records in Steam) and then never went back.
Sometime after this experience, I had a chance to pick up the Viking and Napoleonic DLCs cheap. I think, at that time, the Napoleonic one was something I had read some good stuff about and I figured it was worth the price. The horrific trauma of the left-handed mouse problem had either softened with time or was forgotten. Yet, the opportunity to buy didn’t translate into an urge to play. It didn’t help that I would have had to delete my existing installation and reinstall from another source, one of those things that just makes me nervous.
And so it sat until I read that Viking Conquest had a historically-interesting representation of the Battle of Ashdown. I also know how to switch the mouse buttons in the hardware controller, so I was ready!
Viking Conquest moves from a mythical medieval land to the real England, Ireland, Scotland (plus the coastal area around the Low Countries) shortly after the Viking conquest of Northumbria. Beyond that, the premise is pretty much the same as the unmodified Mount & Blade. The campaign opens with you traveling with your mother to get her some medical attention. Before you arrive, you are ambushed at sea by a minor Viking warlord. In the attack, you to lose both your mother and all your worldly possessions. This sets you on a journey to avenge her death while trying to make your fortune in the England of around 870.
As I indicated at the outset, the gameplay is similar to many multi-faceted strategy games based on an open world and user-driven (somewhat) stories. You move from town to town so as to engage the key people you can locate. You need money, which you can obtain through trading or by performing quests. You can also attack other forces on the map and, upon defeating them, take their stuff. Depending on whom those forces were aligned with, your popularity among the factions on the map will shift with your actions. Thus you gradually make friends as well as enemies.
You have plenty of ways of spending that money. You can upgrade your own gear or recruit a body of armed men, which then allow you to engage ever larger groups of warriors that are also wandering the map. You can also build your own fortune, buying land, wooing young women of nobility, and forming alliances with the powers that be. It is, as I said, reminiscent of other economic/empire building strategy games except that the lowest level interface is a first-person control of your own character.
That first-person system gets points for the attempt but, for me, the result is a little on the clumsy side. I’m not all that familiar with the genre the Mount & Blade developers were trying to improve upon – Elder Scrolls has been cited as an inspiration – so I don’t know how others might have done it the same or better. To me, the control scheme of holding down a mouse button and then moving the mouse (right button to parry or block, left to attack) has hints of the gesture system of Black & White. In other words, it seems to be one of those promising but dead-end concepts of early-aughts UI. While mouse-gesture-based combat would seem to be a way to immerse the player by focusing on movement rather than keyboards and control panels, this type of control is simultaneously imprecise and hell on the wrists. It makes me wonder how they’ve translated the control system to the gaming controllers for their console ports, but I’ll not dig that up right now.
One nice bit of depth to this gaming system is that while it’s a first-person interface, it does kind of feel like a fully-populated world. As your attributes develop, you can lead more and more men, very quickly bringing 100+ fellow soldiers with you into the fight. Unlike some first-person semi-strategic implementations, you’re not required to personally defeat the opposing hoards in hand-to-hand combat. In fact, you could easily win most fights by hanging back and watching your men take the lead. Besides simply your druthers as a player (isn’t the reason you’re playing so you can, you know, play?), there will be some advantages to actually leading your army and being out in front slaughtering enemy. I believe it will help with their morale to see you winning fights and the experience you gain in a fight will increase your leadership skills going forward.
In addition to first-person control, you also have battle commands to order your followers. Like the first-person control system, I’ve so far found the command system a bit awkward to use. Also like that first-person control system, I’m not sure how I would do it better. In this case, it is similar to other first-person tactical command interfaces. Specifically, I have ARMA in mind. Function keys pop up submenus which allow to to give formation or movement instructions to your followers. The commands can be given to your force as a whole, or to the unit-types separately (horses can be held back while the spearmen are ordered to charge, for example).
While the interface is simplistic and a tad difficult, it also more closely approximates the level of control a warlord might have had over his troops much better than your typical RTS interface (or even, let’s say, a Field of Glory battle). Simulation-wise, it isn’t completely unrealistic but, in particular, it fails in approximating the earlier stages of a battle. In my gaming experience, battle lines close quickly after only a brief exchange of missiles and the shield infantry don’t stand for very long. However, my experience does not include two veteran shield walls facing each other, so the program may handle that better than I am anticipating.
As I started off with, this game has been both the most immersive Viking experience I’ve so far found as well as the most compelling Viking gaming experience. Both of these results surprise me. Not only does one expect first-person games to be among the sloppiest at getting the history right, but given the generated-world substrate, it is surprising that it can still approximate a historical feeling. Of course, a good chunk of that is my own good will. I can be generous when I want to be, willing to project my own storytelling on top of what the game provides me. Generous I must be because there are plenty of shortcomings. Like plenty of other games, there is really no room to let up – if I’m not slaughtering a couple of bands of thieves per week, I’m not going to have enough money to pay my followers. (At least, in this case, I do have to let everyone sleep.) The greater world, also, seems to be hurtling forward way too fast. I have less than a year of in-game time behind me and yet I’ve seen nearly a dozen wars started and stopped throughout England and Scandinavia. It seems like the NPCs feel compelled to keep as busy as I do.
By way of contrast, what has become far less immersive than it was the last time I wrote about it is Vikings. Causing the show’s issues (especially Season 5, Part 2) to stand out is that its narrative has entered the same territory that is covered by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and, perhaps more significantly, by Bernard Cornwell’s historically-based embellishment of the existing sources. So while it was charming to have a semi-mythological person like Ragnar Lothbrok depart on various flights of fancy, it is considerably less charming when it is a relatively well-documented figure such as Alfred the Great. Pained, I watched Alfred’s (ahistorical) mother Judith kill his older brother, King Æthelred I, who, in the show, never became king because… oh, never mind.
Also the epic/hero treatment of battles is taken to further levels of unreality. We see Saxon England saved, not by Alfred’s leadership, but by the fact he is joined by Ubbe and Björn Ragnarsson to defeat attacks first from King Harald Finehair and then from Danes-by-way-of-Ireland. Note it is the physical presence of this handful of individuals (shieldmaidens Lagertha and Torvi also figure) that alters the winds of war; they have come from Norway as refugees, arriving alone in a single boat. Ironically, there is a scene where Björn announces his intention to dethrone his brother from the rulership of (again, entirely made up) Kattegat. He is reminded that he doesn’t have an army. Nobles supporting a King (or a pretender, for that matter) were of value because of the men and resources they brought with them, not for their skill with the sword in battle.
Then there is this weird religious thing going on. Old Norse, Christianity, Islam, atheism, and even Buddhism all vie for the souls of Floki and the sons of Ragnar. Religion is a critical facet in the transition of England from a backwater of the Roman Empire to the global Ruler of the Waves. It’s something that Cornwell handles so well in his series. This is just goofy.
I’ll keep playing Viking Conquest and finish watch season 5 of Vikings, but I do the latter under protest.