At Goonhammer, our passion for games extends well beyond the tabletop. Today “Primaris” Kevin Genson is changing things up from calculations and has a review of Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord, which he won’t shut up about.
Note: This is a review of an Early Access copy of the game, which means nothing is set in stone and things can easily change. This review is for version beta e1.3.0 which was the latest beta at the time of publication. The reader should also note that there is already an extensive collection of mods that can be applied to change and tweak the gameplay as desired.
Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord was released for Early Access on March 30th, a decade after Mount and Blade: Warband. I’ve already put over 100 hours into it, sacrificing sleep, painting time, and social obligations (such as they are during a global pandemic) in the name of hunting looters and building kingdoms. You start off the game as a member of a no-name clan with a small amount of gold, some weapons, and a horse. From there you will make a name for yourself, building up your warband by recruiting men and killing looters and other vagabonds until you have achieved enough renown to be hired as a mercenary for one of the six great factions. From there you will kill bigger and better things, grow as a character, possibly get married, and eventually rule a kingdom. Players of the original Mount and Blade will be instantly familiar with how the game plays, and that’s not a bad thing. The core of the game is definitely the combat, and here the game excels. The feeling the game evokes as you join in a cavalry charge or storm the battlements of a castle is really something special.
Bannerlord provides three options for gameplay; multiplayer, custom battles, and the core campaign where you will spend the majority of the time. I haven’t tried out the multiplayer (it requires anti-cheat software to be installed on my PC and I have no interest in playing it), and custom battles are one-off versions of the fighting game in the campaign, so we’ll focus on the campaign play for this review. Campaign play consists of three elements; your character, the world map where your warband traverses the map and encounters other parties, and the actual fighting game. The majority of your time will consist of you taking your party from location to location on the world map, interacting with towns, cities, enemies, and people to achieve your goals, and slowly building up your warband into a mercenary force, then a vassal, and then finally a kingdom. In terms of story your player has two goals; rebuild his clan and do something about finding a banner. I’ll admit I never paid much attention to the core story and instead focused on making my character the biggest badass in Caldaria. Bannerlord is one of those games where it’s easy to make your own story by focusing on the gameplay and character development you want. You can be a tournament champion, roaming from city to city crushing all before you, or you could be a charming nerd who spends all his time smithing, trading, and marrying up. It’s this flexibility which makes Bannerlord so engaging and addictive, and the outcome is heavily influenced by your skills. You can also have Companions to help bolster your weaknesses, so for example if you don’t feel like being good at medicine you can hire a surgeon to patch up your troops or a quartermaster to handle logistics and enable your warband to be even larger.
Your warband will consist of yourself, your Companions, and then a number of troops based on the level of your clan and the Steward skill of your Quartermaster (either yourself or a designated Companion). Troops range from simple peasants with farm equipment to noble knights with lances and heavily armored horses. Each faction has different lines of troops representing various strengths. Sturgians tend to field troops with huge shields and massive javelins but aren’t great with cavalry, while Battanians have some of the most lethal archers in the game and Khuzaits are the undisputed champions of horse archery. The Empire is the most balanced, with units that are pretty solid in every category. You can go across different factions to pick and choose the best units, recruit mercenary units at taverns, or also recruit prisoners who you’ve captured over time. The composition of your warband will significantly affect how well you perform; a unit of elite soldiers can easily dispatch a horde of undisciplined chaff two or three times their number.
Characters and Development
Bannerlord uses a RPG style attribute and skill system and a paper doll inventory system. Character creation starts by selecting one of six factions which determines your starting bonus (ranging from more XP for your guys to being able to build siege weapons faster), and some are definitely more powerful than others. Personally I find the Vlandian start (20% more upgrade XP for your guys in battle) to be the most effective choice. From there you mess around with various sliders to make your character’s appearance (I recommend the Detailed Character Creation mod for even more variety) and then select a series of background choices which determine your character’s attributes and skill focuses. One of the quirky things about Bannerlord is that character level is based on the number of skills you increase, and some skills are very hard to level up. For example it’s much easier to whack people with a sword than it is to hit them with a crossbow, and certain skills will passively level up over time.
This brings about the biggest issue with Bannerlord: leveling is extremely slow in the base game. Especially for certain skills like Engineering (siege warfare), Medicine (healing your troops), or Leadership (leading Armies), but even combat skills can become a slog once you hit upper levels. For example: I have a character with a maxed out attribute and maxed out focus in combat skills, and after hours of gameplay NONE of his melee skills are above 100. Worse yet is that once you reach a certain threshold the improvement rate is nonexistent, so no matter how many times you swing a sword if you don’t have any focus points in it you won’t get better. This slow progression of the game is one of the most popular things to fix via modding, and hopefully the developers will also adjust it. Equipment plays a massive role in determining the efficacy of your character, especially armor. A good set of equipment can be the difference between dying from a single hit and wading through a sea of your opponents as you harvest their lives with a bladed polearm like Death riding upon a pale horse.
The core of Bannerlord is a combat simulation, and here is where the game shines. The scope of combat is huge, with fights ranging from individual melees at a tournament to massive battles with 500 soldiers on each side. Your preferred style of combat will play a major role in the experience. Ranged weapons require you to aim and predict the drop of the arrow or bolt as it flies, while melee combat is a combination of directional attacks and blocking. It’s actually a fairly skill intensive experience, particularly at the higher AI levels where they will constantly block and attempt to counter your swings. The experience changes significantly depending on the weapon, environment, and whether you’re mounted. Combat is also extremely unforgiving; even the most heavily armored knight will die to a horde of trash peasants if he gets swarmed. This also applies to your character, although there are settings to reduce the amount of damage you take.
You control your troops through orders. The original game requires you to have line of sight to place an order, but there is also an RTS Camera mod which allows you to change the camera location and pause the game (and is also how I got all of these dynamic screenshots). You can control formations, order charges, and the level of granularity is pretty impressive. You can also completely ignore the order system and have your Sergeants take over, in which case the AI does things like flank their troops left or right and order ranged units to move forward until they can shoot. I’ll admit most of the time I just let the AI do their thing so I can run off and behead the enemy leader with a polearm that has no business being wielded on a horse.
Bannerlord is an Early Access title, which means that while it’s playable it is also unpolished and generally incomplete. For the most part the game is extremely stable (I have had very few crashes that weren’t mod related), and TaleWorlds is doing a phenomenal job of updating the game on a regular basis. The community has stepped in to address a lot of the issues through modding, and this is even before TaleWorlds has released the mod tools which will eventually allow complete overhauls of the game to the same extent that we saw in previous Mount and Blade titles. This means that the options for replay are virtually limitless. The base game is fun but a little rough, but with a few mods it’s vastly improved. Mods are located on Nexus and installation is very easy with their Vortex program.
Some of the my preferred mods are listed below, none of which directly alter gameplay. As a caveat, these mods may not be compatible with future versions of the game.
- Detailed Character Creation – Allows a significant increase in the number of sliders you have available to make your character, allowing you to create everything from a Hobbit to Gregor Clegane.
- Fast Dialogue – The vanilla game automatically loads you into conversation screens for many events which don’t require it; this mod gives you the option to skip a lot of that.
- Settlement Icons – This allows you to quickly see on the world map what towns or cities have missions, tournaments, or the opportunity to recruit elite troops. An extremely helpful quality of life improvement.
- Sound the Alarm – Provides a pop-up for major events such as declarations of war so that you don’t miss them.
- Dro’s Lighting Improvements – Provides a few tweaks to the lighting and coloration to make the game even more gorgeous. All of the screenshots in this article use this mod.
In terms of gameplay alterations, I like SmithForever to eliminate the burdensome rest requirement from Smithing, Cut Through Everyone to allow polearms and other massive weapons to hurt multiple foes, Tournaments XPanded to provide a few more options in tournament play, KillBanditsRaiseRelations to give a boost to your relationship with nearby villages every time you kill a pack of Looters, and RTS Camera to provide some flexibility when giving order. Also think the skill progression is way too slow in the base game and doubled it using Configurable Experience Multipler.
For $50 Bannerlord is a stellar game, even in it’s imperfect and Early Access form. Add modding and it’s incredibly addictive. If you played the original Mount and Blade you’ll find that this game does everything previous editions do and takes it to an even better level. The core combat gameplay is deep and immersive, and the sheer number of options your character makes for ample opportunities for replay. I expect this to be one of the games in my library that I’m constantly playing and coming back to years and years from now. Mount and Blade players have been eagerly waiting for a sequel for years, and TaleWorlds Entertainment has absolutely exceeded expectations with this release. If you’re not a huge fan of Early Access titles then you may want to wait a bit until the complete game is out, but my recommendation is to dive right in.
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