The original Mount & Blade holds a special place in my heart. Where The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was the hottest RPG at the time, there I was on a battered old school laptop, playing a janky old build of what would later become one of my all-time favourite PC titles. That was almost 15 years ago and as much as Mount & Blade 2 evolves the original formula, there’s still a scrappiness to this ambitious blending of genres.
For the uninitiated, Bannerlord is a medieval sandbox RPG that flits between a vast world map and a third person view. One of the strengths of this sequel over the original game is the addition of a singleplayer story that serves as a handy tutorial, explaining the basics of combat and a multitude of new kingdom-managing systems. It also sprinkles some much-needed flavour over an admittedly generic setting where six factions are locked in a never-ending war.
Who rises and who falls on the road to unification (or total conquest) will depend on your actions. In this sense, Mount & Blade 2 embodies what it means to be a sandbox game, allowing you to go anywhere and interact with anyone within its sprawling continent. Whether pledging your allegiance to a lord, ransacking villages as a brigand, or commanding sieges with a warhost at your back, there are a wealth of scenarios you can chase in your pursuit of living out a medieval fantasy.
You’ll need to put in the hours, though. Starting as a lowly upstart with nothing but a few coins and worn combat gear, you’ll need to muster a warband, raise your influence among local towns, and cut your teeth battling roving packs of looters and bandits. It’s a slow start, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. Console players will also need to spend time wrangling with fiddly gamepad controls, dense menus, and an on-screen cursor.
Again, the new story mode helps. While the plot isn’t in itself compelling, newcomers will appreciate having those training wheels to guide them through Bannerlord’s first few hours. Seasoned veterans won’t have to worry too much about hand-holding here, thankfully – after a few quests the world opens up entirely, allowing you to go and join forces with your faction of choice. A sandbox mode also exists for those wanting an unfiltered Mount & Blade experience.
Speaking of factions, there are six distinct armies in Bannerlord who each govern their own massive realms. Although a shadow of its former self, the Empire still clings to power in most regions, though it’s likely you’ll want to side with one of the game’s more exotic realms. For example, there are the Celt-like Battanians or the knightly Vlandians. For old times sake, I immediately signed up with the nomadic Khuzaits, whose units and cultures are based on that of the Mongol khanates.
In Mount & Blade 2 you’ll spend most of your time traversing a big yet fairly plain world map. This strategic overview allows you to see towns and castles, as well as the key trade routes and the live locations of any armies. Calradia’s six nations won’t sit still while you attempt to make a name for yourself. Its many lords wage war, engage in politics, and exert their influence if left to their own devices. It’s only when you’re several hours into Bannerlord that you can begin to disrupt this AI-controlled pattern of warmongering and expansion.
Bannerlord’s large battles are inarguably the most fun part of the whole experience. Employing a range of medieval weaponry, you’ll watch as huge armies pound into each other as you attempt to rack up a few kills of your own. Getting stuck in yourself, combat gameplay isn’t what you’d call expansive, though you chain directional attacks, blocks, and other basic moves. It’s still immensely satisfying, especially for those who lean into the “Mount” part of Mount & Blade, impaling enemies at a breakneck speed or – if you’re me – loosing arrows like some kind of Legolas/centaur hybrid.
It has to be said that this is no Dynasty Warriors – a handful of well-equipped enemy troops can quickly dispatch your player character, as can any rival general who lands a crafty deathblow. Difficulty sliders can tip the odds in your favour, but you’ll find more satisfaction in overcoming that curve naturally, through levelling up, buying better gear, and upgrading the troops in your army.
This is where that blend between strategy game and RPG comes into focus. While it’s easy to put all your attention on one character, you’ll become similarly attached to many of the rank and file grunts in your army, some of whom will grow into demons of war, adding an emergent level of storytelling with each battle as they steamroll your enemies or narrowly evade the jaws of death. Back to the campaign map, the grind can be an issue, and it will take many hours before your actions have meaning in the wider power struggle between factions.
Mount & Blade 2 isn’t much of a looker, either. While it’s a damn sight prettier than the original, it’s far behind the 2022 “AAA” standard. For fans, this won’t really matter, as dialled down visuals allow for bigger armies during each battle simulation, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. Fans will also appreciate how TaleWorlds has enriched Calradia with more visually distinctive factions while also putting effort into creating a more diverse spread of battlefields, towns, castles, and other explorable areas.
Another aspect of the game that has been improved is online multiplayer, though the console servers are sadly fairly empty due to a lack of cross-platform networking. While it’s nice to have the option of playing on PlayStation or Xbox systems, if you’re at all serious about Mount & Blade, PC is the only way to go. Just think of the modding potential as another reason