Hell, It's About Time
The long-awaited sequel to Mount and Blade: Warband was spoken in the same breath as Half-Life 3. It's one of those games that we never thought would come out, but in a world where the latest Half-Life game is in fact out, it's fitting that Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord would release shortly after, 10 years since its development began. A game 10 years in the making can certainly indicate that it's been a rocky road for the development, and there's no doubt about it - Bannerlord is really rough around the edges. Despite its shortcomings, this is a worthy successor to one of the greatest simulation games ever made, and there's still much more to come during its time as an Early Access title.
Mount and Blade is a cult series with a fanatical following, but some might not know why it's been so hyped up. Mount and Blade: Warband is an incredibly successful title created by TaleWorlds Entertainment. Warband released in 2010, and allowed players to fulfill their ultimate medieval fantasy. The Mount and Blade universe takes place within a fictional world, but the different empires represent cultures from around our real world. Gameplay comprises a mix between real-time kingdom and army management as well as commanding troops in immersive third-person battles and sieges.
Kingdom Conquering Made Easy in Bannerlord
As with the previous title, players begin by creating their own character. This is one of my favorite parts, since you can create a hideously ugly person or someone who looks like a true warlord. Graphically speaking, Bannerlord's characters look a little dated, but you have a lot more cosmetic options than Warband. You'll be able to adjust your facial structure as usual, but there are far more hairdos and facial hair (if you're a male) this time around. Players are also, once more, able to choose their backstory by picking the outcome to small vignettes. This is not just for cosmetic reasons, as it boosts several of your skills so you can immediately determine what you want to specialize in. If you want to be a more cunning individual that fights with words, there are choices for that; conversely, if you favor brute strength, just pick choices to specialize in weapons.
Once you create your character, you're thrust into the immense world of Bannerlord. There is a tutorial, but it seems too confusing to be of any use. During the tutorial, you could choose weapons and fight one-on-one with trainers to get a feel for the combat, but there was no player direction, so I skipped it. If you haven't played a Mount and Blade title before, throwing yourself into the game's world will serve you far better than doing the tutorial.
Tutorial aside, you're on a quest to rescue your captured siblings. As of right now that quest is largely incomplete. You can progress through the main story to some small extent, but you'll spend nearly all of your time creating your own kingdom, allying with other lords and factions, and attempting to dominate all of your enemies. The gameplay loop comprises going on quests, recruiting new men for your ever-expanding Warband, making money, and really doing whatever you want. This is all conducted on a giant overworld map, which is actually gorgeous. There is so much detail put into the world of Bannerlord, with vast mountain ranges and lush forests scattered all throughout. A faction called the Southern Empire, where you begin your quest is chock full of beautiful olive fields and farmland.
During the winter, a thick blanket of snow overcomes the vast majority of the map. Bannerlord is extremely immersive, and despite the somewhat dated graphics, the world is always breathtaking. Some battlefields, from which you command troops, are also well-made and much more appealing than the previous game. During one battle where dozens upon dozens of my troops engaged combat with the enemy, the aftermath was jawdropping. Arrow shafts litter the battlefield while blood soaks the snow. If you want to feel what it may have been like to partake in a medieval battle a thousand years ago, I reckon no game does it better than Bannerlord.
On the topic of battles, they are much better this time around. TaleWorlds Entertainment vastly improved the user interface for Bannerlord. The unclear, unhelpful UI of the previous title made battles very difficult. Commanding my troops was awkward due to the lack of visual information to aid me. In Bannerlord, when you command troops, you can choose different battle formations. The selection of formations is then shown to the player on the user interface, so you know how your troops are going to respond. Cycling through different types of troops and commanding individual units is a breeze. I'm still a terrible commander and there is a steep learning curve, but battles have never felt better. Combat as a whole is generally the same as Warband, which is fine. Swinging your mouse in a specific direction controls the way your character handles their weapon. As they say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
User interface is improved virtually everywhere else, from upgrading and managing troops after battle to selling all of your well-deserved (or ill-gotten) loot after a well-fought battle. One issue from Warband was inventory management - it was just archaic and unclear even 10 years ago. In Bannerlord, however, selling items and upgrading your own character's armor is easy as pie. Speaking of ease, navigation has received a well-needed improvement, since you can mark towns on your map. No longer do you have to struggle to find some backwater town tucked away in the vast world of Mount and Blade.
Bannerlord's Rough Sieges, Quests, and Skills
Many users have reported bugs, bugs, and more bugs in Bannerlord. Fortunately, I haven't experienced anything game-breaking, but, there are some unimplimented textures, placeholder dialogue and overall performance issues. The performance issues aren't egregious for me with my admittedly powerful PC for the most part; however, sieges are nearly unplayable.
Sieges are a staple for this series. Storming castles with hundreds of troops and siege towers is an incredible sight. The spectacle is ruined when sieges run at 10 frames per second or less. I've noticed that once the siege tower hits the walls of a castle, the framerate takes a deep dive into oblivion for the rest of the fight. Climbing the tower and fighting on top of the walls crawls at a snail's pace because the performance is frustrating. Massive memory leaks are a prevalent issue right now and well-documented. While one can say that Bannerdlord is in Early Access and therefore a work in progress, sieges are so bad that it becomes almost unplayable. So far, I've opted to send in troops and have the battle automatically play out rather than participate.
Another major issue Bannerlord has is quest variety. Quests are a great way to make money, at least at the beginning of the game. Unfortunately, the variety of quests is abysmal. One quest involves a family feud, where a villager's daughter ran off with a lover. You'll see this same quest used dozens of times across the world, and the same can be said for the other eight or so quests throughout the game.
The worst one I've come across so far, however, are bandit dens. You'll be assigned a quest to flush out some bandits from their hideout, but you can only take 10 men. Mind you, you're unable to choose which of your units you take, so you might be stuck with the weakest of your bunch. And sometimes, these hideouts contain twenty or more bandits. What's worse, the bandit den quests take place within these sprawling battlefields filled with trees and caves, and your character walks extremely slow since you can't bring your horse. It's no doubt the worst quest in Bannerlord, and unfortunately, there's a lot of bandit dens.
The final complaint I have for Bannerlord is the skill system. I don't really understand it. There are quite a few different skills to aid you in combat, heal faster, run your kingdom smoother, and more. Your character levels up at a pitifully slow pace, so there seems to be hardly any progression. You can allocate points to boost your experience gain for several skills, but it doesn't seem to help. It's not even very clear how you naturally increase your experience in skills. Do I do it by using specific weapons, for example? Does it just happen over time, at random? The latter seems to be the case, so Bannerlord would benefit from some clarity and a possible boost on how often your skills increase.
Bannerlord's Path Forward
Multiplayer is another series staple, and it's back. Right now, it seems pretty bare bones with only a few maps and game modes. My favorite is team deathmatch, which pits two sides of up to fifty players head-to-head. It's chaotic and pure madness, enthralling all the same. The ability to tune your class's loadout is fun and keeps me coming back to try new combinations. Again though, since there are few maps, it does get old fast. With more content on the way, I have high hopes that it'll be a hit.
There's still a lot of missing features in Bannerlord, and obviously, a lot of issues to fix. Sieges are unplayable, quest variety is pitiful, the skill system needs a lot of work. But to me, the good outweighs the bad. The improvements to the UI and graphics made Bannerlord alone are enough to keep me playing this title over the far more polished Warband. I'm literally itching to play more Bannerlord when I'm not on because I love the giant battles and growing my army. My quest to become the lord of all the lands is still far off, but once Bannerlord is out of Early Access, I suspect my dream will come true.
TechRaptor previewed Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord on PC via Steam Early Access with a copy provided by the developer.