The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. This one has been intensely anticipated by myself and thousands of others for eight long years. We had abandoned all hope, but now it's here and it's not even finished yet. So without further ado...
Conan the Barbarian was once famously asked, "What is best in life?" Paraphrasing Mongol warlord Genghis Khan, he responded: "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women." If there was ever a game to come close to Conan's kink, it'd be Mount & Blade – minus the people crying because, yeah, that'd be a bit dark.
Mount & Blade is almost an underground phenomenon of sorts. Turkish developer Taleworlds Entertainment hasn't produced anything but games and expansions in the series, and its first outing in 2008 wasn't particularly well received. With graphics already horribly dated for the time, the medieval-fantasy sandbox RPG was noted for its potential but criticised for being underdeveloped. A couple of years later, Taleworlds put out Mount & Blade: Warband, which was essentially the same again but with way more roleplaying options sprinkled on top – and that's where I jumped on.
130 hours in game, according to my Steam library, says they did something right.
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Warband – much like Kenshi – is all about gaining power and using it to achieve whatever the player wants. You start off in a fairly standard RPG way, picking the manliest* beard and hairstyle possible for your character and creating a history for them: what your parents did, whether you spent your childhood at court or on the streets, what you ended up as in adulthood, and the reasons for your adventure – all of which grant various stat bonuses.
Then you're dropped alone in Calradia, a vast fictional continent fought over by various factions clearly inspired by real-world cultures (Nords, Vikings; Vaegirs, Slavs; Khergits, Mongols etc) and left to fend for yourself. You do what you like. Quests, one thing Kenshi had none of, give you a short-term goal and may raise your reputation with a faction or figure as a means to an end, but you have to think bigger and not everyone enjoys that.
The bulk of the game takes place in a zoomable, rotatable overhead world map, which looks laughably bad at first glance. From here, you point and click where you want your little horse-riding man to go, and the earliest hours will be spent running from ragtag crews of bandits. Otherwise it'll be to villages where you recruit ne'er-do-wells into your merry band so you can whack the bandits.
They'll start out as pitchfork-wielding bumpkins but the more battle they see, they start to ascend a unit tree where you can choose what sort of soldier they become – infantry, cavalry or archer. When more than one warband or army clashes on the map, the game switches to a third-person view on a spontaneously generated combat zone where you ride into battle atop your mighty steed, smashing people's faces in with your weapon of choice and barking orders at soldiers.
When, about 10 hours in, you've managed to raise your men up to be majority mounted and you give the order to charge at your foes… Gosh. There is just something about it that, let's say, "appeals to the male fantasy". The romance of blood-splattered swords, riven shields, and the unwavering belief that you would be a renowned warrior if you lived during medieval times and not dead in a ditch somewhere because of severe myopia.
Guilty as charged. But I'm not the only one. In 2012, Taleworlds announced that it was developing a prequel to Warband – Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord – set a couple of centuries earlier (not that it matters). Warband's dedicated fanbase was thrilled because the game was already in dire need of modernisation when it first came out. So they waited. And waited. Then their patience started to fray. It's not hard to find hundreds upon hundreds of threads or videos posted at regular intervals over the last eight years whining about how long it has taken Bannerlord to reach Early Access, which finally hit Steam on 30 March.
The issue, as ever, was with the engine. Bannerlord initially began development on a modified version of Warband's and, having taken stock of its limitations, Taleworlds binned the project and started afresh, essentially wasting a couple of years. Difficulties with rendering destructible environments in the multiplayer game was also cited in Turkish media, as well as far-reaching control of the game's design by Taleworlds' owner, Armağan Tavuz.
In fairness, though, Taleworlds probably still counts as an indie developer. Starting out with a staff of two, they haven't ventured beyond the 12-year-old Mount & Blade blueprint, and each one was a janky, bug-ridden mess living in a little bubble far from the multiple hundreds of tech heads that help churn out AAA stuff.
Character creation is reminiscent of Warband's, though you can actually see the effects of each choice
But it's here now, and Bannerlord's first day out became the biggest launch of the year so far on Steam with over 200,000 concurrent players. Taking a peek now, gone 9pm in the evening UK time, there's more than 62,000 forging and dismantling kingdoms across Calradia, making it the 13th most popular game on Valve's distribution platform. It's quite a drop, but we'll examine why presently.
It's immediately clear that the lost time hasn't done Bannerlord many favours. Though I cannot stress enough that it is a stunning upgrade on Warband visually, Bannerlord is doomed to be another M&B game that is behind the curve. Nevertheless, the game map is actually quite pleasant to look at now, and the improvements to shading, lighting, animations and environments are more than adequate. However, as with Warband, the gameplay and immersion trumps such baubles.
This might be because, at this point in development, Bannerlord feels much like a remastered Warband, albeit with changes to kingdoms and setting. What little muscle memory I had retained from its predecessor served me well in Bannerlord whereas I remember struggling for a while with my timing in Warband.
Protip: Pressing 'N' opens the encyclopaedia, which is invaluable for tracking down characters and knowing who's at war with whom, but the game never tells you that
For those not familiar, the finest mechanics of M&B are in its battles. As mentioned, when armies meet in the field, you are transported to a third-person view behind your character, who by all rights should be mounted but it's not a necessity. Combat hinges on swings of the mouse similar to that seen in Chivalry or Mordhau, both of which were at least informed by M&B's style. So you can swing your weapon from the left, right, overhead or thrust – and Bannerlord has added in helpful arrows to show the results of your mouse movements.
When riding into a skirmish, then, you will often be approaching infantry at speed and able to adapt your attack based on your enemy's position. The awkward feeling when you sail straight past them and completely miss is still commonplace. But when you do one-shot a foe, then another, and another, it's intoxicating. I'd probably be classed a war criminal for the amount of retreating soldiers I've cut down for the thrill of it, but there's no Geneva Convention in Calradia.
Again, how you play Bannerlord is entirely down to you. After besting the training ring, there's a "main mission" involving the rescue of kidnapped family members that gently pushes the player in the right direction, but it's either not fully implemented or bugged. At one stage, your brother tells you to gather this many men and wait for him to contact you. More than half a year has passed and I've heard nothing, despite the in-game encyclopaedia telling me where he's hanging out. A days-long trek across the continent to the city of Chaikand later, and he's nowhere to be seen. Eventually a storyline opens up about restoring an ancient "Dragon Banner", hence "Bannerlord", which enables you to create your own faction and leads you to side with either an imperial or non-imperial power.
I pledged myself as a vassal to a non-imperial power, the Vlandians, and have been happily assisting in their campaign to purge neighbouring kingdoms. A "conspiracy" quest popped up, warning me that an imperial sympathiser I had met was plotting to undo my progress, but it either doesn't seem to be much of a threat in its current state or unfurls over a long period of time. I have the option to prevent the plot, but I don't really know how to, and I'm having too much fun playing to care.
The game doesn't really need quests anyway – you forget they even exist as you forge your own path – though it would be nice to have something a bit more engaging (some more voice-acting perhaps? Maybe more life in the NPCs' slack jaws and thousand-yard stares?). You want to acquire power, be awarded more castles and fiefs by your king, buy or loot the best armour, weaponry and horses you can find, and equip your generals likewise. Maybe you want to start your own kingdom, an ability introduced in Warband, though not one I've ever explored myself.
Ride now, ride now, ride! Ride for ruin and the world's ending! Death! Death! Death! Forth Eorlingas!
As Bannerlord is in Early Access, your save is not guaranteed since the game has been patched either daily or every few days since release. This is a good thing as it means Steam's scheme is doing what it's supposed to – improving the game based on player feedback – but I've seen reports that updated modules can sometimes bork a player's file, under what circumstances is unclear. So I plan to play it safe and conquer the continent in favour of a single kingdom until a major update brings it all crashing down and I start over, rather than trying to carry out an ambitious campaign for my own deification.
The cadence of patching is heartening, though I've seen a number of problems ranging from graphical glitches to soldiers getting stuck inside walls during sieges, which meant my army would all gather around where they thought the last defender was but would be unable to get to him and thus win the battle. A workaround was to retreat then start the siege again – irritating but not worth quitting over.
Frame rates can tank as well when there are particularly large battles involving up to a thousand soldiers. There's a slider under settings, however, that can limit the number of warriors on the field at a time. When some are killed, more soldiers spawn. I tried with it at maximum but found I had to keep it around 500. Sieges can suffer the same stutters too and at times it's almost unplayable. Suffice to say that if you have fond memories of playing Warband on your potato, it might be time to upgrade if you're thinking about trying Bannerlord.
These are the worst I've come across, but I'm sure others have discovered far more severe problems. Much of the game, I believe, is placeholder. It's all part of the gamble of paying for an unfinished product and I'm honestly surprised, though glad, that almost 30 hours in my experience has been so stable and enjoyable. Others may not be so lucky.
Hopefully more new features that make Bannerlord feel more unique will become apparent at some point in the next eight years and various optimisations are made to performance over time. However, the vast quality-of-life improvements on Warband and the visual upgrades, for me, make Bannerlord worth the price of entry alone (though it's awfully steep). But it's not an ideal place to jump in for beginners. Being a fan of the flawed series in the first place helps and, like Tyrion Lannister, I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples and bastards and broken things. ®
*You can play as a woman too, though in Warband, the game warns that you would have a much more difficult time for the sake of "historical authenticity". Many did choose the option for the challenge.