Mount and Blade 2: Bannerlords Hands On: Squire! Attend me!

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I have a soft spot for Mount and Blade: Warband. I first played the game all the back when I was in primary school, having absolutely no idea what it was. For some reason, one of the computers in the school library had a copy of the game saved to it and one rainy day during aftercare, I happened to double click the shortcut, enticed by such exciting words as “Blade” and “Warband”; I didn’t even know what a Warband was, but it sounded cool.

I played for a handful of hours, utterly lost in the game’s world, in the sense that I was utterly captivated by it all but also in that I had absolutely no idea of what I mean to be doing it. That singular session stuck in me long after my parents picked me up from aftercare but it would take years for me to eventually stumble upon the game again on Steam. Since then, I’ve lost dozens of hours to it.

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Because Mount and Blade is the sort of series that’s easy to lose those hours in. The medieval role-playing game is so open-ended in its design and customisation that it’s easy to see how some fans clock up thousands of hours in the game and still keep coming back for more. In some ways, Mount of Blade is a blend of RPG and life-sim, allowing players to adopt a role in a fictional medieval land modelled on historical countries and factions and just…exist.

Which could be seen as both a good and bad thing; Warband was so hands-off in how it wanted players to approach its world that it often felt daunting to have so many options available. If anything, that’s what Bannerlords seemingly wants to fix. During my time with the game, I was struck by the sheer level of freedom afforded to the player while also offering a more accessible presentation that makes approaching Mount and Blade 2 so much more enjoyable.

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Bannerlords is very similar to the original, so much so that some fans might be disappointed that it’s too close to that original template. Yet I don’t think that’s a terrible problem, in fact, I think sticking close to the original game seems to be an intentional decision taken by the developers. The overworld, combat system, skills and abilities, dialogue options and the ever-shifting politics and relations of the regions are all there from the first game…except they’re so much better.

It’s an approach to a sequel that some may consider a bit too safe but is inarguably an effective way of tackling the question of, “What’s next?”. Give the players what they loved about the original, but make it bigger and better. Bannerlords is dizzying in its scale, the amount of villages and keeps just seemed to expand outwards exponentially. I only had a very brief session with the game but from the quick glance I was able to see of the map, Bannerlord’s continent is going to require a lot of time and energy to conquer.

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How you conquer it is entirely up to you, if you even want to conquer it at all. Mount and Blade 2 was always about fulfilling the role you felt you were best suited at. During my time with the game, I decided to be a bounty hunter, roaming the world for bandits and looters, offering them a chance to join my army or be taken prisoner and sold into captivity for any castle looking for…manual labour. Yet after a while, I realised that I had amassed a veritable platoon of archers and spearmen; hunting bounties and rogues just wasn’t going to cut it. So I besieged the keep of a Lord that had refused to do business with my people and as it turned out, I lost that battle. My army destroyed, I was sent all the way back to a being just a common serf, begging for errands and quests from anyone that would listen…all with the knowledge that I was so close to victory, yet so far.

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That’s always been the success of Mount and Blade and perhaps the reason it has maintained such a devout following all these years later: Player expression through emergent gameplay. Bannerlords isn’t your world, you don’t dictate who sides with who or who’s violating trading boundaries and routes. You live within its world and it’s up to you how you approach the challenges the game gives you. Hell, the game needn’t provide you a challenge at all if you don’t want to try and take over every piece of chiselled stone and rural village. Ruling the game’s trade system could be your route to power, or maybe you just want the Lords and Ladies of the land to fight on your behalf, always backing the winner and playing both sides. Bannerlords is trying to take that wholly immersive experience that players adored from the first game and grow that every outwards in an attempt to provide the definitive role-playing experience.

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I’m really pleased I got to see Bannerlords in action. While certainly not the flashiest or most outwardly spectacular game on display at Gamescom this year, there’s a quiet dignity held by the Mount and Blade team. It’s clear that they’re confident in the product their designing, not going out of their way to impress audiences with gimmick-laden gameplay and dazzling graphical achievements. It’s a respect they have for their systems and an adoration for the fans that have supported and adored their games for so long that’s clear at the heart of Bannerlords and fans of the franchise will be pleased to note that the sequel to one of the most silently admired games of all time is exactly what you want it to be.

Last Updated: August 23, 2019

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