PREVIEW: Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord

Apr
09

PREVIEW: Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord

The world is your oyster as you rise from humble origins to that of a prestigious lord, wealthy merchant, or opportunistic mercenary captain. As long as you can handle the bug infestation, that is.

Released: Steam Early Access
Type: Single-player, Online PvP
Genre: RPG, Action, Simulation
Developer: TaleWorlds Entertainment
Publisher: TaleWorlds Entertainment
Release date: 30 March, 2020

Overview

Mount & Blade: Warband successfully ate up almost a hundred and fifty hours of my life a few years back. It offered a sandbox world with aggressive factions sprawling across its map that were always at each other’s throats. It also offered enough freedom to the player that you could swear fealty to any one of those nations or ignore them entirely as you pursued your own goals across Calradia. If you played your cards right, you could even rule over your own realm and jump into the fray, claiming territory for yourself and establishing your own court of nobles who answer to you.

Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord carries the tradition of Warband forward and builds on many of its systems, though its Early Access state is immediately clear as there are so many bugs and design holes that you can’t swing your axe without hitting one.

Rags to Riches

Bannerlord begins with you all by your lonesome, a purse of gold on your side, and a subpar steed under your ass. You’ll design your character’s appearance while answering several background questions that will determine your starting attributes and proficiencies. Questions include detailing your cultural heritage, your parents, and how each stage of your life had been spent up to the present. I was Raylan fen Arturen, a Battanian-born son of a blacksmith known for his brawn whose initial claim to fame was killing an enemy while in service to the local lord. He had a knack for smithing, though he excelled in waving around heavy two-handed weapons.

Building your backstory is satisfying and deepens your immersion in Calradia.

Once you’ve been integrated into the Calradia, you’re immediately in charge of your destiny. You’re planted in the middle of the shattered empire so you’re free to start doing work for the locals or, as I did, you can recruit the men and gather the supplies necessary to make a trek back to your homeland. Battania called and I answered, though the path that you take is truly your own. Your cultural heritage offers you an innate bonus that you carry through the campaign, but it doesn’t force you to be a part of their faction. Your loyalties are up to you to decide. I could’ve become the strange foreign general guiding the imperial war machine to victory instead.

Few can resist a heavy cavalry charge. Unless they have a line of polearms waiting… avoid those.

Kings and Clan Leaders

Politics are split into two levels in Bannerlord: kingdoms and clans. You’ll be introduced to a clan first, your own, as it’s formed moments after starting your adventure. No one’s ever heard of you, of course, but you’ll begin building its fame with your accomplishments and strengthening its roster with companions that you find along the way. As its renown grows, so does its ability to influence the world around it by leaving the mercenary life behind by swearing fealty or establishing a kingdom of your own.

You and your clan are one. It begins with just you but can grow into a highly influential political force.

Kingdoms have a more direct influence on the world around them. Not only are they capable of declaring war, but they are also able to pass laws that affect the fiefs under their control. These laws can be anything from increased taxes to enforced militia training and each comes with its pros and cons. Clan leaders in service to the ruler may use their gathered influence resource to manipulate these politics in their favor, but the ruler still has the last word in most situations. I found this system to be a particularly exciting addition as the list of laws that can be enacted is long, and with a system like this, the more the merrier.

The world of Calradia is large and complete with plenty of areas to visit (or conquer, if that’s what gets your going).

Splintered Peoples of Calradia

Six cultures exist at the start of the game, though each culture may break into more as the many wars of Calradia progress; there are four imperial factions even as your story begins. Each culture has its own units that can be recruited and unique equipment in its stores that make them stand out. Vlandia, for example, has plate-armored mounted knights on its unit tree, while Battania focuses much more on its falx-wielding infantry and talented archers. Fortunately, if you’re looking to gear up, your character isn’t restricted by their culture in this aspect either. However, your non-companion units have their equipment determined by their class, so a unit from a certain culture will always be representative of that culture. As with Warband, the class trees are great and upgrading a unit from a lowly conscript to a powerful cataphract always carries with it a sense of pride.

This setting takes place long before Warband. Its factions are new, but familiar.

Spilling Blood

Combat, the bread and butter of most players’ experience with Bannerlord, is almost identical to Warband. Although tactical commands are present, battles tend to quickly break down into brutal and chaotic horde melees with cavalry charging in and out as archers rain down their arrows. You’re likely to become a one-man army if you get a solid grasp on directional combat which involves quick, reflexive mouse movements to attack or defend from a specific angle. If not, use a shield or projectile-based weapon and you should be able to rough up your foes anyway.

Battlefields tend to be fairly similar, though the occasional siege mixes this up some. If tactics played a larger role, this would be more of a complaint, but as things are, tend to get lost in the heat of the moment fighting, slaying, and moving on to my next opponent.

Armies can get quite large and the battlefield is likely to be littered with bodies as you tear your way through it.

A Promising, But Broken, Masterpiece

If all of this has sounded exciting so far, you’ll find yourself having fun with Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord. Unfortunately, I can also guarantee that you’ll find yourself frustrated as well. Many returning fans have been waiting the better part of a decade for this sequel and yet it’s not as much of a step up as you might hope. Granted, it’s only recently arrived in Early Access, but there’s just not that much different from Warband.

The audio and visual presentation of the title leaves a lot to be desired. Both are quite dated when compared to other modern releases and are unlikely to blow anyone’s mind. This honestly wouldn’t have been too much of an issue if it weren’t for the poor optimization. I have a higher-end PC that worked harder on this than anything I’ve played lately and I’ve spoken with several players who could barely play at all due to the lag and frequent crashes on setups that were capable of running modern titles without issue.

Every battle begins with the calm before the storm.

Bugs are a massive issue currently as well. The most frustrating that I encountered was when my kingdom went to war and I couldn’t join in any of the fighting. As a matter of fact, I didn’t have an option to engage in battle or simply disengage, I could only retreat, losing troops and supplies in the process, even against enemies that I could’ve crushed in combat. This included when my castle was sieged and I could do nothing but watch.

The AI itself is particularly ineffective at playing nicely with the simulation. Battle tactics are non-existent at any meaningful level and I’ve encountered several sieges where the tactics employed made no sense whatsoever. One such battle had the assaulting army running the length of the castle, back and forth, as my archers and I rained hell down upon them. It lasted so long and was so dull that I eventually allowed myself to get defeated and retreated from the battle just to make it end. Needless to say, not the best of gaming experiences.

Sieges are thrilling when you get lucky and there are no bugs in sight.

Verdict

Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord has the potential to be a legendary title, just like its predecessor. It’s only just reached Early Access, so there’s plenty of time, though the past seven years have shown that time might not necessarily guarantee radical improvements. For now, we have a fun, promising prototype of what could one day be an amazing title, but one that needs plenty of improvement to overcome its shortcomings and flaws. If you loved Warband and can deal with bugs, even if they’re occasionally game-breaking, pick this up. If you’re anyone else, I would recommend waiting, though you should keep your eye on it as it has the potential to be a brilliant game in the future if TaleWorlds keeps improving it as much as it has in the days since release.

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