If all you had to do was fight, Mount & Blade might have been a winner. TaleWorlds Entertainment has come up with one of the most innovative and user-friendly re-creations of combat ever seen in a first/third-person RPG, with exciting battles on foot, mounted on horseback, and at the head of a private army. Unfortunately, this derring-do is only one part of a cheaply stitched-together, single-player-only role-playing game that replaces plot with a sandbox world that leaves you without a clue of what to do or where to go. There is something positive to be said for wide-open RPGs that leave the storytelling up to you, but this game is so incomplete that it'll feel as if you're being asked to script a heroic saga without the benefit of pen and paper.
A strong battle engine isn't enough to offset all of the problems with Mount & Blade's fit, finish, and near-total lack of RPG structure.
At its center, Mount & Blade isn't so much a structured RPG as an exploration of being stranded in a medieval world. Even though the game gets underway with a detailed character creation process loaded with a D&D level of rigmarole regarding the stats, skills, and personality-establishing questions about your childhood last heard from your shrink, there is no shape to the game beyond that. You roll up as a hero, then head off adventuring in the realistic (meaning no magic or monsters) medieval land of Calradia. There is no story arc whatsoever, so the game begins without a strong sense of purpose to help get you immersed.
This isn't to say that there isn't anything to do in Calradia. There is, but you have to do a great deal of wandering around to find it. Removing any sort of story hook from Mount & Blade makes it only appropriate for the hardcore role-playing gamer who plays RPGs just to explore a fantasy land, not to accomplish anything or become an epic-level druid or whatever. When the game starts you're plopped down on the back of a horse in the middle of a vast medieval realm dotted by towns, castles, and the odd river and mountain range. Traveling across this land is easily accomplished on a tactical map of sorts, where you click on the location you want to visit to gallop off toward it. There isn't any guidance provided as to which place you should visit first, so you're left cruising around on a piebald nag with no particular place to go.
A lot of background details are present in the game, as Calradia is divided up between four kingdoms and a Middle Eastern-style khanate (a region under the jurisdiction of a khan), and every lord and king has a listing in an encyclopedia that you can bring up on demand. But these entries aren't entirely thorough, giving you only a brief rundown of the major players in the land. The backdrop is always busy with various wars, villages being looted, and castles being besieged, although you feel more like a hapless spectator than a wannabe hero with anything at stake during all of this conflict. You tend to have to research your possible destinations through bland text write-ups, or to search around in the documentation in the menus to find out why the king of Swadia is attacking the khanate of Kergit. Even then, you generally don't receive a lot of solid answers.
You could walk out of your house and trip over a more attractive game than Mount & Blade.
Interaction with Calradia is seriously lacking. Quests are available in towns and castles, although their number and location is spotty. Villagers only respond to a canned set of questions about local rumors and what sort of goods are produced locally. Answers are generic listings of local features, so it feels more like you're consulting a travel guidebook for Calradia than actually speaking to a human being. You talk to one peasant, you've pretty much talked to them all. Many times, too, you'll ride over to a nearby village and discover that the locals don't need any assistance. You can easily run into this "Thanks, but no thanks" response in three or four towns in succession, particularly at the start of the game when you're trotting around trying to get the lay of the land. Needless to say, this doesn't exactly whet your appetite to see what else this sandbox world has to offer.
What quests are on hand are generally boring. A town elder may ask you to train a few residents so that they can better fight off bandits, or run across the land in search of a certain amount of wheat or butter. A guild merchant may want you to run a cattle drive. Castle lords and kings are also undemanding. In the early stages of the game, all they seem to require are delivery services involving running letters from one nobleman to another and collecting overdue taxes or other debts. Some of these quests involve utilizing character stats and special skills, such as trying to persuade a lord to pony up the cash he owes one of his fellow noblemen. This adds to the game's RPG flavor, although the conversation options are so limited that you'll feel like you're just going through the motions most of the time. More dramatic tasks like ridding regions of outlaws are eventually offered up, but these assignments are so simplistic that all you have to do is ride to a specific location and kill everybody there.