|Our score||8.5 / 10|
|Good||Deep systems, organic storytelling, epic battles|
|The bad||Early game is a serious grind, janky in places|
|Release date||October 25, 2022|
|Developped by||TaleWorlds Entertainment|
|Available on||Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Series S, PC|
At the start of my Banner Lord career, I was captured by bandits (embarrassing, I know). They killed the half-dozen starry-eyed young men I had recruited from a nearby village, stole all my money, and even once I escaped their clutches, I was left completely helpless. A humbling experience for sure, the memory of which brought a wry smile to my lips as I sat atop my throne, lord of all I walked, some 20 hours later.
Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord is the latest open-world strategy RPG from TaleWorlds Entertainment. Previous games in the series, Warband in particular, are rightfully considered classics, and Bannerlord has some big shoes to fill as a result. I’ve been playing since early access came out and have seen Bannerlord evolve into a really special game in that time.
You can split Bannerlord (roughly) into two separate parts. At the macro level, it’s a game about establishing and maintaining your kingdom, and at the micro level, it’s a game about waging large-scale battles in self-contained combat scenarios. There are certainly other games that do everything better than Bannerlord, but it’s how Bannerlord’s various pieces interact that gives it the edge.
You start the game as a person, and after creating a custom protagonist, you’re unleashed on the kingdom of Calradia. You and your party roam a massive world map, take on quests, keep your supplies up to date, and manage your equipment. There’s a tutorial and a series of quests you can follow, but honestly, that’s not how the game is meant to be played.
The “story” quests are boring (one of the first involves getting a piecemeal history lesson from ten different lords, who could be anywhere on the map) and it’s much more fun to carve your own path in sandbox mode. Found your own kingdom and unite all of Calradia, join one of eight warring factions and lead them to glory, or simply kill and plunder as you please, the choice is yours.
Unfortunately, whatever you do won’t change the fact that starting the game is kind of a chore. You’ll still start by rounding up men from local villages, grinding down bandits for XP and loot, and doing odd jobs like escorting merchant caravans and scaring off poachers. It makes you appreciate the more exciting things that come later, but there’s no getting around those slow opening hours.
Once you’ve made a name for yourself and assembled a sizable fighting force, things get exponentially more interesting. Relationship and influence mechanisms are starting to really come into play for one thing; almost all NPCs, from farmers and town craftsmen to nobles and kings, have an opinion of you, which determines what actions you can take towards them. If you attack a village, its inhabitants will become hostile and you will no longer be able to recruit troops there. Conversely, increase your relationship with a particular lord, and you may be able to get him to abandon his current kingdom and join yours.
The relationship system is quite simple, but it adds a level of depth and credibility to the world. It reminds me of the Nemesis system from Shadow of Mordor, in a good way. The lords I’ve clashed with several times on the battlefield have become my fierce rivals, and if you do a little politics and improve your charm stats, you might be able to convince your fellow nobles to grant you fiefdoms. (cities and towns) or even to pass kingdom-wide policies in your favor, such as the introduction of a senate, which strengthens your influence if your clan is large enough.
There’s a lot of depth to the RPG mechanics, too. There’s a huge variety of skills and lots of interesting choices to make. Some, like scouting, make traversing the outside world easier by increasing your movement speed and reducing your food consumption, while others are combat-focused, allowing you to deal more damage and wield better skills. weapons. Digging into the skills screen and optimizing your build is a lot of fun, there’s a lot to adjust, and you can really focus on a playstyle that suits you. It’s exactly what you expect from an RPG.
This, however, is only half the game. During all this time, you will also have to take part in large-scale battles in real time. Encounter an enemy group on the world map, and you and the opposing force enter an instance where the battle is taking place. Most of the combat is simple yet elegant. You fight with a wide variety of age-appropriate weaponry, and combat revolves around directional blocking and attacking. If an enemy raises their ax above their head, you must manually block in order to deflect the blow.
The weapons offered are varied. You can wade around with a terrifying two-handed executioner’s battle ax if you want, or operate with a bit more finesse and use something smaller like a dagger. Each weapon class has an associated stat to pour points into, unlocking all sorts of new perks along the way. Transforming into a hulking juggernaut and facing the enemy head-on is just as much fun as playing as a sniper, biding your time, then knocking an enemy lord off their horse with a well-placed arrow.
Initially, battles suffer from the same problem as the rest of the game. At first, you only fight mobs of raiders and bandits, who will only ever charge at you en masse and only pose a real threat if you’re in numerical inferiority. There really is no strategy needed to defeat them. Late game battles are a huge step up though. Knowing how to use different units is key, and to the game’s credit, each unit type has a role to play and feels well balanced. Archers can be devastating if your troops are caught in the open, but a cavalry charge will cut through them. On the other hand, some well-positioned spearmen can stop a mounted assault in its tracks.
Strategic thinking is rewarded. Advance on an enemy fortification? Make sure your men are in a loose formation, making it harder for enemy archers to take them out. Does the enemy have heavy cavalry? Place your spears in front and, if you can, place your infantry on top of a hill, which will make a cavalry charge less effective. Things get hectic, but making decisions on the fly and watching the battle unfold can be breathtaking. Rallying your men for a last ditch attempt to break the enemy line, or watching from your vantage point as a combatant on the gorund as the enemy marches straight into your carefully laid trap are experiences only Bannerlord can provide.
The AI can leave a bit to be desired when things get really chaotic, but for the most part it does a good job. AI armies will employ real-world tactics, like using wooded areas to mask an approach, or trying to split your group by luring you in with mounted archers. They only occasionally act irrationally or against their interests, such as when small groups of stick-wielding peasants, whom you are trying to protect, flee from your heavily armed elite veteran warriors.
The sound of battle is almost symphonic. The thunder of horses’ hooves, the clash of steel on steel, and the roar as your men charge at the enemy are all perfect and create this wonderful atmosphere of chaos all around you. The siege battles in particular are truly a sight to behold. The constant hiss of arrows, the thunder of the ram against the door, is enough to send a shiver down your spine.
After the fight, the intersection between the two halves of the game comes back to the fore. This massive, visually spectacular melee you just witnessed wasn’t some scripted story or canned action sequence, it happened for a reason and has real consequences. Maybe you’ve captured a castle of such strategic importance that it changes the whole tide of the war, or maybe you’ve successfully repelled an invading force, but your heavy casualties leave you open to an attack on an entirely different front. The way Bannerlord seamlessly transitions from micro to macro is truly impressive.
There are also a few multiplayer modes that make the most of the game’s combat engine. These range from large-scale siege battles to smaller, more intense skirmishes. Field kills earn you gold, which you can use to spawn with more powerful weapons and gear. It’s a refreshingly simple approach, and the mechanics are well suited to PvP engagements. If you like games like Chivalry, Mordhau or For Honor then you will like this.
Finally, a word on the technical aspects. Overall graphical fidelity is a huge improvement over Warband, but animations are a little stiff, the UI looks amateurish (especially the Charisma controls), and the overworld lacks detail. Despite this, the textures and lighting are (for the most part) strong, and the number of soldiers on the battlefield at any one time is incredibly high. It’s not state of the art, but it gets the job done.
Grind and jank aside, there’s nothing quite like a Mount and Blade game, and Bannerlord is unarguably the best yet. His uniqueness alone is worth playing. To talk about it that way is to do it a disservice; the real marvel of Bannerlord is that it actually realizes what is a surprisingly ambitious concept. The two halves of the game complement each other perfectly. It may be a slow boil, but once it kicks up a notch, you won’t be able to put it back down.