If TaleWorlds can call Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord’s release ‘Early Access’ after 8 years of development, funding from the Turkish government, and a closed multiplayer beta, then we can call this a ‘singleplayer review’.
Bannerlord announces and presents itself to players with a lot of confidence, if not pomp. Gone are the main menu drawings of Warbands past, now replaced with a shiny, posing, and animated model of a rough Viking-looking fellow. To make the gritty display complete, the music endemic to the game’s first menu screens is perhaps intentionally strongly reminiscent of something straight out of the Schwarzenegger Conan movies.
Oddly enough, those heroic call to adventure tunes stop as soon as character creation takes center stage. The first thing that stands out here is that TaleWorlds have managed to create a deep system for aesthetic adjustments to the player character. Not groundbreaking in and of itself, but what is remarkable is how well that same system generates various random characters for the game’s purposes, and manages to keep almost all of them looking stylised yet grounded.
As with previous Mount & Blade titles, character creation establishes stats and skills based on how the player defines his avatar’s backstory. Everything from family heritage, over childhood, adolescence, and down to the demise of that same family heritage conveniently pushes the protagonist and narrative both out of the nest and into the war-torn world of Calradia.
Unlike Warband, Bannerlord displays the actual impact backstory choices will have on the final character. The same goes for a lot of information previous entries to the series kept obfuscated for various reasons, and it is a welcome improvement indeed.
After a bit of utilitarian dialog with the player character’s surviving brother, which sets the bar for the rest of Bannerlord’s efficient writing, it’s straight on to the tutorial.
Now, to get one thing out of the way. Yours truly is by no means new to Mount & Blade, so what followed was a bit of a surprise.
The two fighters to beat in the tutorial delivered an inordinate amount of posterior damage on realistic difficulty until they both finally went down in all weapon combinations. It took some serious getting used to, so it is strongly advisable to adjust difficulty during this tutorial fight.
More of that barely more than a placeholder dialogue capps off the tutorial and the first taste of freedom awaits.
Bannerlord premiers its campaign map to considerable effect. It looks generations ahead of its predecessors mostly owing to the fact that several generational leaps in graphical fidelity actually happened since Warband.
Credit where credit is due, it borders on wizardry how good the game looks and performs while having several hundred units duking it out on screen.
Speaking of wizardry, Bannerlord’s setting is entirely devoid of any kind of supernatural shenanigans. The world and timeframe are aimed at depicting a fictionalised analogue for the aftermath of the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
This latest entry to the series is actually a prequel to Warband, so the names of some places or even family names of characters should be recognisable to veteran players. The story itself is nothing to write home about. Great empire falls, succession wars ensue, bickering, backstabbing, honour, valour, sweat, blood, the works.
To be fair, whenever someone finds themselves playing Mount & Blade for the story, one of the following two has to be true - there’s some mentally taxing roleplaying in progress or the player has his pants on backwards.
Bannerlord’s meat is minced and spread out across its tactical and strategic gameplay systems. The former’s quality is likely to be what keeps the game alive for the foreseeable future, and the latter, in its current state, is what might kill it for many.
Battles, duels, tournament fights, and everything combat related seems to have gotten a lot of developer attention. It’s tighter, more responsive, heftier and more visceral than before. Archery in particular feels considerably more satisfying than in previous entries which is probably down to an expert marriage of sound and animation. There’s just something deeply pleasing about an arrow whispering ffft and a body going limp somewhere in the distance a second later.
Issuing commands to troops and followers in battle works without a hitch or serious interruption to other in-game frontline duties. All the necessary tools for becoming a battlefield demigod are right there, but require some skill to execute, especially on higher difficulties. Of course, it is possible to comembert one’s way through a lot of combat situations single-handedly, but as a rule of thumb, if surrounded - it’s over, and no amount of cheese bar save-scumming will help.
The enemy will then proceed to drag the defeated, armyless and shackled player across the strategic overworld map until a ransom is paid. Should the ransoming budget be already spent, then rotting in a prison or being towed to the other end of the map will have to do until circumstances allow for an escape.
The strategic map of Calradia is where Bannerlord starts to crack and all but breaks. This isn’t referring to any of the ample quest, AI, technical or any other number of bugs and glitches, but to overall design.
Bannerlord inherited almost all of Warband’s strategic gameplay loops. Whether it’s diplomacy, trade, banditry or construction, they are all still here, and they gel about as well as they did 10 years ago. All sound individually, but a garbled disjointed mess when piled on.
To make matters even more convoluted a lot of those systems have received additional bells and whistles. In other words, there’s a new layer of half-finished now coating the old one.
In keeping with tradition, Bannerlord is at least as much of a slog as Warband was back in the day in terms of grind-to-progress ratio.
This goes for leveling up the primary character or companions, just as much as it does for growing armies, leveling up troops, establishing industries, employing caravans, hoarding gold and equipment, even just embarking across the map at maximum game speed can easily be mistaken as a cue for a bathroom break.
Numerous new toys are right there in the user interface, but just out of reach. Companions can now level up according to different roles within a clan, which can also level up. Automating trade via caravans is a welcome addition, as is fief and city specialisation. Several lords can now band together into an army, which should make campaigning with large forces more manageable. All of these sound great, but I managed to get less than a whiff of it all.
Everything just takes unreasonably long to accomplish. It felt like growing pains in Warband and its various stand-alone expansions, but by now it looks more and more like either an inability or lack of care for integrating the game’s various loops into one another, or at least into sets of systems for different playstyles.
As previously mentioned elsewhere, this assessment is coming from someone who put an unholy amount of time into Warband. After spending just over 40 hours with Bannerlord across two characters, I have yet to own a village or town, start a faction, grow a proper clan, or toy with any number of features lurking somewhere just out of sight.
The first character became a millionaire quickly owing to a bug where a workshop started generating tens of thousands of gold pieces every day, which broke the game entirely. TaleWorlds responded by quickly capping all shop profit to 200 gold per shop per day.
That isn’t bug fixing or balancing, that is hammering a problem away and hoping something somewhere else won’t collapse. It must have been quite obvious as far as buggs go, since it literally happened on the first workshop I opened, and a decent chunk of players reported similar occurrences. While some leniency is called for considering the sheer number and complexity of systems crammed into Bannerlord, it’s hard to accept that this sort of thing didn’t get stomped out in testing.
Another thing that would have been immediately apparent in testing is that the user interface is a minor crime against convenience.
I knew there had to be a way to access companion inventories and character sheets, but couldn’t spot the small arrow symbols meant to switch between the player character and companion screens. I did find it eventually, after 15 hours of sporadically scanning the screen for a hint at where these features might be hiding, fully knowing that they had to be somewhere.
Just getting into a battle requires switching back and forth between conversing and deciding on whether and how to fight regardless of the size of the battle, with loading screens in between for good measure. A couple of loading screens are no big deal? I’ll ask you again after your hundredth battle, and you may disagree, but only because the smithing UI is likely worse.
As a side note, all that time spent juggling menus is the cherry on top of the time-obliteration already taking place by design on the strategy map.
There’s no telling if these issues will ever be rebalanced and redesigned, or just ‘patched’ similar to that workshop income bug. I would usually assume they will, but when drawing parallels between Warband and Bannerlord it doesn’t seem as likely as one would hope. Especially considering that this beast has been in the oven for close to a decade.
So, should you wait another decade before throwing your hard earned coinage at Bannerlord?
No, absolutely not. Anyone even remotely interested in the series can get an affordable taste with Warband. If that strikes your fancy, then Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord is more of that but on a heavier horse. More in every respect, good and bad. Everything is cranked up as much as current tech would allow.
Cities are grander, battles are larger, markets are busier, riding and swinging a sword never felt so right, but on the flipside every bit of jank, messy design, half finished systems, dead-end quests, and plain old meditative thedium stands out even more.
TaleWorlds themselves have actually advised against getting in on the action during Early Access, but those are the same people who needed 8 years to deliver a beta, so it’s little surprise that their advice mostly fell on deaf ears.
When it comes to simulating a medieval continent with an even split between strategy and action, there is simply no substitute for Mount & Blade.
And yes, we are calling this a review. Since TaleWorlds met us half way, and basically delivered half a game, it is only fair that they get half a score. In its current state, Bannerlord is a solid 8/10 with huge amounts of polish still sitting between it and a potentially much higher complete score some years down the line.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to see a man about a war horse.