Pre-ordering games is a silly thing to do, and we made a point of noting that every time we covered some sort of pre-order scheme. Usually, we add that you can do whatever you like with your time and money, but waiting for reviews is wise.
Well, for the first time in over 25 years, I am about to go against my own better judgement on a particular pre-order offer that is yet to materialise, and Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord is what pushed me over the edge.
I've stumbled upon several bits of reasoning during my attempts to rationalise my ill-advised impulse.
A lot of my friends, some of them not even what I'd consider serious gamers, own copies of Mount & Blade: Warband on my account, because in spite of all its gritty flaws, bugs, unpolished mechanics, near unmanageable endgame, and dated visuals - Warband manages to put me in a trance-like state, unlike any other game out there.
I'd usually end up running from tournament to tournament, exterminating sea raiders, setting up silk and dye factories, and cavalry charging even slightly viable looking targets for more hours at a time than I would ever admit to in polite company. If Bannerlord manages to deliver that, only with updated graphics, I'm already sold.
But it won't. It will do a lot better than that. If the constant stream of developer info on TaleWorlds' Steam page is anything to go by.
The studio could probably have delivered a minimum viable product a long while ago, and then just drowned their customers with updates and DLC, but they didn't. If nothing else, that fills me with enough confidence to reach for my wallet.
Every time their Steam page is graced with a new blog post, a decent chunk of the more than 10.000 users still playing Warband, some of which are doing so for close to 10 years after release, start crying for a release date.
TaleWorlds remain silent on the matter, and that is beyond refreshing in a climate where glorified alpha builds get thrown in the fodder pit, just to be met with disapproval by the same customers who were willing to pay for a rushed skeleton of a product to begin with.
Testicles blackened and swollen with release date anticipation aside, TaleWorlds seem to know exactly where Warband fell flat, and Bannerlord is set to arrive with improvements in most of those fields.
During my honeymoon phase with the game, close to a decade ago, I tried to ride around Calradia with roleplaying on my mind.
Going around trying to trade, and starving or getting robbed in the process, with a minimal prospect for prosperity. Wandering from village to village with the idea to raise my reputation with the peasantry before I attempt to grab some land of my own, only to be met with buggy unrewarding quests, both in terms of in-game compensation and any sort of narrative satisfaction.
Towns and villages were little more than a facade artificially infused with uninteracive NPC life, only doubling as the backdrop for battles when required.
The internal politics of Calradia boiled down to equally monotonous bounty quests, delivering letters, raiding villages or caravans to provoke a war or clearing out bandit hideouts. While this may sound good on paper, the execution was often broken and provided little incentive.
Everything that would make immersing oneself in the world provided worthwhile was much more easily acquired through brute force.
Why ingratiate yourself with a lord of the land when battles, war and real-estate distribution would make whatever gains you made previously look microscopic, both in terms of money and personal relationships?
Why court a lady when forcing her father into agreeing to marriage through military means gets you the same thing with a lot less effort required, and considerably more money and renown gained as a byproduct of war?
While it may look like there are choices to be made here, the reality of the game's buggy mechanics made anything but an optimal warmonger playthrough a chore and a complete waste of time.
It looks like the developers are aware of this, and Bannerlord will ship with a deeper, more intricate and relevant quest system.
How would you like to participate in turf wars of local gangs, or even lead one of them yourself? Persuasion used to be a dump stat, how about a mini-game to spice things up? Developing and helping settlements a shallow and thankless affair, how about specialising your fiefs for certain roles?
The other weak spot in Warband was the utter unbearable chaos that inevitably erupts in its endgame. I’ve put an ungodly amount of hours into Warband, but because of this tornado of terrible, I’ve never even once actually conquered the entirety of Calradia.
Exiled and beaten lords will cue up at your capital, forts and towns will fall on one side of the map while you are stuck in a siege on the other, and your AI allies, advisors, and underlings will let everything fall apart the moment you look away from the screen. If they aren’t too busy jealousy bickering among themselves and blaming you for their trouble that is.
Again, one can brute-force through the problem, by never releasing captured lords for ransom and so reducing enemy numbers, making sure you are as good as invincible in battle before even starting your conquest, but any solutions you can come up here start feeling like wagon-loads of ripe camembert, and ultimately break whatever design the developers did have in mind for the later stages of a game.
This is without ever bringing up reliance on cavalry charges in combat that would put the Second Siege of Vienna to shame. No mass cavalry - no victory, it is often as simple as that.
TaleWorlds seem to be on top of this as well, and the solutions they have come up with look intriguing and pleasingly complex.
Continent-wide kingdom management now gets its own UI section, instead of being handled exclusively through clumsy dialogue. Internal struggles of your vassals apparently won't require you to throw a feast to get everyone seated around a table for a round of bickering and bribery, and that same UI section will allow players to see what their underlings are up to at any given moment without having to puzzle it together based on recent losses and defections.
After realising that almost each and every gripe I had with Warband is being addressed in Bannerlord, my internal pre-order debate was pretty much settled.
To make matters even clearer, there simply is no alternative to Mount & Blade in existence. Think of it as what The Prodigy is for music - almost a genre in its own right, occupied only by itself.
The Total War series comes close, but its campaign map isn't real-time, and you can never be in the thick of it with your troops. Heroes of Might & Magic 3 has a similar structure in terms of complexity and kingdom-to-combat interdependencies, but is an entirely different beast on any level but the superficial. Chivalry: Medieval Warfare took a few pages out of Mount & Blade's combat book, but entirely forgoes the grand-strategy aspect of its muse.
Simply put - only TaleWorlds can scratch that extremely specific itch of their own creation, and no one has even dared to try and do what they pulled off with Warband.
So, I will swallow protocol, common sense, prudence, even these words if need be - and pre-order Bannerlord as soon as it becomes available.