What is it specifically, though, that has kept me playing for such a long time? In a word: combat. Regular readers of this column know that I'm not a combat guy. In Mount & Blade, though, combat is so brilliantly handled that I can't call it anything else but sensational. To begin with, the geography of the combat regions is so well-designed that it is both visually and tactically beautiful. Mountain passes, deep streams, and generally hilly terrain provide a wealth of tactical opportunities, and they're beautiful graphically as well.
Second, and I can't stress this enough: horses. Horses have never been as thoughtfully and beautifully represented as in this game. Combat on horseback is absolutely unforgettable, and since the primary camera is slightly behind and above your character, you get to see it all. The animations for the horses are stellar and entirely convincing, and in rare moments you will see some spectacular things"”a fallen enemy being dragged by his horse looks amazing, and a horse collapsing and throwing its rider is one of the best animations I've ever seen in a game, period.
I've focused on archery as my combat skill, because it's tremendously interesting in this game, and when I shoot an enemy, the arrow remains. Passing a fallen enemy on the battleground and seeing several arrows sticking out of his chest is a remarkable moment.
The combination of horses and archery make for thrilling combat, particularly when the enemy has horses as well. And there are frequently 25+ units on a battlefield, so it provides a tense, gripping illustration of the chaos of combat. It's so immersive that it's almost impossible to stop playing.