• Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord Review

    Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord Review

    By King Athelstan

    Itís harvesting season!
    For us Warband veterans an 8-year long wait is finally over. Mount & Blade: Bannerlord was announced all the way back in 2012, and the hype, anticipation and excitement over the game grew ever higher as time went by. Through the numerous development blogs, the many videos and updates shown on countless Gamescoms people grew ever more eager for that sweet, sweet release date. Several memes were created during that long waiting period, calling it the ďWaiting Simulator 2012Ē, as the game just kept the fans waiting ever more. The game engine was scrapped and restarted on at least one point during development, starting from scratch to make it just right. Then, the unthinkable happened. Taleworlds released a release date. Bannerlord was to come out in Early access in March 2020, and it did, even offering a launch discount to incentivise buying. The hype knew no bounds, yet there was one note by the announcement that raised eyebrows. ďEarly AccessĒ. What state would the game be released in? Would it even be playable, knowing the many bugs Taleworlds tended to run into? There was only one way to find out, and that was by playing the game. Being a Warband veteran and having waited for so long I of course couldnít help myself and grabbed it as soon as the Steam store page stopped crashing from the massive influx of hundreds of thousands of people rushing to buy it.

    The uniqueness of Mount & Blade
    There will be many asking the same question: ďSo, whatís the big deal with Bannerlord? Why was it so hyped?Ē. To answer that one must look back at the former games and the almost cult-like following the games accumulated over the years. The graphics arenít particularly good in Warband, not even for a 2010 game. The game itself is often tedious and clunky at times, with many in-game mechanics that come across as plain frustrating. However, at its core the Mount & Blade Series is unique. At one point youíre on a vast campaign map like a Real-Time-Strategy game, with a top-down view going from city to city, trading, recruiting troops, doing quests and building your reputation and power through the land. Then, in the next second picture an almost Total-War sized army and battlefield, with hundreds of troops facing off against each other. But youíre just yourself. Youíre not commanding your troops from above. You play as your own character; with the skills and equipment youíve accumulated throughout the game. And so, you are just one man on a massive battlefield with your own army, and so youíre rushing to move troops here and there, issuing orders to your own troops while at the same time fighting with your own weapon of choice. The mixture of RPG, RTS, Strategy and Action makes for a truly unique combo. Not to forget the mods completely overhauling the game, transforming it into Middle-Earth, Westeros, Ancient Rome and anything you could imagine. This combo earned Bannerlordís predecessor a devoted cult and explains why Bannerlord has been so hyped. But does it live up to all the hype?

    Creating your character
    Bannerlord isnít just a sequel in the Mount & Blade series at its core. You start out creating your character, choosing the gender, appearance, culture and your background. Youíre given several choices for how you grew up, all affecting your skills. Perhaps you served in the army, with a noble family? Possibly a smith, or a hunter? The character creation helps you create a more thematic background for your character and increases the roleplay aspect of the game. However, the character creation only directly affects your stats. You can still level up and improve all skills no matter your background, meaning anyone can do anything. The character creation just helps facilitate a certain playstyle from the get-go. After creating your character youíre thrown into a typical starter quest, showing you the basics of the game and leading you into a main quest of sorts. However, at this point of development the main quest is sorely underdeveloped. Itís better to let it progress while you play instead of actively seeking it out. Just like that, youíre thrown into the deep wide world of Calradia. The world is new, but you already have some familiarity with the character.

    The game is centered around your character, and you can customize the appearance, equipment, and inventory to your liking

    Youíre given a free rein to do whatever you want, but there are quite a few things to consider. If youíre to expand your army you must remember to have enough coin to pay them, food to feed them, horses to move them faster and a high morale to stop them from deserting. The game tells nothing on how to manage and master this, and youíll have to learn from playing. Though how you do that is up to you Ė you can become a mercenary of a kingdom, you can buy goods cheap at one town and make a profit at another, run caravans and workshops or bet on yourself to win in tourneys. You can smith weapons and sell them, you can base your economy on loot gained after winning battles. Thereís also plenty of quests to be done, so the options are near endless. In Bannerlord thereís a lot to get into with little direction given, but the game is forgiving and easy to learn.

    The Campaign Map
    When youíre not busy walking around in towns, raiding bandit hideouts or fighting epic battles youíll be on the campaign map, with a top down view of the world and your party. Moving around in Calradia is a breeze and very much a point and click adventure, yet it doesnít make it uninteresting. While you move countless other bandits, lords and villagers move, all interacting with you and each other, making the world truly come alive. The fog of war helps zone things down into whatís relevant for your party, making it easier to pay attention. The campaign map is also where you view your inventory, party, clan and kingdom, if youíve come that far. Thereís a decent number of tabs to manage and the game tells you little, with an in-game encyclopaedia that works more like a Calradian Facebook than an informational site. Itís easy to grasp the mechanics, and mousing over the various points reveals more information, enabling the player to quite quickly grasp the gist of the mechanics. The campaign map works very well for its intended purpose, showing the player where things are and what they do, but not a step-by step for how to do it.

    The detailed campaign map gives provides an overview of all the information you need

    The combat
    The combat in Bannerlord works well, both for you and the AI soldiers. At first glance it does seem a bit clunky, where you have to move your mouse in different directions to swing your blade from different directions, but it doesnít take long to get the hang of and very good when it clicks. Itís simple enough to quickly understand, but more difficult to truly master. You can luckily hone your skills through practice fights, tournaments and most of all pitched battles, which youíll see plenty of while playing. In addition, the plethora of weapon types and variations thereof ensures youíll never get bored of fighting. If you donít want to play like a knight, couching your lance and charging into the enemy mass itíll only take a second to equip a bow, or a mace. The ability to swap your point of view and play in both first and third person enables further immersion. In addition, you can set how much damage you and your party members take, allowing you to find a difficulty setting that works for you. Thus, the combat is balanced, good and very much dependant on your skill. If you play tactically and skilfully you can impact large battles all on your own.

    Battles for days
    The large-scale battles are the biggest draw to the game, and Bannerlord stays true to its core in this regard. Youíre thrust upon the battlefield with the perspective of your own character, with your companions and troops all around you. This is where your party transforms from a single horse on the campaign map with a number next to it into a full-fledged battle to rival any movie. At any point in battle, provided youíre not knocked-out you can issue orders to your troops. The controls are a bit clunky, but you do get used to it after a while. Units are divided into multiple groups, such as ďhorse archersĒ and the player can select their formation, position and movement. If thatís too complicated or youíd like to take your mind off that specific unit you can assign groups to AI control, giving you less to micro-manage. The AI is quite competent too, and thus itís a valuable tool to use when learning the ropes. This also applies to the enemy forces, who will use the same formations and tactics that you have at your disposal. The various enemy armies you face will send horse archers to skirmish, hold the line with infantry and flank with cavalry. Blindly charging your troops will mean they die, and so the tactical options add depth to the battles and keeps them interesting. You must improvise, adapt and overcome as the situation changes. You could play every battle ďaloneĒ riding around in the chaos, but there is something special to leading a heavy cavalry charge into the rear of the enemy line. The system works well enough to be thoroughly enjoyable when everything clicks. I wouldnít advise to go in blind though, and rather have a look at what the unit orders do in guides. Understanding the mechanics and orders makes the battles that much more enjoyable, and the various troops, terrain and tactical options ensures variety.

    There is little that can beat a cavalry charge from both flanks

    Siege warfare Ė the most improved aspect
    The most improved-upon and entirely redone aspect when compared to Bannerlordís predecessors are the siege battles. Thereís a duality to them, as theyíre fought not just on the battlefield, but also the campaign map. You canít go in blindly, but you have to keep logistics in mind. When besieging a castle or town youíll have to set up a siege camp, where you can build rams, towers and various artillery, something the defenders will do as well. Everything takes time to build, which allows reinforcements to come to the defenders, or you to run out of food for your troops. The defensive artillery can destroy the offensive one, highlighting the importance of considering what you build and in what order. Iíve however not found the artillery to be particularly effective. It is helpful, sure, but the siege equipment is the must-have when it comes to construction. The difference between assaulting a wall with a siege tower and a ladder is staggering. However, while sieges have the potential to be truly epic this is also where many of the gameís flaws are exposed. Poor pathfinding, AI logic and straight up bugs were a plague in the first week Ė There was one issue that strained the processor of your computer to the max, no matter how good it was due to pathfinding errors. Units staid on top of ladders and couldnít disembark, troops used the battering ram, and then ran to the ladders and towers instead of hacking down the inner gate. A lot of this has been fixed, but it is a long way away from perfect. When compared to the pitched battles on a field thereís a distinct difference in polish. The roughness around the edges doesnít stop the siege battles from being a lot of fun though, both when defending and attacking.

    The sieges have improved immensely compared to Warband

    The RPG elements and immersion
    The roleplay aspect of the game is where the Early Access bit of the game is most visible. While the character creation gives a good basis and much to expand upon, there is not much that can be expanded. Youíre free to roam around and explore a town, but there arenít many people to talk to. And if they do talk to you, they have nothing to say. It is very clear that this hasnít been developed much and will be focused more on in the future. The same goes for the quests. While a lot of them are quite cool, they are often unnecessarily hard to complete and offer little reward. Some are bugged entirely, causing crashes and leaving the game unable to complete. In fact, I failed the main quest after 173 days on a part I had 10 years to complete, but so be it. The main quest can be freely ignored and should be for the best experience of the game. Doing quests for notables do allow you to recruit more troops though, so there is some benefit. Admittedly, there are some fun ones too. I was once asked to help in a gang rivalry, but when I went to help beat up the rivals, they offered me more money, so I helped them instead. All in all, the quest system doesnít do quite enough to immerse yourself into the world of Calradia, but they are a bit neat and they do have potential.

    Personal development isnít just done through quests, you can recruit named companions to fight by your side, lead your caravans and their own adventure parties. Some have touching backstories, especially one who told me, and I quote: ďThis is a generic backstory.Ē Again, we see a point where Taleworlds havenít fully realised the potential. You can also marry and have children, but this too is also very surface-level and could have been gone a lot more in depth with. It isnít all bad though. The clan and kingdom management system are quite neat, where you can order your companions and vassals about, propose decisions and changes, or create armies for lords to gather in. This feature helps immerse yourself in the high-level politics of Calradia, and makes you feel part of something more. Itís not perfect, but it allows greater immersion than the quests do, especially at the current state of the game. I do get tired of that king always giving the newest conquest to himself rather than me, who captured it. But then thatís just another incentive to break off and form your own kingdom. I believe that Taleworlds focused on getting the game into a working, playable state for the early access release, and will spend the coming time fleshing out the depth and flair of the game.

    Multiplayer Ė the hidden gem
    While Bannerlord is, as the rest of the Mount & Blade games are, primarily a single-player game it does have a multiplayer feature, which Iíve found to be a surprisingly fun part of the game. When I played in the closed beta it all felt a bit sluggish, but itís been very refined and is a hidden gem, if you donít connect to a server on the other side of the worldÖ There are primarily three game modes, all challenging you in different ways. I havenít tried skirmish much, but Iíve played a fair bit of the two other ones. In the siege mode youíre playing in a massive siege battle on a scale that could rival most FPS-games. You can pick from different classes with points earned from fighting, and itís oh so fun to rack up those kills. The other game mode Iíve played a lot is the Captain one, where thereís teams of six players facing off against each other with a chosen detachment of AI troops under each. It requires a much more tactical look at a battle and is very dependent on coordination. Communication, or lack thereof is key to winning. And when you coordinate properly you can get a very good thing going. Multiplayer can only be described as fun, though perhaps itís the lack of potential AI flaws that make it so.

    There's little that beat the Adrenalin rush from a victory clutched from the jaws of defeat, especially when you get to boast later

    Looks arenít everything, but they do help
    While the battles are fun to play mechanically, the graphics arenít quite 2020. It is by no means an ugly game, but it does have the ďCame out a couple of years agoĒ look. Though to be fair, so did Warband when that was released. The textures are good, but not perfect, some are a bit less detailed than one would prefer. The lighting in the game is excellent, whether itís a setting sun or light peeking through an arrow slit. Though lighting can only do so much, as the colours seem very washed out at points. Itís a pity that they are so by default, and it does require some work on the players end to fix. I highly recommend installing a shader and tweaking with the various graphical options, such as increasing the vibrance. When the colours are tweaked though, it makes for a truly astounding difference, making it a must-have in my opinion. Having to do this should not be required to enjoy the game and is a large flaw. With all said and done the game can be good-looking. Not necessarily as beautiful as God of War, but by no means do the visuals detract from the experience of playing the game. When adjusted.

    The lighting is one of the finer aspects of the gameís engine

    Comparison to Warband
    If youíre one of the six million who played Warband the first thing youíll notice, apart from the massive visual upgrade Ė is the many quality of life changes. All the trade is done through one screen, you can talk to notables directly from the town menu instead of having to run around having trouble finding them. You can still only bring a few random troops with you when attacking a hideout, but the hideouts are larger and more varied. You can now also smith your own weapons, lead your own caravans and have several parties under your command, led by companions. While Bannerlord is more complex, for example requiring horses to upgrade units to cavalry it makes it easier. Itís an upgrade in every aspect, especially sieges. While the sieges in Bannerlord arenít perfect, they present a gigantic leap over Warband. In Warband you had had one ladder, perhaps one small tower for all your troops. In Bannerlord the battlefield is larger, the siege equipment more numerous and thereís artillery, capable of bringing down both defences and defenders. One cannot help but smile at the changes. Despite this it this, at its core they are similar. Bannerlord sticks quite closely to the formula, though perhaps too close for some players liking.

    Early Access Ė a cursed gift
    When you think of an early access release, you think of an unfinished game with some bugs, some lost content, but enough to be playable. When Bannerlord first released, it couldnít be called that. It was more like a beta. The bugs, issues, crashes and glitches were countless. Factions were steamrolling others and conquering the map in the span of just a few hours, trading was bugged, workshops gave infinite money, units couldnít get off ladders and you crashed if you tried to do certain quests. Optimization was a word many players wouldnít have known when playing. However, Taleworlds didnít sit idly by as Bannerlord rose to become the third-most played game on Steam counting the cash they made and leaving the consumers in chaos.

    In the past 20 days since release, Taleworlds have produced 15 patches. 15! Itís an extraordinary amount, especially when working from home. While one might expect the studio to release the game in a better state, they cannot be accused of not caring about it afterwards. The patches clearly show how much releasing the game now will and has helped with speeding up development, allowing a much wider base for testing and development. A Beta branch has already been created, where users can opt in to try out the newest and hottest of the new features, without the quality control. The players are the quality control in this case, like lab rats willingly running around the maze. The community effort reminds me of a Norwegian word I feel very apt to describe the current situation. ďDugnadĒ. It doesnít have a single-word translation, though it can be explained. It basically means a community coming together to get things done, whether itís selling lottery tickets, cleaning up the neighbourhood or painting a club house. Itís unpaid, unrewarded bar a bit of cake or a beer but people still do it. For the greater good, in hopes achieving and helping the game become something much better much faster than it possibly could if it hadnít been released in early access. Oh, and donít even get me started on the mods. There are already a massive number of mods out there, and work has begun on grand overhauls exceeding the scope of those that transformed Warband. The potential there is limitless. Bannerlord has the potential to be so much, and Early Access helps it on the way.

    Is Bannerlord worth playing?
    This brings us back to the beginning, the opening question. Does Bannerlord live up to the hype? Is it worth playing? The game has a learning curve, thereís a lot of hotkeys that should be looked up and memorized, mechanics that need to be learned that arenít properly explained by the game. Broken quests, bugs, crashes, further depth and polishing is constantly being worked on. Bannerlord is very much an unpolished diamond.

    Thereís two ways to approach the question of whether itís worth buying today. If youíve played Warband and youíre eager for more, with more content, more depth and a better-looking experience? Yes, then Bannerlord is absolutely worth playing. If youíve never heard of the Mount & Blade series playing Bannerlord now has the potential to be a two-edged sword. You can either play it and enjoy it for what it is, falling in love with the theme and eagerly anticipating more, perhaps seeing all it has to offer and then come back when itís been developed further. The other possibility I see happening is one where you buy the game, try it and donít particularly like it as it is. You judge it for that, and never picking it up again. Bannerlord isnít a finished product, yet. Itís a more than playable test, a mouth-watering appetizer thatíll leave you lusting for more. Thus, one can say that Bannerlord sort of lives up to the hype. However, with the game already being almost completely different to what it was at launch, Iím confident that Taleworlds will take an already enjoyable and fun product and turn it into a piece of art. Bannerlord right now is great fun. How Bannerlord will be in a year? Amazing, if all goes to plan.

    A tale of my own
    Bannerlord offers many thrilling moments, so to finish this review off Iíll tell you about one from my own playthrough. Grab a chair and a cup of ale, for this a most glorious tale! I had for many months been a vassal of the Vlandians amassing wealth from trade and land, but the greedy king Derthert did not share the spoils of war. I conquered castle after castle for him but was given but a pittance. The endless fighting and wars I did for him meant that only two factions had any major power in Calradia, the Vlandians and the Khuzaits. When they inevitably went to war, I saw my chance. A chance to manifest destiny. I broke out from Vlandia, the greedy king Derthert and formed my own kingdom. As a vassal I managed to claim to a few cities in the south, and thus had a base to expand on. However, breaking away meant war with the Vlandians, something I would surely lose. Therefore, I quickly made peace with them for a modest sum of gold. They were busy with the Khuzaits after all. However, I needed somewhere to expand and prove my mettle. Thatís when I spotted the city of Sanala. It was the only bastion left of the once proud Battanian Empire, and proved a tempting target for a young, opportunistic emperor. The gauntlet was thrown, and my army marched north. Sanala was sieged, but relief soon came in the form of the remaining Battanian forces.

    The Battanian forces mustering for a final defence of their land

    13 parties formed from all the remaining lords and dukes, while on their own undermanned now banded together to form an army almost twice my size. The odds were stacked against me. 13 mighty lords against an emperor fresh off the coronation. However, I wasnít new to battles like these, having served for many a campaign under the Vlandians. The horns and trumpets blared, and the two armies met on the battlefield. While outnumbered I set up my main forces in a defensive position with my heavy cavalry far on the flanks, out of view. I steered their cavalry away with my horse archers, allowing them to be picked off one by one. Meanwhile, their main body advanced under a hail of arrow-fire in both directions, killing many and wounding more. My death toll was rising ever higher, and so I had to gallop to the main line myself and join the fray to prevent my line from being overwhelmed. When all their infantry was fully entrenched in the fight, I called my heavy cavalry out from the flanks. The ground shook from the gallop of the hooves as they veered closer and closer, before crashing into the line from either side. The result was a slaughter, with no Battanian left on the field. With the final fire of Batannia extinguished, the siege of Sanala was a cakewalk. The city fell, and I had passed the first test of any ruler. I had established myself as a power to be reckoned with and had earned my crown. Keeping it, however, is another storyÖ
    Comments 7 Comments
    1. TurkafinwŽ's Avatar
      TurkafinwŽ -
      Great stuff KA! It looks like Bannerlord is the janky game every M&B player has been waiting for.
    1. Flinn's Avatar
      Flinn -
      Great review, and the game looks good anyways.. I told ya already, you haven't lived the early days of gaming, a game such this would have been a dream, really
    1. Mhaedros's Avatar
      Mhaedros -
      A good read, thanks Athelstan!
    1. Jadli's Avatar
      Jadli -
      Very good review!
    1. Alexander78's Avatar
      Alexander78 -
      Well done, KA! You did a great review for M&B
    1. King Athelstan's Avatar
      King Athelstan -
      Thanks guys
    1. Lusitanio's Avatar
      Lusitanio -
      Very nice review!