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Is Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord better after a year in early access?

Uneasy rider

15 years feels like both a long time and none at all, considering how much was crammed into them. In the 15 years since I first played Mount & Blade, there's little that hasn't changed in games, and yet it still has very few direct competitors other than its own sequels.

It also feels like 15 years since Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord entered Early Access in late March 2020. At that time, it felt far too leaky to write conclusively about. Even after some urgent patching, I had too many reservations to give it more than a "wait and see" recommendation. But how's it looking now?

Well. It's definitely better. And yet it still gives me disquiet.

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Let's be rational, and consider Bannerlord's biggest problems at launch: its plethora of technical issues. Identifying and fixing these is half the point of an early access period, but for a game whose development began in 2012, it was in a poor state for a lot of players. Crashes were frequent, as were less serious bugs and annoyances. I was lucky enough to avoid most of that, but its performance, and particularly loading times, were dire.

That is no longer the case. Bannerlord now runs a hell of a lot closer to how any game of its size should. After a year of patches that's hardly surprising, but it's still a relief. The loading times in particular are dramatically better. Where once a full minute of waiting might bookend every fight, there's now a mere moment or two on the way in. Coming back out of a battle could still be better, but it's short enough now to shrug off, rather than actively discouraging me from doing anything that might end in violence. Previously, even a conversation with an NPC would waste time loading a full 3D scene, but now we simply get their character model on a static background (which has the bonus side effect of making life a little simpler for modders) in most situations.

There are still noticeable delays here and there, particularly on inventory and army/prisoner management screens, and I'd expect to see further improvements before a 1.0 release, but the difference is enormous. Overall performance, however, is still lacking. I've always turned the detail down in Mount & Blade in order to crank up the battle sizes. I even used "how many M&B stabmen can it handle" as my litmus test for PC upgrades, so it's disappointing that my generally adequate machine still suffers distracting choppiness and input lag in large skirmishes, even with most options dialled down.

Sieges in general are a highlight, but the stakes make it extra frustrating when the AI flubs it.

While the AI seems a little more advanced than the original's, I haven't seen an improvement worth sacrificing both graphical effects and the spectacle and challenge of bigger battle scenes. The AI also continues to struggle with sieges, and I've got a bit tired of breaking down a gate and leading the charge only to turn around and watch 200 allied soldiers stand around doing nothing, often directly next to their own siege ladders. Battles still plonk you down completely blind, even in a siege camp you've supposedly lived in for a fortnight, and its tactical interface is still cumbersome enough that I seldom bother with more than "archers stand there" and "everyone charge" - and even that can result in ordering something completely different if I forget what button I pressed six dead horsemen ago.

Some disappointed fans have criticised the game for being basically the same game again, only fancier. I don't think that's entirely fair, but it's not entirely untrue either. Bannerlord innovates on the more managerial level, and leans into aspects that emphasise leading a clan, be it one of loyal noble vassals or entrepreneurial merchants. You can send your special 'companion' characters off as independent sub-armies or subcontract side jobs out to them, get married, birth heirs and spawn a dynasty. As a vassal your combat and job success earns influence within the kingdom, spendable on swaying the ruler and other nobles to enact or abandon specific political policies.

Static backdrops might look a lot fuzzier now, but they're a far better design than the mess we got before.

Now that named NPCs are mortal (Warband's could only ever be knocked out, with total conquest merely flipping their loyalty to the new boss) and new ones generated over time, there's more sense of life and dynamism to the world, and more subtle ways to influence it. The levelling system has been improved somewhat, more perks actually do something, and companions now gain at least some skill. The early game still feels constricting thanks to the 'renown' system limiting your options until you grind up enough looters (there are other ways, but let's be honest with ourselves about what we're in this for), but working up the ranks does feel more satisfying as a result.

The villages and towns of that world are more interesting too, being both prettier and more architecturally varied. But I still don't see much point in visiting them in person. Sure, I can wander around a marketplace or ride into a village to speak to a local craftsman. I can play board games with the king. But I've never felt the urge to bother more than once.

To its credit, Bannerlord doesn't force any of that on you, and offers a simple menu with direct access to any significant option from the map screen. But that kind of makes it feel like Taleworlds are putting a lot of their work into things I'll never bother with. It's a combat game whose one-on-one fighting is old fashioned in the wake of Chivalry and Mordhau. It's a feudalism simulator that Crusader Kings 3 can roll over and crush in its sleep (and only marginally cheaper than CK3 at £40), and it's an RPG that only really changes what the people you kill are defending themselves with.

The main map is still nice. The winter effects spreading south are also a nice touch. Nice.

But then, where else can you get all of that together? I may not feel very invested in the specific kingdoms or worlds (I do like the Battanian style, and their three cities ringing a mountainous lake, but I couldn't tell you a single character's name), but they do provide the context needed to make some of those battles feel dramatic and rewarding to win. The side jobs might seem more hassle than they're worth to me, but the world would feel deader without them, and once in a while they turn me a great profit or happen to cross wires with something else I'm doing in an entertaining way. And there's still the promise of further improvements, like a properly active criminal underworld, and a "roguery" focused play style to interact with it.

I'm still struggling to make up my mind, is what I'm saying. Bannerlord has improved a great deal on a technical level, there's more to it than its predecessors, and it's as fun as it ever was to feck a javelin at a nobleman's horse and watch his doomed tumble into your gang of frothing axemen. But the longer I play Bannerlord, the more I think of it in terms of what more it could be. Perhaps that's unfair. It's certainly more enjoyable to play than it used to be, but I still can't recommend it outright, and I suspect I won't know how I feel about it until it's finished.

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