Review of Brytenwalda by dilong PDF Print E-mail
Written by Dialong   



Author: Dialong

Pictures by Adorno



Brytenwalda is to M&B what Ben and Jerry's is to ice cream.

Warband has always been an incredibly promising game, but promising is a euphemism for something that's not ready for prime time. The engine is far and away the best representation we have of pre-modern combat and battle, but the substance has never been there. The 5 kingdoms in the native game are badly cribbed from historical civilizations that never interacted, so the end result feels very much like a "knights vs. samurai" YouTube comment debate.


What it was lacking was immersion, depth, consistency, grounding in a historical context. It was lacking reality, and Brytenwalda provides that in spades. The mod (developed by a cross-cultural volunteer team and presented with painstaking attention to detail) centers around the islands of Britain in late antiquity (historians won't let us say Dark Ages anymore). The Romans have left the island, the Saxons and Angles and Jutes are pushing hard on the borders of what will become Wales and Scotland, the Irish and Franks and raiding everywhere they can and chaos reigns.

The Brytenwalda development team must be gluttons for punishment - they've selected, for their subject matter, the least documented period of Western history in the past two millenia. That's not to say that the time isn't interesting and engaging, as what we do know is fascinating. The wars between the Britons and the Saxons spawned folk legends that remain relevant and well known, the two cultures espoused vastly different world views and practices, and always at the periphery of their savage and prolonged wars was the outside threat of raiders from beyond borders and across the sea. Britain in the 600s is akin to placing a viper, a cobra, a black mamba and a krait in a washing machine and observing the consequences.

But of course we're not observing the consequences - we're taking an active and vital role in shaping what kind of a place Britain becomes at this time. Nothing is certain beginning the game, and the three different playthroughs I've done so far have netted three vastly different results. In one, the Irish and Saxons of Mercia combined to drive the Britons to extinction; in another Mercia was cannabilised by East Seaxana who went on to dominate all of England; in the final game a small British kingdom named Pengwern managed to conquer almost the entire landmass. In all of these scenarios, my decisions have mattered - decisions I made and alliances I formed (or didn't form) went a long way to determining the outcome.

Enormous credit has to be given to the developers of the fantastic Diplomacy mod, who've managed to inject a healthy (and much needed) dose of the Civilization series into Warband. The diplomacy features are severely hampered by the restrictions of the engine, however. In order to lay siege to a city you're not currently at war with, you must ride back to your capital, send a formal declaration of war and ride back rather than launching a surprise attack. All of your interactions have to be done through dialogue to characters as opposed to using an intuitive menu. These gripes are minor, though, as the features added help make Brytenwalda truly special.

But that's only part of what sets this mod apart. The real point of difference is detail - incredible, painstaking detail. Out of the more than 50 castles and large strongholds, you'll struggle to begin noticing similarities between the layouts and scenery, as the vast majority are individually rendered, historically accurate earth-and-wood fortresses. You'll encounter stone Roman settlements, Hadrian's Wall, the secluded landing cove of a band of Frankish raiders complete with longships, British hill fortresses, Saxon strongholds dominated by a steep-roofed feasting hall. The research and accuracy of the architecture and settlement layouts is beyond belief, and made all the more impressive by the fact that the team are volunteers.

So, too, with the arms, armor, technology and units included in the mod. Although military sources from this period are nearly non-existant, what we do know for certain has been included in Brytenwalda with minor embellishments to give depth and balance to the combat. As far as is possible using the engine, the battles are an accurate depiction of what war was like in this place at this time - dominated by the 3-rank shield wall, spearmen and short swords. Archers are ineffective against a good shield wall but devastating in a siege, cavalry will be stopped dead against well drilled infantry but ride through levies with ease.

Battles are punishingly difficult at the beginning of the game and the learning curve is steep. If you attempt to charge into the fray, you will die over and over again. It takes patience to learn when is best to stand your ground and when is best to retreat, what ground is best for what formation, and when is the moment you should abandon the shield wall, charge, and rout the enemy. The difficulty makes it so much more rewarding when you get it right against a difficult opponent and win an important victory.

And the victories are important. Realism tweaks enacted by the development team means your army suffers from disease during a siege, attrition when morale is low, heavy casualties if you make a tactical error. Well trained troops are an enormously valuable commodity in this world so your losses matter, and the difficulty of navigating the wars all around you will ensure a strong army is always necessary. But if you persist, and if you get it right, there are very few feelings in gaming that can replicate fighting an enemy chief between opposing shield walls or taking the ancient fortress of Tintagel by charging the narrow isthmus connecting it to the land.

What the Brytenwalda development team have done, then, is take a fascinating time period, accurately reproduce what we know and make educated guesses regarding what we don't. They've created an incredible and immersive world and given the player an engaging, original premise to explore. And you will have to explore. I've been playing for months and still haven't been to Scotland or Ireland - I still haven't touched the naval combat section of the game, I still haven't accomplished what I set out to do at the beginning. I keep getting sidetracked with every new enemy I encounter, every new castle I haven't seen, and that's no bad thing.

All of this adds up to an unexpected but welcome conclusion - Brytenwalda is not only the best mod I've ever played, it's one of the best games I've ever played.








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