Mount & Blade: Bannerlord was announced all the way back in 2012, but at this year's E3 in Los Angeles, fans of the series were finally shown some more on the game via new gameplay clips. Gamereactor got the chance to sit down and try it for ourselves, however, to see whether the highly-anticipated sequel is of the quality that the game's devoted community expects.
There were three demos available in the version we played, and the first was a simple melee combat tutorial. In this we filled the shoes of a soldier and participated in a free-for-all battle to the death where a number of other soldiers were after us (as well as each other), and we were guided through the PC controls. To do an overhead strike, you press the left mouse button and drag up, to do a stab you drag down, and to slash you drag left and right accordingly. Attacks vary depending on the weapon, however, as spears only have high and low strikes, for instance mixing things up a bit for those who don't fancy being a bog standard knight with a sword, and you can chain attacks together into follow-up attacks, surprising opponents after a miss perhaps.
Blocking is also controlled directionally as well, a brand new feature for the game, although shields block better than weapons do, as we've come to expect after years of cowering behind them. What's more is that blocking in a wrong direction doesn't necessarily mean you get hurt, but it does mean your shield degrades faster, which is a nice added touch of realism. Tale Worlds was also keen to emphasise that the highly requested feature of shield bashing is now in the game, throwing enemies off guard, and you can also achieve the same effect with a well-timed kick.
We got a taste of ranged combat in the combat tutorial as well, albeit in a very basic form, through the throwing axes. These worked by pressing attack when the reticle is over your opponent, and it's incredibly satisfying to hit someone at long range with a throwing axe before they have a chance to cause you grief up close. We found we used these more than any other weapon for this very reason, but considering they can be blocked pretty easily with shields, we wouldn't advise sticking with these all the time.
This system can feel tricky at first, especially if you're not already an experienced Mount & Blade player, but it's easy to get to grips with and, most importantly, very responsive. There were moments, for instance, where we noticed an enemy to our left and swivelled while blocking to quickly stop a blow from hitting us, or timed an excellent slash that hit two people, and the whole combat experience worked smoothly, becoming very addictive as a result. Duels felt tactical as well, as it's not about clicking as much as you can, but waiting for openings and staying aware of where your enemies are. The improved combat system, alongside new animations, also means that damage is calculated based on factors such as weight distribution, meaning that results are realistic and satisfying, not to mention varied.
The other two demos we got to play showed us the grand battles, the first putting us in the role of a commander of an army, swinging our sword as we did so. For tactically-minded people who like games such as those in the Total War series, this will definitely be up their street, as you can control your forces to send them where you please, leading them on horseback, making you feel like you're actually in the battle rather than overseeing it. Advanced formations allow you to control your units in a number of ways too, as you can split them, merge them, order lightning charges, create a shield wall, and more, all by using the F keys, so it doesn't compromise on tactical options by dropping you into the battle.
For those who aren't into that sorts of thing, but like the feeling of being in battle, there's also a button you can press to make your forces act independently, saving you the trouble of commanding and directing them. Due to improved Battlefield AI, AI-controlled units also behave in advanced ways as well, both on your side and the opposition, with Tale Worlds saying that they've drawn inspiration from historical commanders like Alexander the Great to make sure the AI can deploy tactic maneuvers to challenge and produce a realistic battle.
As you'd expect you can fight in the battle yourself while on horseback, but this was probably the least satisfying aspect of what we saw of the game. Trying to engage in close combat while riding a horse is fiddly and a bit frustrating, as there's not only the factor of slowing down your horse enough so you don't speed past the enemy before the attack is made, but there's also the difficulty of turning your horse and finding the right angle to land a hit. Even then we weren't sure if the hits were registering, or whether we were doing any meaningful damage, so we just got off and went after foot soldiers instead. The same advanced combat system is meant to apply on horseback, but we had trouble finding evidence that it worked in a similar way.
The second big battle we played saw us instead controlling a smaller section of the army under the wider command of someone else, our commander issuing orders to us which we then had to follow, and this time our soldiers were archers. What was interesting about this is that soldiers could only shoot left while on horseback, due to their configuration, so this was always something we had to bear in mind when commanding and positioning troops for battle. Unfortunately, though, when we handed the reins to the AI to control, our troops stopped circling around and instead just piled into enemy lines at close range, so the AI controls may well need some work in this regard.
Lords were also a big part of the battle, as these figures of power were scattered among the forces, and could be distinguished by their dress. We weren't told exactly how they influence the game, but the fact they're set apart from other soldiers makes us think that killing them increases the likelihood of enemies retreating or running away, which happened a few times during our session.
While we enjoyed the melee combat a lot more than the strategic battles, this was mainly due to personal preference, and we really appreciated the fact that you can play a strategic game while in the middle of a battle, commanding your troops while also ensuring your own survival. For the most part, though, Bannerlords plays well and runs smoothly from what we've seen, and we can definitely see players getting hooked on the depth of strategy it offers. We just hope this continues to be polished even further up until release.
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