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.