Alongside Kingdom Come: Deliverance, another game in a medieval setting is making its way to players everywhere. Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord is an action role-playing game developed and published by TaleWorlds Entertainment, and the prequel to 2010’s Mount & Blade: Warband. However, while Kingdom Come: Deliverance follows the tale of a particular, preset character, Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord allows players to create their own character and form individual stories. Gamers may become whoever they wish, including a lord, mercenary, merchant, or anything in-between. OnlySP took the opportunity to preview TaleWorlds Entertainment’s current five-year project, and the experience was nothing, if not unique.
In a demo offering a taste of four different battle options (two of which are the same battle on different difficulties), Mount & Blade II’s current state depicts a game ripe with unprecedented sandbox potential. Brandishing mostly-realistic gameplay (down to some of the most minute details), TaleWorlds has something special on its hands. Playing through the first battle—where gamers take control of a captain responsible for leading a unit of cavalry within a lord’s army—awakens within the user a deep sense of wariness. Limited to a long spear and a shield, players must follow their lord’s orders and lead their cavalry in a charge that accomplishes specific objectives, such as protecting allied infantry from enemy cavalry or breaking the enemy’s lines to soften them up for friendly troops’ charges. However, this battle merely serves as a stage on which Mount & Blade II’s features are unveiled.
When looking out at the hilly terrain from the third-person perspective, one cannot help but notice the lengths TaleWorlds went to make the soldiers look dynamic. Clad in chainmail beneath a cloth tabard adorned with their lord’s impresa, infantry and cavalry alike are picturesque representations of how one imagines a warrior in feudal Europe. The soldiers’ spears are long and sharp, swords shorter but equally deadly, and crossbows ready to zip arrows across the land and rip through the enemy. Even troop line formations offer convincing testaments to what a battle would look like in the voltaic moments before the initial charge. Death comes to all, and in Mount & Blade II, it comes swiftly atop a tempestuous, bloody deluge.
While the visual display of the armies participating in the skirmish is exciting, one would be remiss to neglect focusing some attention on the environment. Providing a contrast to the advanced graphics showcased by the game’s soldiers and horses, Mount & Blade II’s terrain is rather average. The rolling grassland acting as the canvas on which battle’s red plasma may splatter lacks an artistic touch, and the dim sky leaves the eye unsatisfied. Moreover, the desert in which the second battle takes place is merely a pale cream pooled beneath the infantry’s feet and cavalry’s hooves. The colors are present, but the realistic feel to the land is missing. Footprints form in the sand, but vanish rapidly, and are hardly worth noting due to their utterly disappointing portrayal. Nevertheless, these minor flaws can be remedied over the course of the game’s continued development, and do little to take away from the immersive atmosphere presented.
However, the fourth battle, an arena, illustrates a well-crafted location that acts as a trial-by-fire tutorial where users may familiarize themselves with the game’s controls and work on their skills. The wooden walls, complete with sharp spikes protruding horizontally from the sides, appear as confining barriers with teeth that prevent combatants from escaping. Spectators watch the bloodshed from the stands, providing a gut-churning aura reminiscent of Gladiator on a smaller scale. Armed with a sword, shield, and throwing axes, players must survive countless enemies in a free-for-all that never ends well.
During these battles, a wealth of sounds waft through the air. Mount & Blade II’s musical element is a mixture of regal, classical scores and adrenaline-inducing compositions that ensnare the ears. The tones are valiant, successful attempts at keeping players marvelously entrenched in an antediluvian realm. The historical depiction of the time period’s harmonic melodies is vibrant, striking a gilt-edged balance that neither drowns out the game’s combat noises nor lurks unnoticed in the background.
Mingling with the musical score is a profusion of combat sounds that heralds battle’s abominable anguish. The clanging of swords and spears and the banging of steadfast shields reverberate over the battlegrounds, vying for dominance above the screams and wails of dying soldiers as they are felled. When leading their squad of cavalry, players must remain vigilant, for the rapid clops of enemy cavalry must not go unheeded lest they flank the army and devastate numbers and morale. Combined with the thwack of arrows cutting flesh or embedding into wooden shields, the carnage of battle can be heard with great congruity, making any skirmish feel imposing.
The source of these combat sounds are gameplay mechanics that, while requiring a noteworthy adjustment period, possess a level of depth usually reserved for MMORPGs. The combat control scheme is uncomplicated, with the right and left mouse buttons being the main source of attack and defense. Using these input commands is simple, but the sluggish swings, thrusts, blocks, and arrow draws can throw users off-guard. However, the sluggishness does not take away from the gameplay. Rather, the lethargic movements serve as a constant reminder that medieval weaponry was heavy and often required a combination of strength, momentum, and familiarity to use effectively. Thus, a deeper realism is achieved.
After extended use, a player’s equipment (shields, swords, etcetera) can take a great deal of punishment, resulting in a sword or shield breaking. Fear can be a crippling adversary, and should a player’s weapon or shield break in the midst of mayhem, fear will threaten to send one’s panicked instincts into overdrive. However, hope’s rising sun lingers on the horizon in the form of a particular tool: the ability to pick up a fallen enemy’s, or comrade’s, weapon or shield and use it as one’s own. Such convenient logic does well to reinforce Mount & Blade II’s potential as a rising star amongst sandbox RPGs.
Adding to the game’s realism is the use of orders as a layout for battle objectives. During Mount & Blade II’s battles, the player’s lord will issue commands that the player must obey to defeat the opposing force. This mechanic contributes to the game’s uniqueness in that the orders issued are often smart choices made by the AI to aid players in achieving victory. Failure to comply with these orders will result in a crushing defeat, and the harder difficulty AI is merciless in that regard. Moreover, should the player’s army retreat, all is not necessarily lost, for players may rally their troops by preventing the enemy from chasing them down, which allows allied forces to regroup and regain morale. With the wealth of games that require players to do most of the work against a formidable enemy, a title implementing a challenging and helpful AI is a relief.
Furthermore, gamers can issue orders to the troops directly under their leadership, including ordering them to follow, stay put, or charge ahead. Through these chains of command, Mount & Blade II provides players with limited freedom, unless users decide to overthrow their king or create a faction of their own. During their journey, gamers will never be without options in forging their path and creating a unique experience for each character.
Lastly, when using a bow from horseback, players can only fire arrows in a single direction (the left side). This limitation reflects the player-character being right-handed, thus being unable to effectively draw a bowstring and shoot an arrow from the horse’s right side. As such, peppering enemy troops with arrows while riding a horse requires one to keep the enemy on the left side while galloping in circles around them. TaleWorlds did well in adding this minor detail, proving the company cares as much about authenticity and quality as expediency.
So far, 2017 has been filled with blockbuster announcements, such as Assassin’s Creed: Origins, Call of Duty: WWII, Star Wars: Battlefront II, and Far Cry 5. Meanwhile, promising games are overshadowed by the popstars of the video game industry. Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord is proof that a company does not have to be as popular as the most well-known AAA producers to develop a unique, quality product. Still in development, TaleWorlds Entertainment’s innovative game offers mostly-superior graphics, outstanding audio, and gameplay mechanics that are riveting and challenging. Hopefully, TaleWorlds will improve upon the current design and fix the minor flaws present within the title between now and the game’s unannounced release date. If the polishes are made, Mount & Blade II could sneak up on the industry’s standouts and compete with the best.