Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord Early Access: First ImpressionsPlatforms: PC
Very long development cycles seem to be a regular thing these days, and Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord is the latest long-anticipated sequel. The first game in the series, Mount & Blade, released in 2008 and was followed by the standalone expansion Mount & Blade: Warband in 2010. Turkish developer TaleWorlds announced Bannerlord in 2012, and last week it finally released into early access. It's been the largest Steam release so far in 2020, so should you join the crowds or wait for the full release?
Like its predecessors, Bannerlord combines a campaign map with third person battles. In campaign mode you’ll freely move around the world, recruiting soldiers, picking fights with bandits, and completing minor missions until you’re ready to enter the service of a lord, or go it alone and forge your own nation. The game is not big on handholding, with the only real tutorial being one for combat. Once that is over (or if you choose to skip it) you’ll be thrown into the world with only a couple of quests as a guide. An in-game encyclopedia gives you some help, but it’s not exactly user-friendly or expansive. Anyone who has played Warband should be fine, but new players will likely need to resort to some online help, or a good deal of trial and error.
The RPG elements are one such complication. To create your character you’ll choose your background and experiences, which will impact your skill levels. Simple enough to start, but once you get in to the game the character screen is presented largely without explanation, with various points to spend, perks to pick, arrows pointing to things, and abbreviations that are not explained. There are also plenty of customisation options for your faction, with factors like deciding on career paths for soldiers, forming them into multiple armies, or being able to set tax levels for your new nation. Battle controls are similarly complicated. A myriad of hotkeys are available to command your troops, but there are so many it will take you some time to become accustomed to utilising them in the heat of battle.
The third person combat is virtually unchanged from Warband, where you use the mouse to select the direction of attacks and blocks. It’s a similar system to the one in Kingdom Come: Deliverance, and is relatively unusual for third person RPGs. Again it takes some getting used to, but if that puts you off then don't worry; the game is fairly forgiving if you’re simply able to time shield blocks and strikes effectively instead. TaleWorlds have also announced that the option to automatically block in the right direction (something that Warband had) will be put into the game, making things much more accessible, particularly for disabled players who might struggle with the intricacies of the combat system.
Progress in the game is incredibly slow at first, so you’ll have tens of hours to practice everything before you can even consider building your own empire. Even the first quest requires you to earn 50 reputation points. You only do this through battles, and the groups of bandits you can take on at this stage will net you a mere two or three points. There are also an abundance of side quests, but while these earn you money and improve your standing with the locals (allowing you to recruit better troops if you can afford them), they don’t offer anything in terms of reputation. At this stage in the game the battles can be pretty repetitive when you’re dealing with very similar groups of bandits and you don’t have the troop numbers or experience for any tactic other than “charge!” to be worthwhile. Combined with the reuse of battle locations across the map, it makes the opening hours a real slog.
On the plus side, after the initial struggle the game really comes into its own, as you embed yourself deeper into the world of Bannerlord. The setting is one of its highlights, with a rich lore available for those who want to explore it. There are six nations each with their own unique backstory and a host of individual characters. It’s a genuine living world as well, and it will continue on doing its thing without you. Wars will start, heroes will be captured, castles besieged, all without your involvement. A rolling list of world events pops up on your screen as you play - it’s largely meaningless at first, but as you become more familiar with the world those events will start to have an impact. You’ll often hear about a character before you meet them, and you’ll start to make choices about whose side you’re on pretty early. The NPCs can actually die and be replaced by heirs, if you enable it in the settings. The interesting and multi-faceted world is essential, since the main storyline is unfortunately not particularly interesting.
You’ll also start to take part in much bigger battles than the 10-20 person melees you started in. If your computer can handle it then up to 1000 soldiers can share the field, along with horses and siege engines, making the game so much more epic than it originally seemed. Just be careful not to overreach yourself. I provoked a nation to war far too early, and found my 50 veteran mercenaries swiftly swamped by 350 trained soldiers.
Unfortunately one of the significant places where the game really falls down is in character models. Virtually every character has the same body shape, as well as the same dead-eyed stare. Characters that are supposed to be 25 years apart in age look virtually the same. You’ll spend a good chunk of the game travelling around and talking to people, so it’s a shame the models and animations are so poor. On the other hand, the campaign map looks great on higher settings, so it’s not all bad in the graphics department.
There are a number of other negatives that make Bannerlord seem like an older game. The interface is patchy, and switching between the multiple menus can be pretty slow. It’s also quite difficult to target things for picking up - there’s no reticule, and it’s not clear at what distance you should be at. I mentioned the reuse of assets above, which are particularly noticeable in battles and the identical taverns. Finally, and on a different tack, the game is not fully voiced, which feels like a backwards step for RPGs. A number of these can and hopefully will be ironed out in what remains of the development process.
Early access is a badge that can mean many things, and I’ve seen plenty of reports detailing game-breaking bugs, but in my experience Bannerlord has been released in a really stable state. I’ve seen no major problems, although plenty of purely cosmetic graphical issues. None of these impacted gameplay in any way; the most often recurring one was the frequent disappearance of my character’s hair. At first the game did not automatically detect my dedicated graphics card and so was running incredibly badly with the integrated card on very low settings, but this was fixed with a settings change and a restart of the game.
Ultimately, Bannerlord is a completely mixed bag. It feels like a game that has been in development for the best part of a decade, with a whole bunch of features that were added eight years ago and haven’t been updated since. Graphically it’s way behind the times, the main story is not particularly compelling, and there are lots of little niggles for the developers to work on, but there is a lot of fun to be had here if you can get past the repetitive slog of the first few hours. There is no estimated date for the full release, and patches and fixes will continue to come, however you should have no hesitation about diving into the game now if you like the sound of it.