The best thing I can say about this, the most eagerly awaited medieval ARPG of all time, is that I want to keep playing it. I have played exactly four million games, a number which is only possible when you learn to drop something you're playing without hesitation. Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord, for all its teething problems, will probably be brilliant when it's finished.
I don't enjoy having to qualify my praise for this one. I spent years absolutely baffled that barely anyone learned the lessons the original Mount & Blade taught on its release in 2008 (or indeed, several years earlier for a lot of us). "Making combat with swords, axes, spears, and bows fun? Why is this novel?" I asked. "Why are other stabby games still rubbish?" I asked for years afterwards. Bannerlord has been in the works for most of that time, and the weird thing is, it's kind of done its own trick backwards.
Mount & Blade was terrific fun immediately. I've surely regaled some of you in the comments over the years about how I played its 6-level demo all night, over and over, just fighting endlessly in the Zendar arena. Buying it then was inevitable, even though it was openly unfinished, a novel concept several years before Minecraft and then the rest of the industry gave the process an offical name. There was other stuff to do out in the world, but the core of it, that fantastic, exciting, chaotic combat, was there very early on. The rest of the world stuff - the new factions, the banners, the conquest, the villages, and the sucking up to 300 tedious lords - that came later, and it was fine, mostly. Given the choice, I skipped most of it.
After a week of Bannerlord, I've realised I'm doing more or less the opposite. The battles can be as good as ever (and far prettier). There are, particularly since a patch, acres of weapons and impressively varied, attractive pieces of clothing and armour to play with. There are so many troop types I've still not even seen lots of them, much less hired them. But I still feel like I've barely touched most of that, because getting to the stage where you can do what you actually want to takes forever.
Fundamentally, Bannerlord is the same as Warband, the spruced-up and expanded 2010 reissue of Mount & Blade most people refer to. That's absolutely fine, and exactly what TaleWorlds said it would be. You create a character, giving them a variety of martial or mental skills depending on what sort of playstyle you're going for, and then wander a huge world map looking for people to recruit to your army, and other people to shove into the mud and jump up and down on. When you cross a hostile force you enter a full 3D battle in which you run about stabbing, spearing, and shooting foes, or sitting back and yelling at your dudes, or both.
As you hit people with particular weapons, your combat skills will go up, making you hit faster and harder, and, most crucially, making your ranged attacks more accurate (it absolutely clenched my brain that so many of the last decade's games with bows in made them 100% accurate even when you had no skill with them. Yes, Skyrim, I'm looking at you). Victory makes you more famous, gives you money and weapons and stuff to sell, and sometimes prisoners and recruits. Outside of fights, you flit from town to town trading, or raiding farmers and besieging castles, and chasing down groups of bandits or whatever fancy lords have taken exception to your antics. There are non-combat skills that level up along with these, too.
All that is true of Bannerlord. Except that the skills and levelling system are a shambles and getting anywhere is a slow and repetitive slog. It was one thing to beat up looters for an hour in Warband, then take your now-competent small army off to war. In Bannerlord, looters feel like half the game.
The main problem is that you can't directly increase your skills through levelling. Instead, with each level you gain a 'focus point', which you can apply, up to a maximum of five times, to one of your skills. Doing so raises the cap on that skill, and the rate at which it increases, but to become good at anything you still have to grind away at it. Which means you're terrible at everything for several real-life days.
Want to get better with spears? You'll have to fight dozens and dozens of fights at a disadvantage against looters, the dudes whose most effective weapon is throwing stones. Want to be better at leading an army? You have to lead an army. Which means just waiting until you're not crap at it anymore. That might be realistic, but if I wanted to wait around forever for things to happen, I'd play most of my adult life.
Compounding this are the limitations placed on your army. Bannerlord boasts big new features like marrying and sprogging off so your character, who can now age and die, will be succeeded, making the heraldry and conquest and empire management stuff more compelling. Each of the all-new kingdoms you can join is comprised of lots of clans, with their own named leaders, who all vote on political rulings that can affect how that kingdom does strategically.
But to get to any of that you need 'renown'. Even the size of your army is tied to increasing this, and the only way to get it is winning fights or tournaments. You like chasing looters around the map over and over, right? Because if not....
Perhaps you played Warband, and you're thinking you can use your companions - the special NPCs you find in taverns to hire as your near-equal buddy - to boost your non-combat skills? Well, not really. They're nice to have in a fight, but they grow even more slowly than you do. I don't recall seeing any of my companions gain a level. In fact some of them haven't even gained a single skill point, even though they all go on the front line, with maxed out focus on a combat skill. But then again, all of them, even the healer, already have more of those skills than I do.
The upshot of all of this has meant that most of my playtime has been spent not fighting thrilling battles, or difficult wars, or the huge sieges necessary for conquering settlements to get to the real strategic bits. I've mostly been doing everything else. And there's a lot more to the everything else this time.
Being a lord was tedious as hell in Warband. Trading was cute for a short while, but paled next to fighting. Missions were dull and sometimes terrible. Frankly, I ignored a lot of the game because it was clumsy and boring to do, but had such a blast in the skirmishes and intense, close-fought massive battles that it didn't matter. Once you'd got a few levels in there was tonnes of space for endless fighting. In Bannerlord, the combat is still great, but everything else has been expanded too (and if any of this sounds overwhelming, don't worry. Our guides team are working on it.)
Villagers and caravans move from place to place, same as before, but now the economy is much more dynamic. There are loads more goods, more obvious supply and demand, and more feedback about what's going on. Recent transactions appear over towns, and traders on the map will tell you what they're trading, offering tips, and selling directly to you. Caravans are labelled by their owner too, with most of these being an active class of merchants and business owners, with whom you have your own relations, and whose rivalries you can get caught up in. They're also the source of most recruits, so buttering them up can pay off.
There's an all-new criminal underworld whose figureheads will offer you shady work. Commoners are a much bigger part of Bannerlord, and if anything do more to keep the world running than lords. I've paid almost no attention to the nobility in fact, aside from spearing some in the arena, and buying some horses off another few. There are also warbands of people who aren't nobles but more like the player's group, although they can't do most of what you can. At one point I was in an imperial city, talking to a local gangster in her shady awning in the Greco-Roman style town with its marble busts, covered markets full of amphoras and piled textiles, and realised how much I want to watch Rome again.
The jobs, although still rather limited, are more interesting too, with short introductory dialogue anchoring them to the world more. I've yet to come across a truly hateful one like Warband's "capture the peasants", and the cattle driving missions, easily one of the worst parts of Warband, are now extremely simple, easy money. But even they have potential to go amusingly wrong if, say, you run into bandits, or the village you're delivering to is raided. Trade, too, can be disrupted by war, and you can lose out on a deal if another caravan beats you to it.
Although there are towns where specific goods are cheap or in demand, there's more of a "buyer's / seller's market" feel, with prosperous towns tending towards being good places to shift a lot of goods, but costly if you decide to stock up on supplies there. When you get to the point of warring, this makes intercepting caravans and (if you're a dick) raiding villages more interesting than it was in the originals. Villages are naturally the cheap sources of most resources, and poor places to sell. But you can still make some good money trading between them here and there. It all gives them a sense of life.
The combat is very much the same as it always was, but much shinier and fiercer. The total removal of automated directional blocking is a controversial decision (compounded by a poorly conceived tutorial fight that can thankfully be skipped entirely), but it can be mitigated somewhat by not bumping the difficulty up to begin with. I find it bizarre that the hovering indicators and the frankly offensive crosshairs are all togglable, but the difficult blocking isn't. It does, I suppose, make shields far more valuable.
But all the same... I'm frustrated. Bannerlord is an early access title and that naturally means some issues are expected and acceptable, provided they eventually get fixed. TaleWorlds have worked very hard, releasing extensive patches every day since release, directly addressing the dozens of crashes, bugs, technical issues, and simple oversights that players have reported. But some performance problems persist, as do some bad design decisions like the loading screens stacked back to back in situations that could be resolved without any.
But then I swing back to positive, reporting that a weekend patch switched skill gain back on for arena fights, which drastically changed the pace of the game for the better (I levelled three times in a couple of hours, verses once for a whole evening before). It could be several weeks before it's possible to write about it without a patch rendering half my observations obsolete. It's disappointing that it takes so much work to get going compared to the immediacy of its own ancestors, but then, it gets so much right that they didn't.
There's no question that TaleWorlds have the will and talent to tidy up these problems. With its enormous popularity - it's already the biggest release of the year, a far cry from the obscure 2006 game my friend's friend talked about - they ought to have the resources to make an outstanding game. But Bannerlords, for all the good it does, just isn't there yet. I can't wholeheartedly recommend it, but I'm confident that I will in time.