Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord Early Access Review

Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord is currently available on Steam early access. Joseph Pugh conducted this early access review.

Overview

It’s no secret that Bannerlord was my most anticipated game for years. I definitely had a moment of disbelief when it was finally downloading on my computer. That amount of hype can be a bad thing. I’ve set myself up for disappointment in the past (I’m looking at you Spore!). So did Bannerlord disappoint me? No, yes and no again.

A lot of articles have described Bannerlord as being janky but fun. I strongly disagree. I don’t find Bannerlord to be janky at all, just unfinished, because well, it isn’t finished. Some early access games feel complete. Bannerlord does not. It frequently bludgeons you with just how unfinished it is around every corner. I closed the game several times and told myself I was done, I would wait until it received more updates before playing again.

Each faction has unique styles of tournaments and the arenas are visually distinct.

Ten minutes later the urge would hit me and I’d start up Bannerlord and play some more. It is the videogame version of close Reddit, open Reddit and this went on for a long time. 10 hours, 20 hours, 40 hours. As I write this I’m sitting at 66 hours of playtime and the game is still calling to me.

That’s simply because Bannerlord is a damn fun game. Every unfinished portion gives you a sense of longing about how much better it will be when it’s finished. But it’s perfectly playable now and satisfyingly so.

Bannerlord has also received a patch every single day since release. I took notes early on about issues I wanted to bring up in this review only for them to be obsolete within a day. Keep this in mind as you read on. It’s possible a few of my complaints listed in this review won’t even be relevant by the time I hit the publish button.

The Good

At its core, Bannerlord is an improved version of its predecessor. You create a character, start with nothing and make your way in a world that moves on with or without you. Wars are fought, cities fall and children are born whether or not you are involved.

There is an optional main quest you can follow that could culminate in you starting your own kingdom as a ruler but that’s up to you. You can be a mercenary, join other kingdoms as a vassal or invest in workshops and trade goods. There is no rule stating you must be the Bannerlord, you can simply be the Butterlord instead.

Bannerlord’s battles are a unique experience.

The core loop is recruiting troops, training those troops in combat to fight bigger battles later. At first, even lowly bands of looters are a threat, but later on, you can lay siege to fortified castles garrisoned with hundreds of soldiers protecting it.

The Mount & Blade games are pretty unique in that you literally command platoons of soldiers in battle like in a strategy game, but you are physically on the field and can throw down alongside your soldiers. This too is up to you. You may ride on horseback, play the part of a shield wall, stand with your archers and rain death on the enemy or dive in with a two-handed axe. You might feel that the commander should never get their hands dirty and command from afar, fleeing if the battle turns fubar and that’s a perfectly legitimate way to play.

Your character gains skills by simply using them. If you fight with a one-handed sword, your one-handed skill will increase. If you ride a horse, your riding levels up. Trading goods will raise your trade skill, and smithing weapons will make you better at it. Each skill has a perk tree and at certain thresholds, you select one of them.

The environment depends on where the battle is taking place.

Your initial skills are determined by a list of choices you make at the start of the game regarding your character’s culture, parents, childhood and more.

The combat in Bannerlord is skill-based, you can swing and block from four directions with most weapons and the speed, angle, and velocity all affect the damage. Even if you choose to stay out of the melee yourself, you can still prove your worthy of command by competing in tournaments and dueling bandit bosses.

You can also hire companions, they are like akin to generals and have skills just like you do. When you level up your clan enough you can allow them to form parties of their own and fight battles in your name.

Actually commanding troops in battle takes some practice but it is a lot of fun. You can tell infantry to form shield walls and other formations. It’s super satisfying when you have a plan and it works. Each faction has its own troops the factions themselves are varied from each other, from units, weapon usage, armor, and even architecture. In particular, I love that each faction has its own visually distinct arenas and tournament styles.

If you get taken down you can watch the rest of the battle using a free camera

You can expect to take part in tournaments featuring horse archers as the Mongol inspired Kuzait. Or take up two-handed axe tournaments hosted by the more Celtic flavored Battanians. If you become a vassal you can vote on kingdom policies and may even obtain castles and fiefs of your own which opens up the settlement management side of the game. You can woo a spouse and have children. You can dive into trade with workshops and caravans, or you can even focus on smithing weapons.

Bannerlord is deep with many underlying systems, the sandbox can be overwhelming but it helps to set your own goals on each playthrough. Whether its to help another faction or start your own. One time I decided to join the desert faction of the Aserai early on. Each region has minor factions within it in addition to bandits.

I had a decently good army when I ran into one of them, we were evenly matched but I figured my tactics would win me the day. I don’t generally use calvary, there is nothing wrong with them, it’s just my preference. The enemy had nothing but horse archers, so I paid dearly for it. They encircled my infantry in an ever-moving sphere of death, filling the troops I had just spent an hour training with arrows and there was very little I could do.

Giving commands to your soldiers and charging alongside them is delightful.

They took me prisoner and ended up harassing me many more times as I tried to build back up. I vowed to get my revenge. Many hours later I returned to Aserai lands with an army of my own calvary that could keep up with the horse archers and I rode alongside them into battle.

I hunted down every member of that minor faction and executed them. This gave me more satisfaction than any preset objective ever could have. It felt incredibly good to charge in and take those stupid horse archers down with my own lance after the amount of grief they caused me.

The Bad

As I mentioned Bannerlord is unfinished, which is to be expected in an early access game. It has received patches every single day. I crashed a lot early on but not anymore. The diplomacy system works but is very shallow currently. However, most of Bannerlord’s issues stem from oddities and inconsistencies in the design.

Some character perks flat out do not work right now. There is an entire tree dedicated to crossbows but I have never found a crossbow in the game that I could buy or loot. I mentioned earlier that you can have your companions form warbands. You can’t command them unless you’re in a kingdom. If you are planning on having your own kingdom you need to own a settlement and finish part of the main quest.

The overworld is where you do most of your traveling.

Without already being in a kingdom, it’s nearly impossible to actually siege a castle to take for yourself to finish the quest, because you’re on your own. You cant command your warbands to join you unless your already a kingdom to begin with. It’s silly and problematic.

Even more strange is if you somehow already own a castle, you still can’t command them. You have to finish part of the main quest to be allowed to call yourself a kingdom and do kingdom things.

Sieges are an incredible highlight of the game, whether you’re attacking or defending. Siege ladders, catapults, battering rams, and siege towers all play a role and while it’s a blast, the AI really falters here. I’ve watched entire legions abandon a gate that they just broke through because the AI decided to flood the ladders instead. I’ve never actually seen an AI-controlled catapult land a hit and I’ve watched many troops simply get stuck or continually run into a wall.

A deep skill and perk system is marred by the fact that some of the perks don’t work.

There is something weird going on with unit collision. In big battles, both sides can end up clipping into each other and it becomes an incomprehensible mess which somehow ends really quickly. Seriously, battles with hundreds and hundreds of soldiers are over within minutes and half the time I don’t actually know what happened. The battles themselves are too short and I feel like it is somehow linked to the collision system.

The battle AI did manage to impress me a few times, they take advantage of formations and tactics to a degree. After 66 hours though, the holes start to show. For example, the enemy will toss the entire formation aside and charge your troops the moment a single unit dies from an arrow. Or at least that has been my experience.

Leveling up for your self and your troops is painfully slow. This is probably my biggest gripe. The only way to train your recruits is in battle. Those that live gain experience and you can upgrade them. Losing your trainees is a big set back. This is where the looters come in, looters never kill your soldiers, only wound them. The absolute best way to train troops is to hunt down looters. Early game, mid-game, end game.

If you own a settlement, you get to manage it.

This isn’t fun. It’s tedious and frankly absurd that at some point you have over 120 troops with you and will spend several in-game days hunting small packs of looters down. A noble kingdom lord chasing rabble simply to level your troops up to be used for a real battle. It takes some of the impact out of the large breathtaking battles when you lose half your units even when you win, and realize you have to go grind looters for an hour to get back into the game again.

The only alternative is to recruit higher tier troops from cities and villages but this is both unreliable and based on your relationship with individual heads of these settlements. Each village and city has anywhere between three and ten notables and you have an individual relationship with them all. Your ways of increasing that relationship are limited right now. Sometimes they give you a quest but the quests get repetitive quickly. Plus many of them lower your relation with one notable while raising it with another.

Even though they are currently wonky, sieges are still fun to play.

Each faction aside from the Empire is incredibly varied, but the Empire is split into three different factions. Each one has the same troops and culture but they are in a civil war. The Empire takes up the middle of the map with other factions to different sides of them.

This means no matter what faction you join, you end up recruiting a ton of Empire units out of convenience. This is simply because you have to run all the way back home to recruit troops from your culture. If the Battanians for example, take over an Empire town, that town still offers Empire troops, not Battaian troops. It’s frustrating and inconvenient.

I have a lot of hope that most of these issues will be fixed in due time. Bannerlord is not a cheap game though and for now, these issues persist.

Verdict

Bannerlord is unfinished with a lot of problems, as I write this review it still calls my name and that is a testament to how fun the game is. Truth be told, many of the issues I mentioned aren’t noticeable right away. They start to show after you have many hours in the game. Early on you’re simply having too much fun. I was too busy to notice the unit clumping when I took a noble off his horse with an arrow.

I was so in awe by the scale of the sieges to notice the bad path-finding while I stood under a hail of arrows while my footman pushed the battering ram to the gate. The existence of the diplomacy system did not occur to me at all when I joined my king’s army and he gave me a choice of what platoons to command in a giant battle. I led a group of archers as the king commanded me on what to do and I was happy as can be.

Defending castles is exhilarating, but can be underwhelming due to poor AI pathing.

I was far too excited when I got my first castle to realize the issues with trying to start your own kingdom. It wasn’t until I was around 40 hours in I started to notice the flaws. By that point, I had arguably gotten my moneys worth and the game will only improve as time goes on anyway.

Additionally, Bannerlord also features multiplayer and it works great. Notably, the captain mode which puts six players on two teams in command of a specific platoon of soldiers. It’s super cool.

As unfinished as it is. I strongly believe Bannerlord is worth the purchase today, but at the asking price, I wouldn’t blame you for waiting. The fact that patches have dropped every day is a sign of a bright future for Bannerlord, and whether you buy it now or later. You’re going to have a good time.

Enjoy my content and want to help out? Consider checking out my kofi or reading my other reviews.

Pros

  • Incredibly fun sandbox with tons of freedom
  • Varied factions, units, and cultures
  • Unique command and battle gameplay
  • Sieges are awesome
  • A plethora of deep systems
  • Great combat system
  • Difficulty settings present
  • Large skill and perk trees
  • Kingdom and settlement system is cool
  • Frequent patches are a positive sign for the game
  • Great character creation

Cons

  • Leveling yourself and your troops is painfully slow and fighting looters is uninteresting
  • Many perks don’t work
  • Some systems such as diplomacy are shallow or unfinished
  • The unit collision can cause battles to be a blobby mess and the battles end far too quickly
  • Unit AI and pathing can be problematic, especially during sieges
  • Creating your own kingdom is locked behind a weird main quest
  • Quests are lame
  • The Empire takes up too much of the map

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