The first time I saw a regiment of horse archers crest a dune, kicking up a cloud of sand that masked their numbers, I realized that Bannerlord wasn't just a prettier Mount & Blade. The combat is still built upon the same foundation—by flicking my mouse during an attack, I can determine the direction my character swings his sword. But a host of subtle changes and a major step up in presentation makes the action more satisfying than it ever did in Mount & Blade: Warband. With a quick command, I instructed my own cavalry unit to follow me and we charged headlong into the enemy horse archers before they could turn around to retreat. My spear caught one soldier and he toppled from his horse in a spray of blood. And all I could think was, dammit, why doesn't this game have a release date?
It's been nearly five years since Bannerlord was first announced. And during E3, I finally got a chance to play it for myself. The wait has been a tough one—the Twitch chat seemed particularly frustrated (and eager) during the Bannerlord presentation at the PC Gaming Show—but Bannerlord is coming together extremely well. Taleworlds was only showing off the combat, which is a small portion of everything that comprises a Mount & Blade game. But if it's indicative of how the rest is coming along, I have very high hopes.
During the first part of my demo, I was dropped into an arena to test my mettle against waves of spawning enemies. As someone who has played an embarrassing amount of Warband, I felt immediately at home with Bannerlord's demanding combat. But enemies were noticeably less foolhardy in attacking me than in Warband. Improved AI means that, one on one, enemies tend to put up a much better fight. Instead of just rushing me and exposing themselves for a quick kill, they seemed to be more cautious and chose their attacks more carefully.
One of the biggest changes to the combat is the introduction of directional shield blocking. In Warband, shields were powerful because they could block attacks no matter the direction. That's still true, but now skilled swordsman are rewarded even more than before. When matching a directional attack with the same directional shield block, shields take less damage. It's imperative that you block properly with a shield so that aggressive foes don't quickly hack it to pieces.
Another new improvement to combat is chain attacks, which not only offer more offensive options but also look fantastic. Bannerlord is still firmly rooted in methodical combat, but seeing my character twirl his sword over his head as he repeatedly hacked at an enemy's face was really fun to watch. Getting the hang of them, however, will require some practice. When flicking the mouse in a direction to initiate an attack, you have to flick the mouse in that same direction but also hold the attack button immediately after your first attack connects. It's hard to explain, but after a few minutes chain attacks wove themselves into the rhythm of attacking and blocking that I love in Warband.
Oh captain, my captain
Both of those changes are small and will only be fully appreciated by Mount & Blade veterans. Taking to the field in a proper full-scale battle is where Bannerlord's improvements really take effect. While hand to hand combat in Warband was relatively easy to grasp, the overarching tactics of its massive battles were not. The obtuse interface made giving commands a real pain—especially for new players. Bannerlord's new interface is a lot easier to understand and work with and, for apprentice tacticians, the new sergeant system greatly relieves the burden of commanding a hundred soldiers.
As part of a more complex military hierarchy in Bannerlord, it's now possible that you won't be the one calling the shots during a fight. Instead, as a sergeant, you'll have a unit to command directly but you'll receive orders from a commanding officer. I was slightly disappointed to find out those orders are more like suggestions, as there's no consequence for ignoring them entirely and doing your own thing in battle. That seems like a bit of a missed opportunity since the bigger political metagame of Warband was all about juggling favors for various lords as you climbed the ranks. Still, having an AI general issuing commands offers a sense of direction for players who struggle with the chaos of clashing armies.
I played through three separate fights during my demo, each one placing me in command of a cavalry unit. During the battle, my general would frequently bark orders at me toprotect flanks, charge enemy units, or fall back when things got too heated. The orders were never overly complex, but I enjoyed having someone else call the shots while I focused on leading my unit and skewering enemies.
It was in these bigger battles that the improvements to Mount & Blade's visual and audio presentation really excited me. As I already said, horses kick up clouds of sand that add a great deal of visual noise to a fight on desert terrain. I'm not sure if it could ever be used strategically, but it's a gorgeous effect all the same.
Where Warband relied too much on ragdoll effects, Bannerlord mixes them with traditional animation, making attacks feel more vicious and deadly. When I charged into an enemy unit on horseback, soldiers collapsed and twisted under the stampede of hooves, armor crunching as they shrieked in pain. I raked my sword across a soldier's face and he spun with the force of the blow, dropping his sword to clutch his wound as he fell dead. It's this kind of attention to the moment-to-moment violence that makes combat in Bannerlord completely absorbing. When my allotted time for the demo was up, it was hard to leave. I just wanted to experience the thrill of a mounted cavalry charge again and again.
Everything Taleworlds has shown us of Bannerlord is promising, but it's reassuring to finally get my hands on it and know that it's not all for show—at least with the combat. It's evident that a lot of love has gone into this sequel and the result is that Bannerlord doesn't feel as janky or B-tier as previous Mount & Blade games. No one at Taleworlds was willing to reveal even a rough window of when the game would launch (despite my persistent asking). If Taleworlds can also improve on the social simulation and overarching strategy the same way they're improving the combat, the wait will be worth it.