Honestly, you wait the best part of a decade for some of your favourite franchises to come back and then two of them arrive in the same month. Typical, isn't it?
Not only did March see a new Half-Life game from Valve, but for some of us there was an equally big surprise: the honest to God release of Mount and Blade 2: Bannerlord. Well, not quite the full release, it's in Early Access for the time being, but for those of us that have been following its development for eight years now, we'll take it. We'll absolutely take it.
Now, as you might have seen already, I did find myself briefly sidetracked by a now-patched bug that allowed me to ride around the world of Calradia as an actual baby, slaying bandits and ne'er-do-wells as I went. But aside from that I've also managed to clock up nearly 20 hours with Mount and Blade 2, and there's a lot to take in.
Perhaps I should start by saying that if you tend to avoid Early Access games because they sometimes make you feel like an alpha tester, rather than a paying customer, you might want to hold off on Bannerlord for the time being. The developers have said they don't expect a full release for another year or so and to be honest, that sounds a little hopeful to me. Parts of the game are either incomplete or broken and there are plenty of bugs to be found, some of which are much less amusing than the aforementioned Bannerlord Baby. And yet, despite all of that, I think this is totally brilliant.
If you've played the original Mount and Blade, or more likely its standalone expansion Warband, you'll know roughly what to expect. After creating your character and blitzing through a short tutorial, you're dropped headfirst into an entire Early Medieval continent of possibilities. You'll begin alone with just a few coins, a couple of weapons and a horse to your name, as you ride from village to village, recruiting just about anyone who can hold a sword. The more men you enlist, the more food you'll need to provide and wages you'll need to pay, which means you'll need to start earning a bigger income too. And so you'll take on quests from the locals, hunt down raiding parties, compete in tournaments and before you know it, you'll have gone from leading a handful of nobodies, to a small army of seasoned veterans. Those same bandits who used to chase you across the map now flee before your might.
Bannerlord, just like its predecessors, is a game about acquiring power. At some point you'll realise you're no longer required to be just another cog in the machine. Why protect other merchant's caravans, when you can establish your own? Perhaps it's time to swear fealty to one of Calradia's many kings or emperors, in exchange for political power and your own estate? Maybe you don't want to be someone's vassal? How many men would it take to create a kingdom of your own? How much gold would you need to defend it? These are the questions that drive you.
And then there's the battles themselves! Again, there's an intoxicating sense of escalation here. Your early hours may be spent leading a dozen or so recruits against local outlaws, who charge you en masse wielding clubs and pitchforks, but eventually, you'll be at the head of an army, one that needs its formation carefully decided, with infantry, archers and cavalry all under your command.
Although it's entirely possible to give orders to your troops from afar, you'll more likely want to lead from the front, charging into battle with whatever weaponry you've decided to specialise in. And here, the combat is still an awful lot of fun, despite it remaining somewhat clunky. In fact, I've been surprised by just how little has changed since Mount and Blade: Warband on that front. For a series that has no doubt inspired countless medieval combat games over the last decade, I would have expected it to have learnt a little more from those imitators too.
This is perhaps made most apparent during the tutorial at the start of the campaign. You're asked to duel two different swordsmen, a rookie and an expert. The latter is armed with a two-handed sword and isn't actually all that difficult to best, as he'll struggle to defend against most of your attacks if you're quick enough. The rookie, however, comes equipped with a sword and shield and he's so much tougher as a result. You're given such a tiny, tiny window between his attacks to land your own and he makes for a really challenging opponent, despite the game suggesting otherwise. Adjusting the difficulty will help, of course, but it seems a shame that swords and shields seem to trump all others when it comes to one-on-one combat when the game offers such wide variety in its weapon choices. I don't know, maybe that's a balancing issue I need to take up with medieval history, rather than Taleworlds Entertainment, but after so long in development, I'd expected Bannerlord to have ironed out some of those legacy issues of the series.
I imagine as Mount and Blade 2 continues to be fleshed out and some of the late-game systems are polished, it'll be things like Bannerlord's faction politics and ambitious kingdom management that really separate this game from its forefathers, but right now, that stuff all feels quite bareboned. But that's not to say things aren't different here, compared to Warband. Just compare the world maps, for a start:
And then there's the dynamism on display, as merchants really do buy and sell the goods they transport between each city, altering the price, supply and demand just like you. Or if you follow another lord or king around the map, you'll see them stop at villages and hire recruits, potentially emptying the pool of new soldiers before you get there. At present, the game isn't necessarily balanced, but it is surprisingly fair. Every character is playing by the exact same rules, including you. And seeing all of that in motion is just wonderful. It's a true sandbox experience in a way that even other Mount and Blade games never managed.
Once you've gotten through the early game, the battles become something else entirely too. Join a faction and start taking part in the big multi-army battles and you'll see ranking generals step up to command the entire force, while you're responsible for your own division within that. Then there's the sieges! Oh my gosh, the sieges are something else. The scale here is just leagues ahead of anything I've experienced beforehand. You'll quickly feel lost in the chaos of it all, as hundreds of troops clash with one another, with catapults, ballista and trebuchets raining destruction down upon them. You'd think you were playing a Total War game, not Mount and Blade, if it wasn't for the fact that here you are, experiencing it from a third-person perspective.
Bannerlord may not be finished and I suspect it won't be finished for a long time to come. It can be repetitive and unfair, many of its systems aren't up to scratch just yet and it's not uncommon to see the game crash or for you to run into some bizarre bug along the way. But at the same time, despite all of that, it is so much bloody fun. This is the very definition of Eurojank and I couldn't be happier to have it in my hands after all this time.
The wait for harvesting season is finally, finally over. I can barely believe it.