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FIRST LOOK: MOUNT & BLADE II – BANNERLORD

Douglas Adams once said that time is an illusion. That is never more true than it is with game development, where a single year is rarely enough for anything substantial or release worthy. BANNERLORD, sequel to the original MOUNT & BLADE, and prequel to its standalone expansion WARBAND, has been in development for eight years to date. It is finally seeing the light through Early Access this March. But the game still isn’t complete; what we’re getting our hands on is a work in progress. As such, this first look is not a review, but merely an extensive dive into what we can expect from the finished release down the line — and what makes BANNERLORD worth to keep an eye on. 

Right now most observations about the game will temper expectations, but that doesn’t mean the game isn’t worthwhile to play. Even in its unfinished, and certainly unpolished state, BANNERLORD is filled with dozens of hours of fun. Combining elements of action RPGs, city builders, TOTAL WAR combat simulations, and historical policy sims like CRUSADER KINGS, this is an ambitious project in every way. Whatever downfalls it has are simply due to the technology catching up with its reach.

We’ve spent a good dozen hours playing the main story and about the same in the multiplayer. Divided into three sections, we’ll look at both the vast single player campaign as well as the multiplayer modes currently available. Finally, we’ll dive into what awaits as the game finally exits early access, including the expansive modding culture already establishing itself.


THE CAMPAIGN

BANNERLORD is set on the fictional continent of Calradia, some two centuries before the events of WARBAND. The Calradic Empire is in decline and new fiefdoms are rising throughout the land. As the Migration Period begins, the player finds themselves at the center of cataclysmic events when their family is butchered by a band of raiders. What begins as a quest for vengeance soon turns into a journey that defines the very course of history.

Previously ruled by the unified Calradic Empire, a civil war has seen the vast continent split into multiple factions each vying for total control. Apart from the North and South Calradians, the factions include the Vlandians; Sturgians; Aserai; Khuzait; and the Battanians. Each based on a historically accurate nation from around the world. 

The player can ally, wage war, trade, or practise diplomacy with any faction in the game. As the story progresses and your armies grow more powerful, alliances through marriage become an option. If the player dies on their quest, any offspring they may have fathered will take up their mantle years later, becoming the new player character.

Each town is brimming with quests and chores to do, each which can endear or alienate you from the locals. A farmer might need your help to find their missing child, while elsewhere a local baron needs a hamlet cleared for expansion. It’s sadly not long before you realize that the amount of content at the present is limited, and most towns will repeat the same quests over and over for now. None of them are obligatory, so they’re easy to ignore for grander adventures, but it does detract from the experience. 

There is an emphasis on choice and nowhere it is as clear as first entering the world map. Before that is only a brief tutorial, which is surprisingly shallow and teaches very little about the actual game apart from combat basics. The overworld comprises the entire continent, including  every township and farm you can visit. Camps, hideouts, and other secrets are naturally hidden, making exploration consistently rewarding. The game shows movements of all warbands, traders, and armies in real time. If the player decides to rest in a village, the world goes on around them. New allegiances are formed, old ones broken, and wars will erupt in the unstable regions of the map.

In the beginning this might all feel like too much. But that’s kind of the point. You’re only a small fish in a big pond — until you’re not. While you begin your journey alone, it’s not long before you can recruit soldiers to your crew. As time passes, the soldiers grow into seasoned veterans, who can later command units of their own. Captured prisoners can be either recruited or sold off to opposing factions. Slowly but surely your army grows, and the question becomes; what next?

This is where BANNERLORD starts to shine. Rising to power is only the first step. Pledge fealty to a lord and be awarded a sizable portion of land; but be aware that you are now at their beck and call. Declaring war on a kingdom is certainly an option as well. A well designed military campaign will see them quickly lose power of their fiefdoms, which will then turn to you for protection. Eventually you can even take out lineages, snuffing them out entirely from the pages of history. But attack the wrong kingdom and you’ll quickly find yourself a sworn enemy of allegiances you didn’t anticipate. Without a working diplomacy in place no military might will be enough. 

Or maybe you’ll take another route entirely by becoming a merchant king or queen? Controlling the world from behind the curtain, as cities live and die by your trade routes, and armies starve without pledging loyalty to you first. Now, granted, this system is somewhat more limited than it sounds based on the first ten hours of gameplay. Some routes exist just for money, and there is rarely a time it feels like the world actually changes from the lack of food — but it is early days still. 

Choosing war leads to some of the most spectacular moments that PC gaming has to offer. Not content with just simulating the massive clashes, BANNERLORD drops the player directly on the front line of the war. Hundreds (and, knowing modders, thousands in the future) of characters take the field at once in colossal battles unlike anything currently available. Each faction is lovingly rendered in detail to their origins, and units carry themselves realistically across the battlefield. The player can control either their army entire, or just smaller units at a time. The UI for this — a mixture of numerical and F-keys —  is extremely fiddly and takes a bit too long to get even remotely used to. But it’s an easy thing to forgive when you see your troops follow your orders for the first time. 

Then there are the sieges, which are reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. Historic war machines litter the field, the air is thick with arrows, stones from catapults, and smoke. Either attacking or defending, BANNERLORD gives the player ample amounts of things to do. The castles are unrivaled in scope and each victory over a portion of the city feels earned. 

Controlling your armies is a thrill, but the combat itself feels draggy and slow. When the first MOUNT & BLADE was released, the directional input control scheme for both attacking and blocking felt original and fresh. But in the past decade we’ve seen the arrival of competitors like MORDHAU and CHIVALRY, both which have improved and refined that same mechanic over time. BANNERLORD brings very few new improvements to the original, and as such it feels its age. Flinging your mouse in every direction, hoping that the highly sensitive input picks up the correct direction is more of a hassle than it is fun. Luckily using bows of any kind is still a blast, and their control scheme is still unmatched by any other game out there.


MULTIPLAYER

The multiplayer, like the main campaign, is right now a mixed bag of ambition and limitations. Over the course of a dozen hours of gaming, we played through each of the main game modes available both alone and with friends. These include the basic Team Deathmatch, a hundred player Siege mode, and a brand new Captain mode. 

Team deathmatch remains very much the same as it always has. Two teams of varying sizes are pitted on an enclosed battlefield (mostly empty cities), and they duke it out for 20 minutes at a time to see which side scores the most kills. Problem is that most combatants end up looking very similar to one another and the UI’s color scheme does very little to set anyone apart. There is no friendly fire, but hitting a compatriot automatically blocks your attack. As much of the combat takes place in crowded pileups, hitting anything becomes a matter of luck rather than skill. Eventually all fights ended up following very similar patterns when people figured out the easiest places to gang up on others. Out of all the modes available, this is the one we played least. 

In WARBAND, Siege was my absolute favorite mode, especially when modded. As the name gives away, this mode simulates the war scenarios from the main game but with one hundred real life players controlling the characters in real time. One side defends, the other attacks, and both are given reasonably the same amount of freedom as in the single player experience. You can’t destroy walls and create new pathways with siege machines like in the campaign, at least not yet, and a lot of the initial tactics rely on throwing as much carnage at the other side to wear them down. Playing with friends led to a much better time here, as the public servers saw very little communication (apart from racist edgelording) in any chat available. But we had a surprisingly hard time finding available servers to play on. European hosting is almost non-existent, limiting the choices to either North America or Oceania, both with such high latency that combat proved impossible. This is, again, a sign of the early access and not the game’s fault, but it does mean that we got to play Siege far less than initially hoped.

The newest addition to the multiplayer experience is the Captain mode, and it’s the most refreshing and fun we’ve seen yet. The matches are split into 6 vs 6 players, but each player commands a unit of men, anywhere from 5 to 15 troops of varying skills. The goal is to capture tactical locations on the map and hold them in a game of attrition. Communicating with friends in an effort to coordinate effective battle plans is a huge thrill, one that brings the game to life in a way no other mode has yet. One battle saw us advancing with a heavy shield wall into a small village, where the enemy was holding ground. The shields blocked the incoming arrows, protecting our skirmishers hiding in the rear. A sneak attack from our archers caused the enemy to retreat towards the city square, where they were set upon by our cavalry, which rode in from the other side of town. The game mode demands communication and patience (both which I admittedly need work on), but once you warm up to it, the Captain mode becomes a highlight experience. 


THE FUTURE

Speaking of potential is always a risky endeavor, because there is never a guarantee that any of it will ever pan out. You risk painting a far rosier picture of the future than is possible, yet it’s rarely out of malice. In the case of MOUNT & BLADE, all the things that could happen are a possibility even if they’re not definitive. Early Access itself is a dicey proposition. You’re buying into a game that is under production and constantly changing. It’s not even a Beta in the way that we’re accustomed to — those are basically almost finished demos at this point. What Early Access promises is taking you along for the ride to see the beginning, and that requires you to adjust expectations somewhat. 

In the future Taleworlds will release the modding tools for BANNERLORD, and how they work will define much of where the game goes next. WARBAND thrived under the wing of a passionate community, and much of the additions we saw there improved the game immeasurably. Servers saw major bumps in player numbers, as modded siege modes introduced places like Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith to the mix. 

Taleworlds has also hinted at a future DLC expansion for the main campaign, which would open the game for a co-op mode. That alone would change the experience drastically, introduction entirely new elements to the exploration of the continent. Things like when it will be released or even how it will work are entirely up in the air right now. Without a release date for the finished product in sight, much of the future remains uncertain. 

So how far should you adjust them? In its current state, not hugely, but definitely enough to know what you’re getting into. To use a metaphor, BANNERLORD is a young prince still being groomed for greatness, but with a long way to go. The world of Calradia is expansive and immersive, but lacking in content. The sieges are impressive in scope, but limited in design. The multiplayer lacks features and fine tuning, but makes up for it with a new mode that will set the standard for others in the future. None of these are faults yet, they’re merely unfinished.

BANNERLORD is a strong, solid foundation for an impressive and genre defining experience. It’s just not quite there yet. But for us, joining it on the road is a no brainer; and we’ll gladly venture into the unknown with Taleworlds on this journey.

This first look is written from a game code received from the developer.

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