Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord (opens in new tab) is finally a tangible thing that you can play right this very second, seven years after TaleWorlds first announced it. It's strange, finally returning to Calradia more than a decade after the launch of Warband, but it's also been very easy to slip back into familiar rhythms—chasing down bandits, rubbing shoulders with nobles and trying to win big in the arena.
I've been doing a lot of all three today, and while I started out with a rough idea of what I wanted to see, I've predictably been waylaid by side adventures and escapades. Though we've still got around a year to wait for the full game, this Early Access version already has its hooks in me, so I won't be doing much else this week. Expect some more in depth impressions soon, then, but in the meantime here's what I've made of my first day of riding around.
Even the tutorial evokes the previous game, but before that you've got to make a character. It's a rather involved questionnaire process that builds a background for you, starting with who your parents where, through childhood and up to your first adult job. What you choose gives you bonuses to your skills and attributes, so you can start out as a burly warrior with a penchant for two-handed weapons or, at the other end of the spectrum, a smooth-talking trader.
Regardless of where you say you're from—I'm a burly northern lad—it looks like you end up having to leave, losing most of your family, and stuck in another land. After the combat tutorial, which you can spend as much time mucking around with as you want, there's a brief campaign tutorial that teaches you the absolute basics and gives you some objectives to work towards—but then the sandbox properly opens up and you can do whatever the heck you want.
I made the mistake of immediately putting my recently refreshed combat know-how to the test in the arena, but you might put down your weapons and start a trading caravan, spending your days pondering logistics, browsing inventory and raking in the gold while I get beaten senseless yet again.
Like its predecessor, Bannerlord's combat has you determine the direction of your attack with your mouse, letting you sneak your sword through their defences. You can absolutely flail around and cheese it by kiting enemies, but to get ahead in Bannerlord you'll want to practise timing your blocks and attacks and reading your opponents. When you're sandwiched between 100 warriors, sure, go wild, but in one-on-one duels precision is key.
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Clearly I needed to spend more time stretching before diving into the arena, as I was knocked out in the semi-finals. My real mistake was betting most of my cash on what I thought was going to be an easy win. I was already broke. Luckily, there's no dearth of ways to make a buck in Bannerlord. There's a dynamic economy that I've yet to really delve into, you can try your hand at refining and crafting your own goods, or you can get paid to hit stuff. A life of banditry, mercenary work or swearing allegiance to an empire can help you fill your pockets.
A couple of primary quests offer a bit of direction, though not much. There's a story about an artefact and building up your clan, designed to get you out wandering the world, meeting interesting people and getting into trouble. Then there are the random side quests doled out by nobles, traders, criminals and whoever needs a hand. It took me a while to find anyone willing to do more than introduce themselves, however. Bannerlord's towns and villages have plenty of NPCs, but none of them feel particularly lively yet. If you want to know if there's anyone worth chatting to, you can scope the place out from the menu before entering the location, so at least you can quickly move onto the next place.
I say quickly, but how brisk your pace is really depends on a few factors. You need to worry about the weight of your cargo, for instance, as well as how your army or caravan is getting around. A lot of people on foot won't be moving very quickly, nor will they be able to carry much. Horses will speed things up considerably, but the larger your army is, the slower it will move. And the terrain has a big impact, of course, so the fastest route to your destination might not be the most direct one.
On the road again
There's a lot of travel in Bannerlord, and like all road trips you really need to keep an eye on the snack situation. In my rush to leave the town where I suffered a humiliating defeat in the arena far behind me, I forgot to check on how much grain my little band of warriors had—none—and was a bit surprised when they started starving, reducing their health and morale. A quick trip to the shops solved that problem, but then the stealing started.
See, I was trying to do a favour for a lord. It's a good idea to keep important people happy when you're trying to climb up the social ladder and maybe even end up run a kingdom yourself. You can nurture a relationship with a massive list of named characters, and they all have relationships with other NPCs, letting you exploit grudges or make a new circle of chums. This guy wanted me to deal with some mercenaries who were causing him some trouble. He didn't want me to fight them; he wanted me to take them off his hands and sell their contract to another noble. Unfortunately, I wasn't having much luck shifting them.
My sales pitch was off. Tempting another noble into buying their contract means scoring two successes during the negotiation, influenced by the the relationship score and certain skills. Bannerlord provides quite a bit of clarity about your chances, so you can make an educated decision, but ultimately there's always a bit of luck involved. These failed negotiations were also bleeding me dry, as I was spending quite a lot of gold to bribe the guards into letting me into the various keeps where I was selling these unwanted mercs. Being a nobody made these meetings expensive. And worse, the mercs had started stealing our supplies, pinching rations and ensuring the rest of the armies morale plummeted.
I eventually managed to trick someone into buying their contract, but I've seen the same quest crop up several times since. The payout's good, so maybe I'll risk it again. It's not clear how many side quests have been implemented so far, but I've spotted several of them quite a few times already. They've sent me to different locations and changed my relationship with different factions, however, and with most quests there's always that chance for some emergent surprises.
Maybe you'll be heading to a city to sell some goods that you've been hired to trade on the down-low but instead find it besieged, inspiring you to take sides and get involved. Once it's over, maybe you'll decide that, no, you've protected these goods for too long to give them up, breaking the contract and keeping them for yourself. Maybe you only clicked that option by mistake because you were distracted by something on Slack and now have to live with the consequences—primarily getting branded as a criminal.
Things are much better that I've moved to the other side of the map where nobody knows of my petty crimes. I've started to make a name for myself as a killer of bandits, but my hirelings do most of the work for me. The nice thing about being a boss is sending everyone else into battle while you sit on a hill and yell at them. It's better that way. Safer. That's more of a priority than ever, since I'm playing with permadeath turned on.
Despite being optional, as well as turned off by default, permadeath is one of Bannerlord's biggest fundamental changes. Because characters can die, you're working towards creating an enduring, successful dynasty, rather than focusing just on an individual. It's not that far removed from Crusader Kings 2, at least in premise. I've yet to settle down and raise a family, and I'm definitely not important enough to even think about my legacy, so I'm content to keep chasing poorly-armed bandits.
At this early point, it feels a lot like playing a very refined Warband. That's a good place to start, but I'm eager to leave the familiar behind and start dabbling in what seem like Bannerlord's most ambitious systems. Like its predecessor, though, it can be hard to know what to focus on. There are a lot of compelling distractions, and a very large map to explore.