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Developed by TaleWorlds Entertainment - an independent Turkish team that started off as a husband and wife duo - Mount & Blade is a sandbox RPG that launched back in 2008 and quickly became a cult classic thanks to its high degree of freedom, complex systems, emergent gameplay, and a thriving mod scene. The game was followed by the Warband expansion in 2010, as well as a number of other, semi-official, expansions developed in collaboration with outside studios.
The main team, in the meantime, set its sights on something bigger - a proper sequel. It took quite a while for them to get there, but after nearly a decade, we can now finally play Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord, even if just in early access. But seeing how as of the moment of this writing, Bannerlord’s early access version already offers enough content to fill several games, we figured it deserved a closer look.
Memories of Calradia
For whatever reason, I vividly remember the moment when I first heard about Mount & Blade. It was back in 2006, maybe 2007. A buddy of mine was telling me about this new game he recently discovered. It had you play as a wandering knight in a fantasy land known as Calradia. This Calradia was clearly inspired by medieval Europe and as such, featured neither magic nor dragons.
Instead it offered you unprecedented freedom in what you could do. After you created a character by answering a number of questions about their past, which determined their starting attributes that you later increased by using related skills and leveling up, you were dropped onto a vast overland map. From there, you could pick a direction and go do whatever piqued your interest.
After hiring a couple of eager volunteers from nearby villages and over time training them up into a formidable force, you could align yourself with one of the local lords and help them conquer the land. Or you could start your own kingdom. Or just be a mercenary and swoop in whenever you saw an opportunity for some action, which in Calradia meant massive field battles or sieges with hundreds of simultaneous participants.
You could socialize with NPCs, open up shops, become filthy rich by trading, marry into nobility, manage a castle or even a city, or just be an outlaw and waylay everything that came near you. And the most amazing thing was that even if you decided to do absolutely nothing, the game would just go on without you. Kings would squabble and declare war on one another. Their vassals would run around training their own retinues. Caravans would carry goods between cities. And various flavors of brigand would try to steal anything not bolted down.
And underneath it all, you had a complex combat system where you not only had control over the direction of your swings, but you could also adjust their angle on the fly to go around your enemies’ shields and blocks. And if that wasn’t enough, the game took momentum into account, which made attacking from horseback especially devastating.
Back then, a game like this seemed almost too good to be true. The idea of playing as a guy, a single character you created, who could fight on foot or while riding a horse, while also commanding an entire army in real time was jaw-dropping. Creating shield walls, harassing enemies with cavalry, defending a strategic hill with a bunch of archers, it was all there and you had the front row seat to all of it. Add to that a larger overworld layer where you got to traverse the land while managing supplies and army morale, do quests and engage in diplomacy to achieve whatever goals you had set for yourself, and only then would you finally see what Mount & Blade truly was.
Also noteworthy was the fact that at the time the game wasn’t even out yet. You could get an early version directly from the developers’ website way before it made its way to Steam. Back then, early access didn’t have the same negative connotations it has today, when it’s often used to deliver an unfinished product and then disregard any and all criticisms by repeating “it’s not finished” until everyone forgets you exist. No, back then it was seen as an exciting opportunity to get in on the ground floor and be a part of development. Or at the very least feel that way.
The Good Old Times
Fast forward about a decade. Despite its very well-hidden popularity (as per Wikipedia, the original Mount & Blade managed to sell over 6 million copies by 2015) Mount & Blade didn’t spark a sandbox revolution. Instead it remained one of a kind, with all the potential “inspired-by” games simply made into Warband conversion mods. From Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings to even Star Wars, if you own Warband, you can play them all.
And then, after years of waiting, we finally got Bannerlord. The day the game went on sale, it crashed Steam’s payment processing servers and quickly became 2020’s biggest launch so far. As such, you may be wondering, was it worth the wait?
A very simplistic way of looking at Bannerlord would be to say that it’s just prettier Warband with more bugs. On some vary basic level, this might even be true. The game clearly looks better, and due to it having just entered early access, you will encounter quite a few bugs while playing it.
However, once you dig a little deeper, you will inevitably notice plenty of new features and overhauled systems. Like for example greatly expanded siege mechanics, a deeper world simulation, improved unit recruitment and brand-new clan and persuasion systems. At the same time, due to Bannerlord’s early access nature, not all of the planned features are currently implemented and those that are, usually have at least some limitations to them.
My theory here is that instead of including everything they had in mind in the initial version and then panicking as it all broke horribly once thousands of people started playing the game, the developers released Bannerlord with the bare minimum of new stuff to see how it would work and then go from there.
Seeing how TaleWorlds’ earlier experience with early access was a resounding success, and going by the already available patches, I have no reason to believe that they wouldn’t fix the current issues and then add even more stuff further down the road. Still, with the current setup I can’t really see the game becoming fundamentally different from its predecessors. While it’s sure to get bigger and more robust as the early access phase progresses, I highly doubt that at any point we’ll be able to build our own death trap castles like in Stronghold, or progress through different ages like in Age of Empires.
For now, though, the game is definitely playable and quite fun, but at the same time a lot of the stuff in it doesn’t work right, or doesn’t work at all. Take the game’s perks. You get them upon reaching certain skill thresholds, but right now most of them are either pathetic to the point of being entirely useless, or don’t do anything at all.
The same can be said about the majority of the game’s features. Sure, the core loop is already enjoyable to the point where you get that “just one more turn” feeling despite this not being a turn-based game, and you can clearly see a lot of potential, but it will still be a while before we’ll see Bannerlord in all its eventual glory.
This creates a somewhat odd situation where the game manages to combine plenty of new content and fresh ideas with a surprising lack of stuff one might expect after playing the earlier Mount & Blade games. As a result, we have dynamic seasons, ridable camels, and some light city-building mechanics, but at the same time there are no feasts and we can’t use training fields to upgrade our soldiers.
Now, moving past all the maybes and what ifs, let’s see what the game currently has to offer. It still takes place in Calradia with all the European influences that entails, but a few hundred years earlier, with strong parallels to the fall of Rome and all the subsequent squabbling of its successors.
The overworld map is roughly the same but bigger and the factions occupying it are similar to their Warband counterparts, but they’re just different enough to be their own thing. In fact, the developers even bothered to slightly change the spellings of all the city names to reflect this different time period. So, for example instead of Warband’s city of Uxkhal, you have the Ocs Hall in Bannerlord.
When it comes to Bannerlord’s factions, three of them represent the remnants of a once grand empire, with a focus on tough as nails legionaries. Then, there’s a faction of knights and crossbows, a faction of horse nomads, a vaguely Celtic faction that has the most ridiculous archers, and a northern and southern factions that don’t really do anything particularly well. This last part leads us to the game’s biggest issue at the moment - faction identity.
Back in Warband, pretty much each faction had some defining unit or playstyle around which you would build your entire army. In Bannerlord, you have the Battanians with their machinegun bowmen and the Khuzaits with abundant cavalry and a focus on horse archers that play in a unique way. But all the other factions basically play the same. Sure, some factions are better at some things than at others, but the basic strategy remains. At least that’s the impression I got while playing Bannerlord. As such, I really would like it if the developers looked into faction balance and identity at some point.
Moving past factions, the game now also features a more engaged campaign where you gradually become the eponymous Bannerlord and either restore the old empire to its past glory or dismantle it into dust. At the moment, the campaign is fairly basic and starts some threads only to drop them later without ever mentioning again, but it already provides some direction for those of us who like to have an overarching goal. It can also be completely ignored if you prefer a true sandbox experience.
On top of the campaign mode, single-player also offers custom battles where you can fight the AI without the fear of being captured and losing your entire army. And on the multiplayer side of things, you have a total of four modes: Skirmish, Team Deathmatch, Siege, and Captain. While the first three are pretty self-explanatory, the Captain mode allows you to participate in multiplayer battles where each of the players commands an AI squad, and you have to work together with your teammates to outmaneuver your opponents instead of just trying to hit them with a large sword. It's a lot of fun and I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone.
Still, the single-player campaign mode is the game’s main attraction. And while playing it you will definitely notice plenty of similarities with the earlier Mount & Blade games, most of the systems have been greatly expanded since your last trip around Calradia.
Although at the moment though the game’s AI lords and NPCs in general have very little to say, already you have way more diplomatic options than before. This opens plenty of opportunities for emergent gameplay, where a combination of high social skills and some denars you put aside for bribes allows you to sow chaos across Calradia and then watch the map change colors as lords start backstabbing one another like there’s no tomorrow.
The game now also features a number of minor factions that essentially serve the same role as you - mercenaries that can join the bigger kingdoms and thus shift the balance of power.
And pretty much everything was redesigned with quality of life in mind. Instead of aimlessly wandering around towns and villages, you can now highlight important NPCs. Or better yet, just use a menu directly from the overworld map to talk to whoever you need. The UI is way better. It’s much easier now to manage your inventory, your companions and your troops. The game itself may be taking place further back in the past, but its design sensibilities are firmly rooted in the present.
Now, let’s move on to what is perhaps Bannerlord’s biggest new addition. The clan system. In its current early access state, it allows you to have a family, including heirs that grow up to become companions, governors, or even allied parties that can go around the map and do their own thing independently of you. And while not fully realized at the moment, later on the game will have your main character die of old age, or even in battle. So when you fall, it won’t be a game over, or a time-consuming trip around the map to some dungeon, but instead an opportunity to build a dynasty and pick up the torch with one of your heirs.
And if you consider that Bannerlord has an army system that, instead of just gathering a blob of lords that inevitably wander off to do their own thing, allows you to create unified armies, you realize that having your clansmen fight alongside you is way more fun than just some random AI nobles.
If you’re someone who likes to augment your gaming experience with mods, rest assured, Bannerlord already has plenty of those. At the moment they mostly rebalance things or add some minor neat features like dismemberment or fiery arrows, but I fully expect the big total conversion mods people seem to enjoy so much to start popping up soon.
This being an early access release, bugs are the big elephant in the room. Bannerlord has plenty of those. The aforementioned perks are only the tip of the iceberg. While playing, I’ve personally noticed missing textures, audio glitches and quest-related issues. Thankfully, most of these while annoying, are not game-breaking and can be usually fixed by a reload.
On the other hand, the siege AI is extremely limited right now, with units oftentimes deciding to just stand in a big pile and do nothing. Hopefully this particular issue can be sorted out within a reasonable timeframe, and if the current beta patch notes are to be believed, the developers are already working on it.
Then, there’s the question of crashes. Since going into early access, the game received a good number of patches. Each of them mentioned fixing various crashes. This might lead you to believe that the game is extremely unstable. And while this of course will vary from individual to individual, after playing the game for roughly 40 hours, it crashed on me only twice, which isn’t too bad.
Visually, the game is a definite improvement over its predecessors, which should of course be expected. But what I liked most about Bannerlord’s visuals is that while the game doesn’t look like some cutting-edge AAA release, seeing how it has to render battles with hundreds of participants at a time, the actual visual design is very aesthetically pleasing and detailed.
And when it comes to performance, the game is definitely prone to running at a sluggish pace whenever there’s too much stuff happening on the screen, but if you turn off dynamic shadows and limit the battle size to something like 400-500 men, you should be fine outside of sieges. Still, right now the game already runs better than Warband ever did, where I had to use DirectX 7 instead of 9 just to prevent things from slowing down to a crawl during big battles on a PC that greatly exceeded the recommended specs.
The game’s audio design is crisp and weighty, and its soundtrack is appropriately epic, with each of the game’s factions getting its own unique-sounding tunes. Unfortunately, at the moment the game has next to no voice acting, so if you were looking forward to hearing bandits threaten you with unparalleled clarity, you will have to wait for it a bit longer.
The save system is perfectly functional and features autosaves after battles, manual saves, and quick saves, so even if the game crashes at some point on you, you shouldn’t lose too much progress.
While usually I’m not one to play games before they’re complete, I made an exception for Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord and was definitely not disappointed. At the moment the game lacks some features and suffers from a number of bugs and undercooked systems, but it’s already extremely fun despite that.
If, like me, you’re someone who doesn’t like to use mods, then an opportunity to play a new Mount & Blade game that already offers countless quality of life improvements when compared to the previous installments in the series is invaluable. But if you’re someone who thrives on user-created content, you should be aware that according to the developers, Bannerlord is even more mod-friendly than Warband. And when it comes to mods, having a deeper and more robust baseline can only be seen as a great thing.