Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord feels like TaleWorld’s attempt to convincingly simulate medieval life in a time of war. Visiting the Armory in Bannerlord illustrates this well. In addition to describing their armaments and fighting styles, the text reveals the various classes and ethnicities that comprise a given army.
The Empire has a mentality among its officers that raw recruits are battle-shy and unreliable. However, these recruits are volunteers and militiamen, willing to die to protect their homes. Among the Aserai faction in the South, the elite cavalry known as the Mamlukes may be a dominant force on the battlefield, but their name translates to “property.” As such, only people without significant family affiliation or social status are admitted into their ranks, so as to ensure utter devotion to their commanders.
This contradictory messiness rings true in terms of historical inspiration, and it lends a grounded quality to Mount & Blade II that can be difficult for medieval-inspired games to accomplish. It’s for this reason and many others that stepping into Bannerlord’s Multiplayer Closed Beta was so compelling.
Between the dueling mechanics for foot and mounted combat, and the cycle of tactical maneuvering and unrestrained carnage found in Captain matches, I quickly found myself immersed in Bannerlord’s work-in-progress simulation of medieval warfare.
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of spotting an enemy horseman, spurring your mount to intercept their path, watching them dart behind a stand of trees, galloping madly to stay ahead of them, then threading the gap through the boughs just right and spitting them on the end of your couched lance.
Similarly, there’s nothing quite like deflecting a couple of blows with your greatsword, leaping in the air, and shearing through your enemy’s skin, bone, and grey matter with one mighty swing.
These feelings work particularly well in contrast to the frustration of coming too close and striking an enemy with the haft of your weapon, negating its killing power. While this frustration isn’t exactly desirable, the possibility of being too close to an enemy to hit them comprises part of the tactical framework of duels.
Spears and polearms, for example, have a longer reach than most weapons, giving them a distinct edge against cavalry. However, should an enemy close distance with a short blade, the spear loses its effectiveness. In these situations, it’s best to draw a sidearm–a sword or mace would do nicely.
There are other considerations–if you expect to come under ranged attack, it’s best to bring a shield; if you yourself are thwarted by a foeman’s shield, you might reach for a great, two-handed axe to smash your way through; if your enemies bring great, two-handed axes, they won’t have any shields to protect them from arrows or javelins! Both the custom servers–where duels and brawls occur–and the Captain game mode regularly see players swap out classes and equipment to try to counter their opponents. Taking all of this into account, the countless tiny, split-second choices you’re forced to make while fighting on foot or ahorse make for a deep, challenging combat system, where one wrong move could prove to be a dramatic turn.
My opponent here is in a tough spot. His spear won’t do jack shit to my shield, and he’ll likely struggle to keep up if I start raining blows on him from all directions.
A typical game of Captain unfolds thusly: there’s a warmup phase where players can try out different classes and scrap with each other, then players pick their class and spawn in with a retinue of soldiers. These soldiers can be given orders for movement and formation, and if you die while your retinue survives, you can take control of another soldier.
There are three flags scattered across the map, two of which disappear after some time. The first phase will see teams maneuvering, capturing points, setting up defenses, and skirmishing with one another. When two of the flags disappear, the focus of battle often shifts to the last remaining point, unless one team can reliably wipe out the other before it becomes relevant. If it comes to a stalemate, those defending the point have the advantage, for the morale of the attackers will steadily drop until they break, losing the round. A game is played to the best of five rounds.
Captain matches play remarkably well, given the stage of development. Many of my games were incredibly close, with both teams winning two rounds and total victory being decided in the final, desperate moments of the fifth round. The flow of a given game of Captain can be surprising and dramatic, and its mechanics appeal to various sensibilities. The combination of weapons-based and formations-based combat allows armchair (or computer chair) tacticians to get their kicks while leading from the front and swinging a big sword. Furthermore, chatty players can coordinate their efforts over chat, while the quiet ones among us can observe a situation and tailor our movements, formations, and attacks to bring home a favorable outcome.
During one of my games, an aforementioned chatty player mentioned that they needed protection for their archers. I obliged them by swapping out the spears of my Tribal Warriors for larger, reinforced shields. I couldn’t threaten cavalry as effectively, but I could hold out in melees for longer and provide support for our missile troops.
A couple of rounds in, I was approaching an objective, seeing that two retinues of Tribal Warriors, one enemy and one allied, were converging on that same objective. Meanwhile, a squad of Mamlukes descended on me from behind. I had the choice to try to hunker down and take them on, or I could brace for impact, let them hit and run, and then swiftly take my men, wheel around a collection of houses, and outflank the enemy infantry. Thinking they would likely charge us in cycles regardless of my choice, I refused to be pinned down and opted for the latter. The Mamlukes charged, crashed against our shields, and galloped away to their next target. I seized the opportunity they left for me. I took my troops around the houses, found the two retinues of Tribal Warriors locked in combat, and charged into the enemy’s unprotected rear. A general slaughter ensued, and having eviscerated the main body of the enemy infantry, the round soon fell to us.
While there are plenty of tactical choices at your disposal, combat may descend into a murderous frenzy without warning.
Beyond the dueling and tactics that I like to gush about, Bannerlord injects reality into the simulation–that is to say, it introduces chaos. While it’s a bit overwhelming, it serves as a wonderful contrast to the tactical maneuvering and close-order formation fighting that defines the early stages of encounters. When infantry and cavalry retinues disintegrate and intermingle, the shouts and screams and suffocating press of bodies create a deafening, claustrophobic tableau of carnage. It makes the battles feel real, with organized armies jockeying for position and ruthlessly maintaining discipline. All this, only to cast off all pretense of control as combat transforms into an unpredictable whirlwind of blades. Knowing that Bannerlord’s multiplayer has captured this feeling so well has me eagerly anticipating its campaign mode. Having gotten a taste of the battles I’ll fight along the way, nothing sounds better to me than a proper journey through war-torn Calradia.