Not as much has changed in the world of Mount & Blade since 2010’s Warband as I might have expected. But when I get into one of Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlords’ pitched battles and charge through an enemy infantry formation while gleefully swinging my sword like a champion, it honestly feels like maybe what wasn’t broken didn’t need fixing. Sure, it’s not the most polished of experiences, hence the early access launch. But its exciting, tactical combat and gorgeous sandbox campaign map full of new lands to win and new characters to meet feed my deep, burning need for a nitty-gritty, intimate take on medieval-ish warfare.
Bannerlord’s graphics are the most immediately impactful improvement from its decade-old predecessor. The stunning map allows you to scroll completely seamlessly from practically right over your character’s shoulder all the way up to a high-level strategic view, where you can decide whether to raid caravans, fight as a mercenary for a powerful lord, or even found your own kingdom. The lighting, textures, and terrain are all impressive, and the level of detail really makes me feel like I’m in a living world. The character models and armor textures are pretty slick as well, even if they do still seem a few steps behind the current generation of blockbusters.
Bannerlord has also been drastically improved over Warband’s notoriously janky interface. It’s visually pleasing, well-organized, and easy to work with when you’re organizing your troops or unraveling the intriguing political web that binds each of the eight major factions. However, there are certain things that don’t have tooltips which I wish were better explained, such as what Morale actually does – there’s not even an encyclopedia entry for it. And there’s a significant amount of lag when switching between menus that kind of gets on my nerves. But it’s still a huge step up from what Warband players had to deal with that it feels like a big breath of fresh air.
Not everything else about Bannerlord does, though. For something that’s been in development for about eight years, there’s still a surprising amount of jank on display. Especially early on, before you get to the really good stuff, it’s easy to get the feeling that you’re just playing Warband with better graphics. Targeting and interacting with items and characters in towns and on battle maps is still imprecise and sometimes unresponsive. And there are some weird design decisions, like the fact that you have to wait through three loading screens to do something really simple like initiate a battle: one to speak to the enemy commander, one to load back into the world map, and one to actually start the fight. Even on an SSD with relatively short load times, that can get irritating. There are a lot of little things that really don’t feel modern, which are especially noticeable next to all of the ones that do.
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So naturally, the early gameplay will be pretty familiar to Mount & Blade veterans: You ride around the countryside doing missions and fighting bandits to gain gold, equipment, and reputation. These missions have a good deal of variety, which is nice since Warband could often feel like an endless loop of the same small list of tasks. Aside from old mainstays like escorting a caravan or hunting down poachers, you might be called on to resolve a blood feud or help merchants secure permits to sell their wares in a major town. These also inject a bit of worldbuilding and moral ambiguity in some interesting ways. That band of poachers might implore you not to side with the fat-cat nobles who are denying them the right to a livelihood, opening up an alternate path for resolving the situation.
The worldbuilding in general is pretty great. Set about 200 years before Warband, we see the ancestors of some of the factions we know locked in a tense struggle centered on a collapsing, Roman-inspired empire that has broken into three parts. Each of the six playable factions has its own rich personality, backstory, and style of fighting. I wish your choice of national origin had a little bit more of an impact, though. As it stands, it’s mostly flavor that doesn’t impose restrictions that might make you significantly alter your playstyle. Anyone can recruit any kind of troops and join any faction they wish. You only get one small campaign bonus based on where you were born, like being able to build structures faster or reduced movement penalty in forest terrain.
Once I got out and about and started meeting the various princes, lords, and knights, my interest in the world really picked up. There is an intricate political web to unravel between the leaders of the various factions, with each having a different story about what happened at a pivotal battle right before the start of the campaign that set the present events in motion. Piecing together the details will eventually lead you to two significant choices: joining an existing faction or starting your own, and trying to restore the old Calradian Empire or wiping its remnants from the map. While the story is presented pretty simplistically and without much dramatic flair, I could see these options providing a lot of replayability just due to the different flavor your campaign can take on based on which route you choose. Do you want to be the barbarian at the gates, or the successor to ancient glories?
But it’s on the battlefield where Bannerlord really delivers. The hitboxes on weapons and soldiers are impressively realistic, creating a high skill ceiling and a welcome sense of authenticity. You can have a spear thrust miss between someone’s shoulder and their helmet, and it’s always clear why the blow didn’t connect. This forced me to develop a good sense of timing and muscle memory to consistently get clean kills, which is a way more satisfying sense of progression than just putting points into a skill tree. I still don’t love the four-directional parry system, since we’ve seen that same thing done better in other games recently, and the lack of a stamina system can make one-on-one duels spammy and annoying, but at least I could strap on a shield and never have to worry about it.
Battles also feature smoother animations and much better unit AI than Warband, which was prone to somehow find the worst possible way to interpret any orders it was given. The new command interface is clean, readable, and makes it very easy to form control groups and give specific, detailed orders like forming a shield wall or keeping their distance and skirmishing with ranged weapons. The tactical options available are broad and executing them is relatively painless, which is much more than I could say for Warband. I did run into some significant performance issues and stuttering on larger battles, and especially sieges, but it’s been getting better with the almost daily patches TaleWorlds has been releasing.
Bannerlord’s biggest new systems are the Clan and Kingdom screens. Your clan includes your family and retainers, which can include a spouse and eventually children who can grow up and fight. If you join or end up ruling a kingdom, you can make changes like setting new tax laws – as long as your vassals approve, of course. The vassal management system is a bit clunky and unwieldy and mostly involves getting other lords on your side by tracking them down and earning their favor by picking correct dialogue options… but there’s a chance you’ll fail based on your Charm stat even if you say all the right things, and that’s just annoying. This is one area that could definitely use some more love before Bannerlord is ready to cast off its early access label.
As is typical of an early access game, I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about weird and even game-breaking bugs out in the community, but mercifully I haven’t been the victim of any serious ones so far. I’ve hit a few irritating video and audio glitches here and there, of course. Reloading a save once caused some troops I recruited to mysteriously disappear. I also ran into a consistent crash bug when I tried to launch a siege after taking over as its leader from another character. Thankfully, the patches have been coming quickly and relentlessly and there seem to be fewer technical issues every time I boot Bannerlord up.