Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord Preview – It’s Certainly Early Access

Mount & Blade II Bannerlord

It's hardly a secret that I've been looking forward to Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord for a long time now. I remember buying the original Mount & Blade because it was looking to fill that gap where you can truly fight amongst your men. The problem was that it was mods, not the games themselves, that gave you the real feeling of starting your own empire. The options in the base games were limited at best. This is where Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord comes in.

After having had hands-on with the game at Gamescom for the past two years, and writing a preview of my times on the battlefield in 2018 and then my time in a position of power, drawing in people and creating a huge army in 2019, it was time to get a further hands-on with the game. It launching into Early Access at the end of last month made it the perfect time, so now it's sort of here, what do I think?

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I've spent around forty hours on Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord in the past two weeks, in between coughing myself silly or sleeping due to the effects of COVID-19, and I can't help but find myself enamoured with the game. This is despite some major issues that have persisted through what are essentially four titles (original, Warband, With Fire & Sword and now Bannerlord). Yes, this is in early access, so there's some scope for improvement.

Let's talk issues first. Character models are still very clunky, despite improvements. There are also problems with clipping, with shields and weapons disappearing into characters. It's cosmetic, sure, but it's still there. On both the cosmetic and functional, Taleworlds desperately need to work something out with the UI in battle. Giving commands to your units is a pain in the arse, having to use the numerical and F-keys to twiddle around with the system that is imprecise at best. You're better off simply selecting all units and then pressing F1 & F3 to have them all charge if you're attacking. If you're defending, just do nothing and wait for your enemy to attack you.

In terms of content, it's a mixed bag. Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord continues the series' ability to be fantastic for emergent storytelling and generally being a sandbox. I'll talk more about that later, that's good stuff, we're talking bad. So, on bad, the quests. Either they're procedurally generated, of which there seems to be about eight and two are fundamentally broken, or there are some fixed quests. Admittedly, even saying the word some is generous because frankly, it feels like the main questline hasn't even got started when the game ups and tells you "that's all I got".

That's pretty much the case with the procedurally generated quests used to improve your relationships too. You'll find yourself repeating yourself over and over again after just a few hours, which is annoying because so much relies on your relationships. What also doesn't help is that some of the quests being either bugged or just terribly designed - one particular example being a quest called Spy Party. Oh, and it doesn't help that there's also no real variety in dialogue from NPC's.

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So anyway, the quest. You start by talking to everybody for clues as to his identity. Does this person have a sword or not? Does he have a beard or any hair on his head? Does this person have any scars? Then you get to search through the interminably dull and lifeless city to search for the right person. Problem is, there can be more than one of them. Each and every time there have been multiple people who fit the description, meaning it's just pot luck if your hard work goes to nought.

Rounding up just this first part alone looks damning. Visually, it's not that good. Content-wise, in terms of quests, it's pretty barren at the moment. Also, what content there is can be pretty buggy. On the note of bugs, there are more than a few bugs strewn around, with even core elements like character traits being broken. Knowing all this, can I have much good to say about the game? Well, yes, I can.

The thing about Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord that keeps me coming back day after day, hour after hour, is that it's mercilessly addictive. I've got no interest in the quests, I've seen them all so many times I'm starting to think of them more as family members than my own non-COVID-afflicted relatives. What is addictive is the emergent storytelling as you progress from doing the silly opening quests, finding a banner and then working your way to glory.

How will you do this? Do you join a pre-existing clan, fight their wars for them, grow in power internally until you're trusted with land, leading armies with thousands of troops on a great crusade? Maybe you'll create your own clan through a massive amount of repetitive hard work, doing odd jobs, fighting bandits or other generals to build up your renown, recruiting and developing your units and companions and fighting your way to the top? Freedom is the key element here, you do things the way you want to - at least when you get to that point where you have the resources.

It's once you advance that you get to explore the political intrigue that drives the world. Factions make peace, declare war and start swapping territories as the world drips into a near-permanent state of conflict that makes Westeros look relatively peaceful. At least if you decide to develop yourself and start pushing your claim as the leader of your own faction, you can feel a good sense of ownership of whatever you happen to capture.

The challenge then is holding them. Do you have the spare troops to assign a garrison? Do you have the gold to pump into the city or castle, improving the build speed of the improvements you can make? Yes, you can develop the cities and castles you own here, each improvement having their own benefit. Then you get to decide who acts as the steward, or manager, of the location. Also, do you have the required resources to send a companion off to manage their own army? There are a lot of spinning plates to manage, all that keeps you engrossed and entertained.

So yes, it is a slog but it's an enjoyable and compelling enough slog, aided by the battle system in the game. It's not too different from that of the older Mount & Blade games, with melee attacks being directed by the way you push your mouse just before starting the attack. The difference here is just how much the scope has expanded, with the game supporting hundreds upon hundreds of units on the battlefield at the same time. Made even more impressive when the battlefield takes to castles, walled cities and more.

There are flaws though. The janky AI persists from the previous games - enemies and allies alike will mostly group up in one giant huddle, making any large-scale battle like the world's messiest orgy rather than a battlefield where people use these silly things called tactics. There are improvements though. I've noticed cavalry going for flanking manoeuvers, so it just seems that it's anybody not on a horse that needs some tweaking.

Still, thanks to the size and scale of these battles, the continued inclusion and improved use of siege weaponry, it's hard to not love a huge battle in Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord. I'm terrible with the trebuchets and catapults, my aim is naff, but it's still a great sight to see. It's also terrifying when enemy weaponry starts launching rocks around you - one hit and you're done.

So what do I think about Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord? I can't help but like it. I can't deny that there are major flaws and its early access status is noticeable from the very second you launch the game. If I were to rate the game now it'd maybe get a six out of ten, primarily because it doesn't even feel like an improvement on Warband. I say this knowing that I'm going to be spending hundreds of hours in the game. That's before it even gets to the level I know it can reach.

Still, I trust TaleWorlds and they have a track record in supporting their games so you may want to hold off, but this is a game that will most certainly be worth buying. Hell, you're still likely to have a lot of fun with it now when you get past the initial slog and get to building your empire or the empire you work for. The question is, are you happy to pay now for something that's still enjoyable, though in a rough state, or do you want to buy it later when it's likely going to be a true gem?

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