Mount & Blade II Has Gaming’s Greatest Castles

At the intersection of Total War, Crusader Kings and the Elder Scrolls, there is Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord [official site]. Incorporating siege warfare, with hundreds of characters on-screen at a time, as well as diplomacy, roleplaying and strategic simulation, it’s a living world in which the player can act on the periphery or work their way into a central role. At E3, I saw a siege play out, up close and personal, and it looked absolutely stunning. But it’s the machinery making the whole thing tick that impressed me more than the spectacle.

You can see some of the footage that I watched right here. Take a look. You’ll probably particularly enjoy the bit when a man falls off the battlements. Most people seem to enjoy that. It’s the kind of thing the Wilhelm Scream was made for.

All of the wonderful gate-breaching and murder hole action is fantastic to watch, but knowing that the whole operation, on both sides, is the work of the AI, reacting to the flow of combat, makes the whole thing even more exciting to me. Yes, it’s wonderful that friendly soldiers can be organised into groups and directed both in the planning stage and during combat, but Mount and Blade is the rare game that manages to be an RPG and a strategy game simultaneously, and being able to focus on one character within a living world is a central part of its charm.

The siege video shows off some fancy new physics and Mount and Blade’s best-in-class castles, but it’s also a neat microcosm of the game’s wider appeal. That’s you, the one directly controllable character, and you can either affect the tide of combat or you can be more of a passive observer. Your best efforts might come to nothing and you might even end up in the pile of casualties around the keep, and if things are going badly, you could run away and pretend never to have been involved in the first place.

While the assault itself is a dynamic affair, the protracted side of the siege plays out on the strategic map. That’s where you’ll be able to breach walls with mighty war engines and bide your time while the castle’s occupants chomp through their supplies. The siege itself is tackled on the map, through the crunching of numbers (with machines and armies represented accurately around the castle) while the assault itself is the simulated battle you see in the video above, and in which you can take part.

The siege shown wasn’t simply a standalone event, prepped to show off the combat. It had wider context within the strategic game. The player had formed a faction and was attempting to gain a foothold in the world. To do so, they needed a homebase – the castle and its surrounding settlement – and the attack also served to free one prisoner and take several others.

A major area in which Bannerlord has been improved over its predecessors is in the social and political interactions that can occur between characters. TaleWorlds’ aim is to allow players to follow any course of action which seems logical rather than being limited to a small pool of choices. If a friend or ally has been captured, you’ll be able to sally forth on a rescue mission and the AI will recognise your objective and NPCs will react appropriately. If you seize a castle, you’ll be able to negotiate with its previous owner.

One way in which this has been achieved is through changes to trading. If you want to offer a prisoner in exchange for goods or money, that will be possible, and similarly you can negotiate diplomatic deals through a combination of promises, treaties and actual resources or people. Effectively, many of the decisions and interactions you might choose to make have been shifted to a simulated layer, meaning that you can customise negotiations to a greater extent, adapting to the situation you find yourself in.

You can also take control of all of those siege weapons, if trade negotiations don’t tickle your fancy. As in Crusader Kings, I enjoy taking the part of a minor actor in the ongoing historical drama, and I look forward to being caught up in the conflict between AI leaders as much as I enjoy the idea of leading my own armies. The game may be subtitled Bannerlord but I’m ready to march under someone else’s banner as well as aiming to raise my own eventually.

In the siege combat, there are examples of the AI reacting to the changing situation. Archers attempt to pull back from the battlements when the attackers manage to raise their ladders, and the defending forces split between points of action, looking to plug holes and eventually retreating en masse to the keep when the outer walls fail to hold. There are significant casualties on both sides and the summary at the battle’s end showed that dozens of attackers had been taken out by archers, unseen and unsung. It’s a bloody business, this kind of warfare.

The castle itself is the star though. In a bid to more accurately reflect history, castles are no longer buildings that stand alone, like remote military bases. They’re the centre of a community, with distinct layers of defenses and social activity spilling out from the centre. Architecturally, they’re both beautiful and functional, clearly designed to not only look imposing but to create bottlenecks and killzones in aid of the defending troops. I’ve never seen a battle in and around a castle that so convincingly captures the control of the defensive force, while also allowing the invaders to twist every element in their own favour should they be smart and/or strong enough.

This is a tiny slice of what Mount and Blade II will offer but it’s a delicious slice nonetheless. Not only a dynamic AI-led battle that has all the careful narrative beats of a cinematic setpiece, but one small action in a large world that will have implications that spread among all of the factions in play. This is a game that exists at that intersection between grand strategy, roleplaying and tactical combat, and if it achieves its goals, it’ll be a dominant player in all three fields.

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29 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    cpt_freakout says:

    I haven’t even played it yet and I’m already savoring the mods… I’m glad Taleworlds are implementing so many things that modders significantly improved about Warband. Can’t wait!

  2. Abacus says:

    This is the only game at E3 that I had any interest in. No word of a lie.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    I have been eagerly awaiting this for years!

    Sieges in particular are a bit of a weak spot in the original game & Warband, if only because you end up doing so many of them and they all feel very same-y. This looks like a massive improvement, and everything else I’ve seen looks like they’ve made big improvements to every system.

    Crazy to think that the default battle size in the first game is something like 30-50, and I think the max allowable in Warband is 100 (Mods can improve that hugely though). That siege looked to have far more soldiers in it. Hopefully it will run well enough for me… or I may have to have a big upgrade!

    • darkath says:

      In viking conquest you can easily have 400 men in battle and it can go up to 750 if you have a decent pc.

  4. ryth says:

    Certainly the game I’m most looking forward to!

  5. Rollin says:

    Except it’s not really representative of the game because they use dev cheats 3-4 times to bring their health back, exposing one of the major flaws in the (soon to be) series.

    It focuses too heavily on realism even when it’s not fun – you will inevitably die in a long battle or be forced to stand and watch for most of it because if you are injured your health will never come back.

    Luckily modders fixed it in the original version by letting you play your soldiers if you fell in battle. Hopefully that will come back in the sequel too.

    • Orillion says:

      I had a mod that, among many other fantasy elements, added artifacts that went in the helm slot, including a ring of regeneration. It restored a bit too much health per second to be well-balanced, but it was great for keeping you in the fray even through a 400+ man skirmish.

    • Ethaor says:

      I beg to differ. I particularily enjoyed M&B because it had the courage to put its gameplay where the developper’s mouth were. What you see as a problem the majority sees as a core element of the franchise success.

      You have to be cautious on the battlefield, you have to carefully judge risk vs reward, your mobility and fallback options. You can’t just mindlessly jump in the melee with the intention to hack in everything that moves and hope to achieve great things like in any other game. You can’t enter any fight without carefull considerations of both side’s forces first. It’s nice to see a player character that is bound to the same laws that the allies and ennemies it fights with.

      That video isn’t exactly representative of that, sure, but that’s an E3 trailer/demo that is meant to show as much as possible in the span of one battle. That’s their way to have some video realisation control back over a big dynamic unscripted battle such as this.

      Thankfully, like you said, there will always be mods to cater to everyone’s preferences, including yours. But please don’t call such a defining core elements of the franchise success as a “major flaw”. That’s your preference and opinon. ^^

      • badmothergamer says:

        I second Ethaor. My first M&B battle I charged in like I would any other game, expecting to play the superhero we are generally given, slaughtering everything in front of me while my troops simply cleaned up anyone I missed. Instead, a couple of arrows to the chest and I was dead before reaching the AI front line, and that was with most settings on easy.

        You learn quickly to be a real general. Send the fodder in first, keep your good troops back, only enter the fray when necessary, and never be afraid to run like a coward and leave your troops to die. ;)

        • Rumpelstiltskin says:

          I believe there’s a new point of reference for reckless solo charging – Jon Snow.

        • BorgiaCamarones says:

          You got that right. I love positioning my archers on a hill, sending the footmen when the enemy gets close enough, then leading the cavalry charge around and to the back of the enemy, sending and recalling two alternate cavalry charges along the way, with the goal of taking down the archers. When they’re softened up good, I rush in with my heavy cavalry backing me. That usually does the trick.

          The simple fact that the game lets you come up with such a strategy is absolutely amazing and hasn’t been replicated by another studio to my knowledge.

      • celticdr says:

        Exactly!

        Nothing like the adrenaline rush of taking out 20 foot soldiers whilst on horseback with a lance and shield.

        My other favourite method of vanquishing my foes involved horse archery – I would ride just fast enough to keep the enemy from reaching me whilst firing arrows from horseback… conversely losing ones mount in battle (especially with lance and shield) was a death knell.

      • Rollin says:

        I agree there should be risk/reward, but once your player character dies the battle is auto-resolved and often not in your favor. And if you choose to go in again you’ll be on 5/50 HP or something so even if you have a much bigger army and hang back, one crossbow bolt and it’s over again.

        • Tuidjy says:

          First, even in Native, a decent medic with high a first aid will be able to bring you back for three or four rounds of combat before you have to auto-resolve.

          Second, in most mods, including the official Viking Conquest DLC, you have the option to let your troops fight after you have gone down.

          And finally, if magic is your thing, play one of the fantasy mods with rings of regeneration, clerics, unicorns that heal the rider, etc…

          Warband has something for everyone. My expectations for Bannerlord and its mods are sky high… and I believe that even if it ships in a barely playable state, five years from its release date I will playing it as much as I play Warband now. Which is more than I really should. Too many games in my library are unfinished because I decided to try a new Warband even though I was enjoying something else. My current casualty – Original War. I loved the game, and I was at the (probably) last mission when I ‘tried’ a new mod. I’m still ‘trying’ it.

    • DwarfJuggler says:

      They also went into a siege battle without a shield.

      That’s just asking for more arrows and bolts than necessary.
      You learn to play good or get taken out. It encourages good playing rather than stat grinds and OP gear.

      It’s like saying the downfall of CounterStrike or other fps games is that there is no option to buy armor that protects you from even the most penetrating of bullets. Learn not to do the things that got you killed in the first place or be doomed to repeat it.

  6. Renevent says:

    They’ve made some nice, chunky gameplay additions and I will def pick it up. I bought the first game way back in the day before it was released and was one of the best surprises in gaming in years.

    That said, there’s stuff that I’m not too crazy about. They’re re-using quite a bit of stuff from the first game, everything from fonts, voice acting, textures, animations…basically looks/sounds less like a full sequel and more like a very well done mod.

    • Replikant says:

      The game is shaping up quite nicely. If Bannerlord is just M&B with improved sieges, less cows, better AI and a proper UI it would more than enough for me.
      A new campaign map would be nice, though.

    • hagglunds says:

      I’ve notice the same thing. I’ve been hoping they are just placeholders while they work on something new, but as development continues it seems less and less likely. I think nearly all of the sounds I’ve heard in the half dozen or so videos that are out there are all from M&B/Warband.

      Release won’t be anytime soon though I imagine, so maybe the sounds and animations will change before then. Even if they don’t, this will be a day one buy for me.

  7. Chiron says:

    We wants it precious, give it to us.

  8. Don Marcos says:

    Hey, wait wait. Can you regenerate health now by any means? Or they used cheats?

    • Replikant says:

      I assume they cheat to demo all the sights there
      are to see. Beats having the second half of the demo showing the death screen.
      There are a lot of “Don’t try that at home” moments in that clip.

  9. wengart says:

    As soon as I noticed he didn’t have a shield I figured there were some shenanigans afoot.

  10. April March says:

    What a glorious mess. I loved it.

  11. ElementalAlchemist says:

    They need to sort out the AI dealing with doorways and other obstructions. There were a couple of points where they were just logjammed in there and the player had to go in a different direction.

    • Chem says:

      Oh the doorway problems are actually because they accidentally set it to Stooge mode for the demo.

  12. tonicer says:

    This is what i am most excited for and the only game that really got my attention of all the other fluff they showed at e3.

    I might actually go so far as to pray to god that it will remain a PC game forever and not turn into a videogame (aka consolegame).

  13. NephilimNexus says:

    Rome Total War: 1st Person Version

  14. Ronrocken says:

    Can you again stop invasions single handedly by wielding a giant axe/sword and standing on top of a ladder brutally mutilating enemies heads one by one?

    Can’t say I’m really interested in non-destructable castles and stupid AI.