Since it launched into Early Access this past Monday I’ve spent about 20 hours with Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord so far, and it definitely makes a mixed impression. On one hand, it’s a whole lot prettier than its 10-year-old predecessor, Mount & Blade: Warband. The map looks gorgeous, allowing you to scroll completely seamlessly from practically right over your character’s shoulder all the way up to a high-level strategic view. The lighting, textures, and terrain are all impressive. The level of detail really makes me feel like I’m in a living world. And they’ve done away with the weird, blocky, edge-of-the-map geometry blobs that made Warband’s map look like the gods hit a certain point and just gave up.
The interface has been drastically improved as well. It’s visually pleasing, well-organized, and easy to work with. However, there are certain things that don’t have tooltips which I wish were better explained, and there’s a significant amount of lag when switching between menus that kind of gets on my nerves. There are also a few screens that are difficult to get to and don’t even have a hotkey you can look up in the keybind menu. But it’s still such a huge step up from Warband’s janky interface that it feels like a big breath of fresh air.Not everything else about Bannerlord does, though. For something that’s been in development for about eight years, there’s still a fair amount of jank on display, which is probably why it’s got that Early Access caveat. Especially early on, it’s easy to get the feeling that you’re just playing Warband with better graphics. Targeting and interacting with items and characters in towns and on battle maps is still imprecise and sometimes unresponsive. The controls can be unwieldy, especially on horseback. There are a lot of little things that really don’t feel modern, which are especially noticeable next to all of the ones that do.
So naturally, the early gameplay will be pretty familiar to Mount & Blade veterans: You ride around the countryside doing missions and fighting bandits to gain gold, equipment, and reputation. These missions have a good deal of variety, which is nice since Warband could often feel like an endless loop of the same small list of tasks. Aside from old mainstays like escorting a caravan or hunting down poachers, you might be called on to resolve a blood feud or help merchants secure permits to sell their wares in a major town. These also inject a bit of worldbuilding and moral ambiguity in some interesting ways. That band of poachers might implore you not to side with the fat cat nobles who are denying them the right to a livelihood, opening up an alternate path for resolving the situation.
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The worldbuilding in general is pretty great so far. Set about 200 years before Warband, we see the ancestors of some of the factions we know locked in a tense struggle centered on a collapsing, Roman-inspired empire that has broken into three parts. Each of the six playable factions has its own rich personality, backstory, and style of fighting. I wish your choice of national origin had a little bit more of an impact, though. As it stands, it’s mostly flavor that doesn’t impose restrictions that might make you significantly alter your playstyle. Anyone can recruit any kind of troops and join any faction they wish. You only get one small campaign bonus based on where you were born, like being able to build structures faster or reduced movement penalty in forest terrain.
And the “main” story isn’t that great so far, either. It’s not really the point of Mount & Blade, so that’s not a huge deal., but I would almost rather I just be dumped into the world to go make a name for myself instead of being told that some relatives I have no emotional connection to have been captured by bandits and I need to go rescue them. Telling me I should care and making me care about a character are two different things, and Bannerlord doesn’t seem that concerned with the latter.At least once I got out and about and started meeting the various princes, lords, and knights, I developed an interest in the cast more organically. There is an intricate political web to unravel between the leaders of the various factions, with each having a different story about what happened at a pivotal battle right before the start of the campaign that set the present events in motion. As I continue to build my reputation, I find myself excited to meet new characters in person I’ve only heard about second-hand, and try to get to the bottom of their conflicting stories. I do worry that since these characters can die (if you’ve enabled the setting to allow it) and be replaced by heirs, that handcrafted chessboard of larger-than-life personalities will someday give way to something more generic. Only time will tell if the procedurally-generated characters who follow in their footsteps can fill their big shoes.
The battles themselves are a ton of fun, with smoother animations and much better unit AI than Warband. The new command interface is clean, readable, and makes it very easy to form control groups and give specific, detailed orders. The tactical options available are broad and executing them is relatively painless, which is much more than I could say for Warband. Personal combat seems relatively unchanged in comparison, with four directions available for attacking and blocking, and skill playing as much or more of a role than stats in your success. It’s fine, but we’ve seen the same basic idea done better recently in games like Kingdom Come: Deliverance.
The biggest new systems seem to be the Clan and Kingdom screens. You can get married and have kids, and even play as those kids once they’re grown, much like Crusader Kings II. Your clan levels up as you gain more renown, unlocking larger army sizes and the ability to form multiple, distinct war parties that can act independently. If you join (or rule) a kingdom, you can even make changes like setting new tax laws – as long as your vassals approve, of course. I haven’t gotten far enough in to try out most of these new toys yet, but I do find them highly intriguing and am eager to work toward them.As is typical of an early access game, I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about weird and even game-breaking bugs out in the community, but mercifully I haven’t been the victim of any serious ones so far. I’ve hit a few irritating video and audio glitches here and there, but the worst that’s happened to me so far is reloading a save and having some troops I recruited mysteriously disappear. And that’s only happened once.
It’s easy to focus on all the ways Mount & Blade II is still stuck in a rut starting out, but Bannerlord is an onion with lots of new layers to show once you start to really dig into it. Especially for an early access game, it’s ambitious and reasonably well-polished, even if it still has a long way to go. And with the huge graphical and general usability improvements, a latter-day rehash of Warband – one of my favorite games of the last decade – isn’t even a bad thing by itself when you get right down to it. I look forward to continuing my journey from pauper to king, and sharing my thoughts on the battles and dynastic struggles along the way.