April 4th: Bannerlord

TLDR: It’s a glorious mess.

That’s the most accurate summary I can give for the latest entry in Taleworld’s venerable Mount & Blade series. After eight harrowing years of development, the game was finally released on Steam this week as an Early Access title for the full price of $49.99 US. If that seems steep to be a beta tester for an unfinished game they sweetened it a little with a 10% discount for early adopters and an additional 10% for owners of the previous games. The price tag highlights the significant shift in the Early Access model over the past decade from the one Taleworlds helped to pioneer, where purchasers funded the game’s early development and provided feedback in exchange for a steep discount, to the modern version where some companies treat outsourcing their QA as a premium commodity and expect you to shell out extra for the privilege. At this point a 20% discount feels really good.

If you were hoping that so much development meant Bannerlord was almost finished and they just wanted to shake out a few bugs before the wider release, you’re going to be disappointed. There are headline features missing or only half-implemented. NPCs routinely say things like “Generic Backstory” or “Default Introduction” which is honest and efficient compared to the pages of text in some fantasy games that none of us read anymore anyway but it is a bit bland. Besieging armies sometimes spawn INSIDE fortifications with the defenders. Enemies can get stuck in the scenery and become unkillable. Until yesterday loading the game 45 times permanently corrupted your save file. That sort of thing. There have been daily patches to fix the worst issues but the fact that you still can’t save or exit the game in mid battle means that sometimes Alt+F4 is the only way to escape. Fortunately the autosave seems to work well.

An NPC saying 'This is a generic backstory'

And a lovely default introduction to you, my good lady.

That doesn’t mean Bannerlord is a bad game. There is plenty to love about it.

Veterans of the series will notice some sweet updates right out the gate. Mount & Blade has always featured a decent character creation system but this installment takes it to the next level with the full dizzying array of sliders we’ve come to expect from modern RPGs. Fortunately for those of us who never started Fallout 4 because we break down when faced with the daunting task of trying to make a character that doesn’t look like they just stepped out of a Picasso panting, Bannerlord offers a randomize button that does a decent job. At least as a starting point. Tweak to taste and you’re good to go.

The Bannerlord Character Creator

What does Face Sharpness even mean!?

The Warband Character Creator

Trust me Warband looked so much worse than you remember.

Next the game presents you with the familiar “choose your own backstory” screens but instead of page after page of raw text these are quite slick. They show your character at different stages of life with appropriate clothing, weapons and accessories according to your selections. There is even a bit of theming around your starting culture. I think it’s only cosmetic. At least I haven’t noticed any unique choices or actual differences in the skills they provide but it’s flavorful that Battanians have kerns and Vlandians have skirmishers. Small details can provide a lot of immersion.

The game also features a real tutorial. It’s not bad. Unlike previous games where your merchant character with no combat skills was immediately mugged in a dark alley, Bannerlord at least explains how to block before sending you up against a Veteran Trainer who completely wrecks your face because you thought you were going to jump straight into this game on Realistic difficulty. The training ground offers challenges to instruct you in melee, ranged and horseback combat. It’s a good idea to do them all at least once. Especially if you think you already know what you’re doing.

The new combat system is great. I’ve seen a lot of people complaining about it but I challenge you to go back and play Warband after a few hours of this. Decide for yourself which one feels better. Bannerlord is buttery smooth and fast. All the motion capture and weapons experts they brought in really does show in the combat. Mount & Blade was the closest thing you could get to an authentic sword & board experience in a game at the time. Bannerlord is better. Unfortunately the intervening years have brought us games like Kingdom Come: Deliverance that innovated on the system in interesting ways. By that metric Bannerlord falls a bit short of ‘best medieval combat simulator’, but it’s still a very good one.

A Celtic Warrior on a Camel in Snow

You can ride a camel!

For long time fans of the series there is much to love in the first hour. The new UI looks much better. The combat feels good. There is a whole Skills & Perks leveling system that wasn’t here before. The map looks great. The figure on the map actually changes to match the outfit you’re wearing! Overall the graphics are… okay. If you thought a larger budget and team would lead to AAA quality you will be disappointed. This game looks much better than any previous installment in the franchise but it still looks distinctively Mount & Blade. The new models and textures sometimes feel eerily familiar. If you haven’t played Warband in a few years you may struggle to appreciate just how much better everything looks.

Where it starts to come apart is the early game loop. You have a horse. You run around a few villages recruiting peasants. You go hunt down your first batch of looters, fight an epic battle and you think “Oh man, I forgot how great this game is!” Then you go run down a second group of looters. And a third. And a fourth. And after about a dozen you start to remember that you have indeed played this game before. Four different iterations now. Not counting mods. For me it evoked feelings very much like the transition from 3.0 to 3.5 D&D. You’re so excited to get home from the store with a stack of shiny new books. You crack one open and damned if you can figure out what changed. The art and text is exactly the same! You paid another $100 for the same books! You have to sit down and do a side by side comparison to start noticing the differences. Early game in Bannerlord is like that.

I had the same reaction to Warband actually. This is the same game! They just swapped the colors around and sold it to me again!

A Large Army Standing Around with text that says Battanian Horseman

Excuse me, that’s a Battanian Camelwoman.

Power through that feeling because, like its predecessors, Bannerlord’s improvements to the formula aren’t immediately obvious. There are a whole bunch of changes here that do make the update worthwhile. You can have a thousand soldiers on the battlefield without mods. You can construct siege engines to suit your tastes. You can be assigned command of a flank by an AI general and lead a bunch of high level troops you didn’t have to pay for. Managing towns and castles is much more involved. You can have children and play as them. You can send companions out to wander with armies of their own like the AI lords, hunting bandits and patrolling your lands while you’re off on adventures.

That’s all content you won’t be seeing for quite a few hours. In the meantime you get to play a shiny new version of Warband. That’s not a bad thing.

I am having a blast in spite everything. I do not regret purchasing the game at all. I also can’t recommend it without some reservation. I have a friend who has never played a Mount & Blade game before that decided to pick this up and they are loving every minute. It’s all new to them instead of feeling endlessly recycled. So if you are new and willing to put up with some bugs, I think you can have a great time in Bannerlord. If you’re a veteran and willing to look past the current state of the game and see what it will become after some polishing, go ahead and jump in now to support it. Just don’t burn yourself out before the game is finished. If you’re the kind of person with a lot of games to play who demands a complete well refined experience before something is worth your time, absolutely do not buy this yet. The full release is at least a year away but we’ve been waiting nearly a decade. What’s one more year?