There were a number of things that happened to me in Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord that perfectly sum up my early gaming experience with it.
It started with me finding a way to cheese the game. I had found that I could take down groups of enemies on my own, up to a dozen of them, simply by riding out of their reach on my horse and slowing down just enough to carefully aim my bow and shoot them in the head. One by one they would fall. If it weren’t for the arrow limit – around 27 depending on quiver – I would have taken on entire armies. And it started to be very profitable for me. I was finally threatening to make the dent in the world I had been fighting to make.
But then Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord—the latest in TaleWorld’s line of strategy-action RPGs that just left early—decided not to let me do that anymore. It decided I needed troops to fortify, because that’s what the game is about: commanding armies into battle – think Maximus in the opening scene of Gladiator, riding with the troops through the forest. You can, in a Total War-lite way, shout orders to your troops by using the F keys and a slow mode to command them (it’s clunky). So I bought troops.
However, then the game decided that I didn’t have enough health to fight the bandits the way I had been, even though this has never been a problem before, so I had to send my troops to fight for me – and they died, leaving me no choice but to be captured.
When you’re captured – and I like this mechanic – you’re carried around until you either bribe someone or find another way to escape. It’s a neat way to make you experience defeat without actually dying. So I’m being carried around by these bandits, on the world map of the game, and they’re apparently moving around randomly – sometimes they’re standing by a settlement, sometimes they’re hiding in the trees – and the game just seems to forget about me. Nothing is happening.
I’m beginning to wonder if something has gone wrong, which is not an uncommon thought in the game, as it has a kind of delightful sloppiness – and if I should see the simulated world as brash as this, spinning away without any apparent need for me, the player – when the game suddenly seems to remember and say something like “Oh, you found a way to escape” and spit me out again. And then I’m back to trying to break into it again.
And that’s Mount & Blade 2 – or at least that’s my first five hours with it: I’m getting nowhere fast.
Let me back up a bit. Mount & Blade 2 is a collection of genres. There is the personal command element of combat that I mentioned above, but also the actual combat part of combat. This works a bit like the Chivalry games and their ilk, in that you can swing weapons in a few different directions, and block in those directions as well, and try to hit without getting hit in return. Projectiles, you actually have to aim. And there are various skills that guarantee how well you can do all of this, improving with use.
On top of that, you have a world map layer where your little avatar rides around, going from place to place, buying and selling and recruiting, in an attempt to earn more money and hire better troops. And all the time you’re raising the bar in whatever you’re doing – protecting people, shooting, spying, trading – and understanding what life might have been like back then, at the turn of the millennium.
And it is a credible recreation. Special effort has been put into modeling the villages and towns you see on the world map. You can go into them and explore them and talk to people there – there’s dialogue. There are also missions; it feels a lot like an RPG. But it also feels like a simulation game and a strategic action game, not that either part is particularly deep individually. But together, in a porridge, they are a nice blend of Mount & Blade’s own.
There is a lot about it that I like. I like the way it presents you with a simulated world and more or less says, “There you go – do with it what you will.” And I like the freedom to find silly loopholes as my archer on horseback, because breaking those simulations to my advantage is part of the allure for me. That it’s not the most believable combat simulation doesn’t matter to me, nor does it matter that the characters and dialogue seem a bit thin, because they’re part of a much bigger whole, and there’s tons of depth to the skill tree progression. affects the entire simulated world.
The problem is that sometimes it’s a little too loose, a little too eager to set yourself free in that world. And all the things I see Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord really trying to do, especially on the RPG front, don’t seem like much. It won’t be long before you’ll be skipping exploring the villages and towns altogether, in favor of the landing screen where you can buy and trade and talk to characters directly instead. And you won’t care what they say or who they are, because the missions are forgettable and so are they. All I’ve done in five hours is go from place to place doing variations of the same thing, none of it very exciting.
But I can see – or I suspect – that it will. I can see larger armies riding around the map, and larger forces and kingdoms at work, and I know that in time I will compete with them. And I’ve seen snippets of mounted enemies in action and it’s exciting the speed at which they move. But it’s “how to break into it?” it’s frustrating to me, because the answer always seems to be: time. Time for me to observe and learn so I can bend the formula to my goals. Time to learn what to shop, who to hire, how to fight. Then I’ll start mastering the simulation I’m running into now. The question is, do I – or you – have enough time and desire to do it?
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