This battle is going well. My army, a mix of long-time followers, mercs, and conscripts is doing its damndest to whittle down the enemy forces. It began with me leading the charge forward as their commander, facing the enemy down one-on-one. Unfortunately, my character isn't the most combat-focused, as I've found diplomacy to be quite useful. Unfortunately, the charge results in my hero taking entirely too much damage. Thus the latter half of the battle is me riding around in circles avoiding enemy fire, and attempting to call out formations to my troops. I don't feel too badass, but it's probably what would happen if I was actually leading an army.
I have never played a Mount & Blade game. I've been vaguely aware of the first game for a very long time, but never got around to picking it up. For a long time, I thought it was like the Total War series. Then I assumed it was like Dynasty Warriors or Kingdom Under Fire, a tactical layer over a melee scrum hack-and-slash. Mount & Blade is one of those series that floats at the periphery of my perception, like Warframe or Counter-Strike. Games with fervent fanbases that I simply haven't had time to play.
With the early access release of Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord, I've had a chance to see what all the fuss is about. I've confirmed that most of my earlier guesses about what Mount & Blade is were wrong. What I've discovered is something that's very janky, but still oddly compelling.
Your first step into the world of Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord is to create your character. I always assumed that the game took place in a historic medieval setting—old school, real knights have never been my jam, which is partially why I never dove in—but instead, you're looking at Calradia, a fictional version of the real-world. During character creation, you can choose between cultures like the Empire, which seems to be based on the Roman Empire, or the Khuzaits, which is inspired by the Mongol Empire. It's real-ish enough that you know exactly what you're choosing if you're a huge fan of the Kievan Rus' or whatever, but vague enough that non-history buff can just fly free.
From there you design the physical aspects of your character and then figure out their attributes. The latter are awarded by determining your backstory to adulthood. For example, if you say your parents were Foresters, you gain a Focus point in your Bow skills. You pick through your family, early childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and immediate pre-campaign events. During this, you are treated to the most frightening children ever seen in a video game, as Mount & Blade 2 attempts to downgrade your character into childhood. Seriously, I spent a good 10 minutes staring at the scary, grinning doll faces of my childhood and adolescent selves.
After that, you're thrown into a series of tutorial missions to give you an idea of combat and other aspects of the game. Mount & Blade 2 uses a melee combat system where directional swipes of the mouse determine which direction your attack or defense comes from. In a pitched battle, it doesn't matter, but in one-on-one fights it becomes key to victory. Given that fights like that are one part of building Renown, which determines the size of your army, it's probably worthwhile to have a grasp on the combat. I was able to get attacking down fairly well, but I admit my defense isn't the best.
Once you've coasted through the early part of Bannerlord, you're tossed out into the world to… do whatever. If you want to keep grinding away at renown to build your army, you can do that. Perhaps you'll take on quests from local lords, traders, and underworld figures. Maybe you'll be a bandit, stealing from caravans, or a well-known trader, engaging with the dynamic economy. Or you'll swear allegiance to a kingdom, and help them fight their larger battles.
There's just so much to do in Mount & Blade 2 that once it finally opens up, it's daunting. This is a huge sandbox that TaleWorlds Entertainment has created, and part of the depth and breadth of that experience is that it can take you anywhere. If you take down a party of raiders, you can conscript them or ransom them for some easy gold. (There's even an option to ask raiders to surrender prior to combat, but for some reason they never take it, even when vastly outnumbered.) You can argue with your ruler against some of their dumber decisions, like giving a fiefdom to particularly dumb vassals. You can take a contract, and simply break it, stealing the goods and finding yourself branded as a thief. Every time I think I've found every system in Mount & Blade 2, there's more. It's goddamn impressive.
My guess is Mount & Blade 2, and likely the original Mount & Blade, are popular because they're sharable. There's so much to do that no one's experience is quite the same. It's fun to share what your army looks like, the clutch situations you've survived, or how you dealt with a particular contract. It's a water cooler game, perfectly crafted for sharing on Reddit, forums, or social media.
The problem is it's all very messy, which is likely why TaleWorlds launched into Early Access first. The graphics themselves are fine for an indie project, with playable maps shifting between wide fields and forests, to castle sieges and sleepy towns. Getting into a huge battle with more than 50 soldiers on either side does look damned impressive and really sells the feeling of being in a real war. But that's matched with a host of problems, including AI lockups, bugs, crashes, and other weird design decisions.
Take combat, where you're potentially going to hit your own horse as much as you're taking down enemy soldiers, or find yourself swinging at thin air when you know an attack should've connected. You'll find weird physics bugs on hit, glitched textures, missing objects on the battlefield, or stuttering frame rates. There's a current bug that blacks out large parts of the screen randomly. A lot of that is expected in Early Access, but with Mount & Blade 2 doing so much at once, the bugs have spilled out into nearly everything.
There's also the leveling system, in which TaleWorlds forces you to grind. Every level you gain gives your character another focus point, which you can apply to a skill. This doesn't raise the skill's level though, it just raises the cap on that skill. You then have to go out and use that skill in some way to raise the skill to the new cap. If you decide that you want to beef up your bow skills, you need to take that useless weapon in battle against raiders and looters many, many times in order to grind to a useful state. You'll do a lot of battles not because you're trying to accomplish something like building your fiefdom, but because you're on that grind. I understand the idea behind the system, but it feels exceedingly slow.
I also wish there was a different view for troop commands. Trying to move your soldiers around the battlefield feels a bit cumbersome with the single camera view. The developer tries to make a system where all your army commands are at your fingertips, but I always wanted to switch to a more top-down camera—and perhaps a pause menu—for changing formations and moving squads around. The closest you can get to this in-game is to find a good hill to look down on the battlefield, but that's not always an option.
It's a mess, and the developer knows this. TaleWorlds has patched the game nearly every day since launch. Buggy as it may be, I must admit that there's nothing else quite like it. Take one time where I left one town, and found out that I was too low on supplies, leaving my army starving. Desperate for a quick fix, I ran into a caravan and attacked them for supplies, which angered another faction. That saw that faction declaring a war. Oops. My comrades' hunger drove me to start a literal war.
That's just one of the chains of choice and consequence you'll find in Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord. It lives somewhere in-between Total War and Dynasty Warriors, with enough strategy and diplomacy to keep fans of the former happy, while also having more immediate battles. And in the synthesis of those ideas lies a game that's not quite like any other: a grand, war-torn epic that you craft every time you create a new character.