Have you ever wanted to rule your own kingdom? Well, now you can. If you’ve never played Mount & Blade, don’t worry, you haven’t been left behind because Bannerlord is an evolution. Much like Total War: Rome 1 & 2, you don’t need to have played the previous game.
What Kind Of Game Is Bannerlord?
Mount & Blade II is set in a fictional world of kingdoms. There are generic cultural regions that represent real-world equivalents, such as deserts, plains, forests and tundra. These regions are stylised with alternate buildings, units and economic strengths/weaknesses. The game is set 200 years before Warband and its setting is inspired by the barbarian invasions that mark the decline of the Western Roman Empire.
You start the game as a relative nobody with no one but yourself to order about. The character creation can be made as complex as you wish, which allows for some deep roleplaying. As with the previous game, you will have to make a decision about who your character is in a simple stat allocation procedure.
Unfortunately, as you make selections based on the information you’re given, you can see how they affect your stats. For some players, this may seem beneficial, but it stifles the randomness of an organic attribute system. If you’re unhappy with the stats related to your choices, you can go back and change the outcome immediately.
I didn’t do this and ended up with a character I wasn’t fond of... Although Edwain, my creation, wields a pole-arm, I would rather him use a sword and shield. Despite my mild annoyance, I forged an unbreakable bond through use. Instead of doing what I’d usually do, I forced myself to try a different build. It would be good to see the developers remove the stat visuals and remove the back button. It’s far more enjoyable to get to know the stranger you wanted to disown. Where would I be without Edwain? I probably wouldn’t have a bloodthirsty army of mercenaries at my disposal.
The Early Game
My first impression of playing Bannerlord on console is that it looks remarkably similar to Warband. The gameplay is the same and so is the world. It’s another case of the second game is what the first should have been, but let’s forget about that.
Bannerlord definitely improves over its predecessor and these improvements, however slight, do make for a smoother experience. The world has been fleshed out: towns vary in size and are more lively than the half empty streets found in Warband. There’s more to do in towns and villages and it’s far easier to ascertain what you’re meant to be doing.
Mount & Blade is renowned for not telling you much. I remember getting very stuck in Warband after the introductory mission. You’re left to it like a newly-born animal and you quickly find that there’s not really much to do. Mount & Blade isn’t Skyrim, it’s more like Morrowind. You have to listen carefully and use your common sense to figure out where you need to go and how you need to do it.
Bannerlord is more forgiving in that it gives you a platform to leap from. You and your brother plan to put together a clan to rescue your family and there are objectives you must work towards. That’s as far as the handholding goes. It’s not the best of stories and it forces you to take on a predesigned backstory. That said, after the initial clan building, the story isn’t pervasive.
The first sidequest I stumbled upon was a man in a nearby village seeking prisoners. It sounds easy enough, but it’s these so-called easy quests that can become frustrating. After much trial and error, I became more accustomed to the game and its ways. Mount & Blade has a steep learning curve and that might throw off more than its fair share of players. Once the learning curve is over, it plateaus and become very easy. The enjoyment derived from the game is in building a large army, laying siege to enemies, gathering resources and money, and battling foes in hand-to-hand combat.
Traversing The World
When you’re not battling, you’re traversing a huge map as a single icon that represents your entire army. The map is overwhelming to start with, but you’ll quickly realise that you can go anywhere and do whatever you want. Raid caravans, buy and sell goods, kill bandits and looters, get pally with high flying lords, etc. The choice really is yours. There are multiple ways to meet your objectives. Bannerlord is multiple games in one: battle sim and economy manager. The catch being, you have to do all the hard work yourself.
If you decide to stop at a town or village, the game switches to third person and you’re put into an instance. Thanks to the speedy load times, these switches aren’t overly bothersome. The same goes for battles. When you encounter a foe on the world map, you’ll transition to a predesigned area that represents the part of the map you happen to be in. For example, if you’re in the desert, the battlefield will be one of a few desert settings.
As your army grows, you’ll eventually be able to dictate the formations of your troops. You only control yourself, but you have access to a selection of tactics that you can use in every battle. In the early stages of the game, they’re not that relevant because you’ll mostly be battling smaller bands of enemies. Once you engage larger armies, manoeuvring your mounted archers or pole-arms could be the difference between a win or a loss.
Engaging In Warfare
The battles themselves are quite riveting in their own way. Whilst they’re basic and retain similarities to how the battling was done in Warband, they’re addictive, realistic and a lot of fun. I suppose battles were a simple thing. Army versus army. Waiting for the opposing force to meet your own is exhilarating. I like to ride up and down the line, emulating Napoleon Bonaparte in an effort to boost the morale of my troops.
It’s so satisfying to see your army formation and dictate when you want them to attack. When the clash finally happens, there’s a real battle happening that makes you feel strongly attached to your troops. When the red bar appears in the upper right corner off the screen, you know you’ve lost one of your own. You do get attached to them.
I often ride my horse into battle and cut down the stragglers who aren’t involved in close quarter. You can feasibly enter battle without your horse and engage the enemy on foot. Unlike most action games that force you to engage, you can strategise your attacks and use your weapons to your advantage. With longer swords, you can keep your enemy at bay, and with a sword and shield you can block handily before dealing the deathblow. Realistically, one-on-ones don’t last long and nor should they. This is war after all. Likewise, don’t try and take on too many opponents.
For me, the best part of Bannerlord is its attention to a more realistic blend of warfare. It doesn’t pander to a modern sensibility; rather, it does its own thing. This is developers making the game they want to play. At least that’s how it feels. I’m not shilling for them.
After the battle, you can can take on prisoners (if you didn’t kill everyone) and reap the rewards of your belligerent labour: loot. This is a viable strategy in the early game. Encounter weak enemies, dispatch of them, take their loot and sell it all, or use it to complete quests. One quest actually had me source weapons for someone.
How Does Bannerlord Perform?
The game runs really well, even on a Series S. The framerate is steady and the loading screens are short. There’s far more detail on the map and towns feel lived in. Even Warband on ultra (PC) doesn’t look as good as this. Bannerlord is a massive game that allows huge battles (up to 1000 units on PC). During the battles, I’ve rarely seen poor framerates and the same goes for walking around cities. The level of detail is improved over Warband and whilst the world isn’t exactly stunning, it’s incredible when you consider its scale and the fact that it can be played on console. Mount & Blade II Bannerlord is a great example of what the new generation consoles can do.
Bannerlord isn’t the finished article and it won’t be for some time. Everything about the game is janky, but its jankiness is what makes it so appealing. I haven’t come across any game-breaking bugs or crashes just yet, so the jank is restricted to its contents, its simplicity and its inherent video gameness. Playing Bannerlord is like playing a video game that was released a long time ago. Everything you need is there: the vital ingredients are what Bannerlord has. There’s no sheen, no excess; it’s an iced bun that your Grandma bought for you, not the Lotus Biscoff cheesecake from the popular local coffee shop.