Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord Review
Banner my lords, this game is great
It’s officially been over a decade since Mount and Blade: Warband released, and if that doesn’t make you feel old, I don’t know what will. In the time since the definitive Medieval-'em-up came out, the United Kingdom’s monarch died, a former United States president was impeached twice, one of the longest wars in modern history came to an anti-climactic close, and eleven mainline Call of Duty games released. There's a global pandemic that's causing problems in China, Twitter is dying, virtual reality is a thing, and somehow an iPhone game ported to PC is one of the best titles to release this year. And through all those terrible/funny/weird events, the game that effectively is the sword-and-board genre remained dominant on Steam's top-seller list...until now, because its sequel, Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord, can rightfully take its place.
If you're somehow unfamiliar with Mount and Blade, the premise of all four of the titles in the franchise is simple. You start each game, including Bannerlord, as a nobody in a quasi-medieval world with little more than your schlong, a sword and a dream to conquer a kingdom. With the help of an AI army that you recruit, then, you quickly end up fulfilling this dream by completing generic quests and fighting in massive first- and third-person battles to take over settlements and other 1000 C.E. dwellings. You’re also implicitly required to trade with the locals to fund your fights, manage your relationships with the other lords and ladies of the land, and explore a continent-spanning map to find the best gear and troops available.
The catch is that in Mount and Blade games, you play as both commander and combatant. While the bulk of your time, statistically speaking, is spent jumping into the fray and fighting for cathedrals and cornfields, you also need to maintain your troops’ ranks, ensure your party is well fed, parlay with leaders and manage the specifics of your kingdom. But this catch ultimately works to the franchise’s, and specifically Bannerlord’s, benefit because it’s absurdly engaging and its mechanics are better tuned than a bean-eater’s fart (or however that saying goes).
As it relates to the latter, Mount and II: Bannerlord is a technical beast to behold. Whereas previous Mount and Blade games were graphically not-so-great and passively buggy, in Bannerlord, everything not only looks good, but sounds super and runs well, too. Swords slash soldiers with satisfying swooshes, blood bursts from your opponents’ orifices with disgusting delight, and the background music gets your pulse pounding. All this is possible without destroying the game’s frame rate, at least the mid-range gaming computer we reviewed the title on, which makes the entire experience well worth the price of admission given our experiences with certain other titles’ technical aspects this year.
However, as I’ve said more times than I can count in other reviews, graphics don’t maketh the game, in this case, the complexity of Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord’s combat does. While you can technically tell your troops at the start of each battle to charge and then bugger off to bludgeon people with a blacksmith's hammer, it's almost always a better idea to engage in some Total War-lite strategy. Your troops can be commanded with a shockingly in-depth system that allows you to do everything from order them into predetermined formations to having specific groups attack specific groups of enemies. Similarly, you as the player have the ability to sway the tide of battle by using a quasi-intricate combat system that's passively akin to Kingdom Come: Deliverance, and both these things make the massive 100v100 AI battles and sieges a treat to say the least.
There’s also a lot of complexity to the game’s non-combat systems too. On your 40ish-hour long quest to take over Bannerlord’s world, you’ll need to do all sorts of non-slashy things to keep your party populated. These things, which include everything from starting a family to managing the details of your castle’s tax policy, can be surprisingly in-depth at times. This ensures that, in addition to Bannerlord’s fantastic combat, that the game overall never becomes boring or overtly intense, with it ultimately striking the perfect balance between the two in a way that’s rarely managed in modern games.
However, for as fantastic as all this is, something needs to be said about how Bannerlord is missing some features that were, at one point, promised. The biggest thing that the game doesn’t include is a co-op mode, and while there is a PvP multiplayer that’s all well and good, the fact that there’s no way to make a kingdom with a friend in the vanilla game is disappointing to say the least. There are also no boats in the game, nor a strong crime and punishment system or truly unique locations, which aren’t huge deals, but are still somewhat missed.
But the fact that there aren’t any of those aforementioned features doesn’t ruin the game, because given how strong its core loop is, that’d be almost impossible. With its fantastically in-depth combat and command systems, great graphics and audiovisual design, and there being plenty to do when you aren’t slashing with your sword or board, Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord is an experience to behold. It takes the unique concept of previous titles in its franchise, updates the systems that cemented Mount and Blade into gaming history, and outside of a few missing features, it’s easily the best title on the market that properly simulates medieval combat. With the impending release of overhaul mods and bug fixes, Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord isn’t a game that you want to miss, as long as you’re okay with it lacking a few of its planned features.
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