OPINION | GAME ON: Rise from orphan to noble to king in ‘Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord’

"Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord" is a multi-player strategy action role-playing video game set in a war-torn, feudal realm analogous to Europe from AD 600 to 1100. (Courtesy of TaleWorlds Entertainment)
"Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord" is a multi-player strategy action role-playing video game set in a war-torn, feudal realm analogous to Europe from AD 600 to 1100. (Courtesy of TaleWorlds Entertainment)

It has been a long campaign of attrition in the kingdom of Calradia, with countless sieges and sacrifices, but finally, the goal has been met: "Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord" sees an official, full release.

There are few games that have managed to splice together role-playing elements, kingdom management and battlefield strategy like the M&B franchise from TaleWorlds Entertainment, but it's been a hard slog, with eight years of development and 2 ½ years of Early Access, with countless updates, fixes, changes and fixes to changes. And not only is there a full PC release, but also for PlayStation and Xbox.

"Bannerlord" lets players experience nearly every facet of medieval politics and warfare in a sandbox environment that is constantly in flux. You enter the stage as the most minor of players, with a single horse and a blade in hand, while all around, the world is plagued by bands of rogues and six civilizations in a constant state of war with one another.

For some time, yours will be a simple wanderer's or mercenary's life, picking up recruits to join your squad, running errands for various small villages with goals like "Go buy us some tools!" or "My daughter's run off with a scallywag, convince her of the error of her ways!"

Along the way, your character will level up by doing. Buying low and selling high levels trade skill, shooting with a bow raises archery, etc.

"Bannerlord" boasts an interesting character creation, where you assign points to stats such as vigor, endurance and intelligence, which are linked to particular skills. When skill points are added to those skills, it raises both the speed at which those skills increase through use and how high they can go.

Want to become an indestructible warlord demon? Boost that vigor and endurance, specialize in a weapon (you can go with sword and shield, or two-hander, or fight with a polearm from horseback). Equip the tankiest armor and go have a blast. Or, specialize in intelligence, social and cunning stats, increasing skills in stewardship and leadership and tactics, which allow for maximum army sizes, and then just auto-resolve battles, where the game will instantly simulate the fight and tell you the result, instead of your participating directly.

The upside of simulating fights is it's a big time-saver, and your troops still gain skills and level up like normal. The downside is your personal combat skills don't increase, and the fights get a bit randomized, taking losses that wouldn't normally occur if you were participating directly.

The goal of "Bannerlord," as much as there can be one, is to eventually, one day, unite all six warring kingdoms under a single banner. That will require moving up the ranks, from mercenary to vassal to eventually becoming a king (or queen) yourself.

But creating a new kingdom doesn't happen overnight, which is why another primary goal is to get married and have children —especially since your character will eventually die of old age, if he doesn't die in battle first. Permanent death is an option that can be toggled, but if it does happen, the game isn't over —instead, you'll take control of your heir, provided they are old enough.

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There are all kinds of ways to stay busy in Calradia, from gambling in taverns and setting up a blacksmithing business, to creating trade caravans, battling for fame and riches in tournaments, or even turning to a life of banditry, burning and looting villages and attacking other caravans; but "Bannerlord" shines the most with its massive battles.

At first, you can command a mere 20 troops, but stay alive long enough and you may control hundreds, just in your own party, as well as calling in hundreds more to assist you. You'll need massive forces like that to lay siege to (or defend) castles, as the enemy AI will have similarly large numbers.

By default, "Bannerlord" can support as many as 1,000 units fighting at the same time, and as battlefield commander, that gives you macro-level controls over units. For example, if you don't like the starting position, you can order your army to defend a riverbank, positioning archers in a loose formation to pepper the enemy as they wade slowly across, then retreat those units and send in the infantry. All this can be done while having the cavalry circle from behind for a pincer attack.

There's also a multiplayer option in "Bannerlord," and I suspect this is the mode that will be most popular on consoles. In multiplayer there are four game modes. In two, six players face off against six other players, each commanding a squad of 10 to 15 units, with capture-the-flag-type objectives. In the other modes, it's 60-versus-60 melees (all human players) with castle sieges and death matches.

It's not all sunshine — TaleWorlds games are not the most polished, and if playing on PC, mods to enhance the vanilla game are almost essential. But it's a massive graphical upgrade from its predecessor, and there's enough fun to be had that you can sink hundreds of hours into this game before you even know it.

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