Welcome! This column is part of a series in which members of the Tom's Guide staff share what they're playing and enjoying right now, with the goal of helping you find great games that you may have missed. Be sure to check out our previous entry, where we talked about Frontiers Pandora.
When I think back to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, alongside all the bad memories of that strange time — y’know, sickness and societal collapse and all — there are some happy memories. I was still studying for a Masters at the time, and in lieu of in-person lectures or a job, I suddenly had a lot of free time. Regular BBQs and daytime drinking became a normal part of life, as did sitting at my gaming PC sinking entire weeks into Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord.
I started playing Bannerlord as soon as it launched in early access in March 2020, after having sunk many, many hours into its predecessor, Mount & Blade: Warband. Back then, amidst all the chaos going on in the world, Bannerlord was an escape into fiction. It was also an incredibly exciting game: the Mount & Blade community had waited years for a follow up to Warband, and initially the developers were pouring attention into the game, providing daily updates to the player base and implementing new features — I was incredibly excited to see what the game would become over time.
A couple of weeks ago, around 18 months since I last played, I decided to pick Bannerlord up again — I found myself craving a few cavalry charges. And while Bannerlord holds a special place in my memory for the above reasons, I’ve gotta admit I’m pretty disappointed with how little has been done with this game.
Spit and polish
While it may have had a little spit and polish since I last played, with most of the bugs ironed out and the skill trees fully enabled, it’s virtually the same as it was in early access. Gameplay is so repetitive, regardless of what kind of army you build. Fight bandits, build an army, fight lords, become a lord, struggle to maintain your army, finally get a town, get rekt by another faction sending 1000 troops to besiege your city, start over. Quests are still boring, the storyline uninspiring, and sandbox mode can’t really be described as a sandbox, as gameplay is entirely the same as the main storyline mode, just without the time restriction and main quests.
The economy still feels thin and very little has been done with it since early access. The same goes for diplomacy and NPC interactions — every NPC is essentially the same. There’s no real role playing involved in any of it. On the campaign map, you always play the same way.
One thing I was hoping to do this time was to forego my roguery, settle down and actually start making money from towns. Unfortunately, it’s so hard to pay for your troops in the mid-game (you make no money from castles or villages) that gameplay becomes a slog of fighting constant battles just to stay afloat until you can get a town. It’s a grind.
Battles shine through
Battles are still great, and the best thing about this game. TaleWorlds has implemented a pre-battle formation system, which I like, and there's now a cool heroes mechanic, allowing you to assign followers as commanders of units or heroes within them. This works in tandem with a banner mechanic — the banners these followers carry give buffs to the troops in their formation.
Also introduced however, is a "priority" mechanic, where you give priority in a formation to certain unit types. I haven't really found much of a use for this in my 20-30 hours of gameplay in the last week or so. It seems a little fuzzy and overcomplicated. Why would I want to give units priority, rather than strict orders? Just let me put the damned shields at the front.
Annoyingly, time also now slows down as you give orders or redeploy units. This may be preferred by some, but I was used to redeploying and ordering units rapidly while moving at full speed. This would give you the ability to deploy multiple units across wider distances in less time. Now it just feels cumbersome.
Before long, I find myself fighting battles on autopilot. The AI almost always behaves in the same way, meaning there is very little tactical challenge. You can up the damage your units take, but you still essentially always fight in the same way. At the start of the game, you can choose a single battle tactic to use and simply apply it to every single battle. The AI will never do anything about it.
Don’t get me wrong: Bannerlord is still a great game for the first hundred hours, especially if you've never played it or any of its predecessors before. But it’s still essentially just a better looking Warband. And while I happily sunk hundreds of hours into that game, that very fact results in Bannerlord feeling rather old, rather quickly.
But I can’t help feeling it didn’t have to be this way. I was hoping for something different, something more. TaleWorlds had over a decade to build something new, and have had 3 years since launch to make the game more than it was at launch, but they haven’t, and that sucks.
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Peter is Editor of the How To and Camera sections at Tom's Guide. As a writer, he covers topics including tech, photography, gaming, hardware, motoring and food & drink. Outside of work, he's an avid photographer, specialising in architectural and portrait photography. When he's not snapping away on his beloved Fujifilm camera, he can usually be found telling everyone about his greyhounds, obsessively detailing his car, squeezing as many FPS as possible out of PC games, and perfecting his espresso shots.