Come forward child. Let me tell you about the brave Vlandian crossbowmen who stood their ground stoically against the onslaught of axe-wielding Sturgians charging down the hill. Or of the mighty Empire cataphracts who charged long spears in hand and won us the day against those pesky Battanians.
This is the greatest strength of TaleWorlds’ much anticipated Mount & Blade II. This medieval Action RPG, available first on PC, allows you to experience very climatic scenes from yesteryear’s warfare. Best of all is that you still get from it the tactical depth you might get from a Total War while also participating first hand in the combat. You get to play as a front-line commander who participates personally in the fighting.
The beta offers only a small PVP tidbit of the game’s overall content. Nonetheless, it is extremely entertaining and keeps me coming back to it. It shows very positive improvements when compared to previous entries in the franchise. Despite taking years to release -- only recently they have announced a launch date for its early access version -- you can clearly see that enormous production value has gone in M&B II.
As of now, the Bannerlord closed beta is only available on PC (Steam) via invite. It will be releasing on Valve’s platform, in early access, during March 2020.
The Multiplayer’s Scenario -- Six Nations Fighting For Hegemony
In the Bannerlord closed beta you’ll fight as a soldier for one of six nations in Calradia (the game’s region).
These factions, all fictional, share elements with various historical powers throughout the ages.The Empire is a late Roman/Byzantine inspired nation. Vlandia is a feudal like kingdom who once used to be mercenaries for the Empire. The Battanians are a forest people who fiercely defend their autonomy from invaders. Sturgia is a viking inspired faction that inhabits the cold northern hinterlands. The Khuzait are the horse clans which dwell in the steppes. Finally, the Aserai are the inhabitants of the deserts who recently united in a confederacy.
Although soldier types for all six nations can be categorized into three classes -- infantry, ranged and cavalry units -- each’s unit roaster and equipment varies according to in-game lore. Each equips weapons, armors, and horse breeds native to the region they inhabit. As a result no faction looks or feels like a carbon copy of each other. Take the Khuzait for example. These nomads are described as being renowned riders and excellent hunters. Consequently their soldiers can carry very powerful bows or ride the most maneuverable horses.
Closed Beta Gameplay -- Heart-Clenching Brawls With Improved Mechanics
There are three game modes in the Bannerlord closed beta: Team Deathmatch, Skirmish, and Captain mode.
TDM is essentially a practice mode in a loose PVP scenario where players don’t get to choose which factions to try (they are established server side). When you start, you are given a base budget with which to purchase a class loadout. You can only access low tier units with that initial gold. As you score kills and assists in-game, your budget for your next life is increased. When you eventually perish, your able to pick your soldier again (hopefully having earned enough to equip higher tier units). Thanks to the fast respawn timers, TDM is virtually a training-grounds to test out combat (where you face unpredictable players instead of dumb bots).
Skirmish is a more competitive combat-focused experience. It’s a ‘best of five’ between twelve players split into two teams representing one of the six factions (again, chosen by the server). The battles revolve around capturing and holding various flags around the map. As in TDM, the player receives each round a great amount of gold to purchase one of seven class loadouts. You’re able to respawn until you have the funds to buy one of these. After that, you’ll have to wait until the next cash injection to rejoin the fight. To win a round, teams must either kill the enemy team until they have no more respawns or hold the available flags until the enemy “morale” bar reaches zero.
Captain mode mixes combat with M&B‘s own brand of tactical depth. A ‘best of three’ on a big map, this mode puts each of 12 players in a game in charge of an AI platoon. As before, you get to choose one of seven classes from two random factions. You will spawn as that soldier together with a number of identical AI troops.
The size of your squad depends on the quality of your unit: the more elite, the smaller the squad. The AI squad will follow your every command (from movement and formation orders to attack and retreat ones). Player respawns are proportional to your squad’s survival. If your character dies, you can take control of a surviving squad member (he himself becoming the squad leader). You can repeat this for the remainder of the round until your entire squad perishes. The battles again center around capturing points on the map and have similar win conditions to Skirmish mode. You either murder all enemies on the field or hold the objectives until enemy “morale” plummets to zero.
One of the most welcomed additions is TaleWorlds’ implementation of a physics-based engine within combat. This really gives weight (pun intended) to your actions on the battlefield. Whereas in Warband -- Bannerlord’s predecessor -- your charging steed could come to a sudden stop when colliding with an infantry soldier, in M&B II a speeding horse will send a foe flying. Similarly, if you are unhorsed while in movement, you’ll be catapulted meters away (rather than falling on spot as you did in prior games). Landing a killing blow in a fight, depending on the weapon and strike used, can also fling the enemy around.
Another great aspect is the new capacity to ‘chain’ strikes. Essentially you are now able to immediately queue up attacks without having to wait for the animation to finish. This gives great fluidity to the action unlike Warband‘s more robotic combat.
As mentioned, all nations supply their infantry, missile and cavalry units with their own unique combinations of equipment. This simulates very well different styles of warfare, giving each faction its own strengths and weaknesses (with some better able to exploit the flaws of others). This said, the game does not have hard-counters (i.e. where certain unit classes from a faction consistently beat others). With M&B II, TaleWorlds introduced some welcome unit/weapon balancing (such as spears being more effective against cavalry) but personal performance is still a determining factor. A player who has great accuracy, can time well strikes or can maneuver his horse with great skill, will always prevail upon the odds.
If you are playing as an archer you are not necessarily doomed when a horseman is trying to ride you down. A well placed shot can really change your fortunes. Similarly, players fighting as a Vlandian peasant levy can overcome a heavily armored northern Huskarl by outperforming them.
Honestly, I found very little to criticize in regards to Bannerlord‘s closed beta gameplay. The only aspect of gameplay that I found weak were mirror matches. The interesting asymmetry between factions is curtailed by the game when teams are given the same nation to play as. By doing so, I don’t have to tailor my equipment and play-style to the enemy faction’s weaknesses. This hurts the strategic dimension of the game.
Sound and Visuals -- Transforming M&B II Into An Enthralling Experience
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Bannerlord closed beta. Riding down enemy archers on horseback or defeating an enemy player in a gut-wrenching melee is both exhilarating and haunting the same time. An excellent sound design really helps conveying this mood. The fights are accompanied by a very powerful and realistic ‘battlefield noises’. Your character’s grunts, the sound of steel on steel or steel on meat really convey the brutality of medieval warfare.
Worthy of praise are the graphics and atmosphere of the game. All, especially in Captain mode, really immersed me in the gameplay. The initial maneuvering in the beautifully rendered lush forests or barren deserts really gave me a sort of “calm before the storm” feeling. From there, slowly approaching the enemy together with my AI contingent created an appealing sense of anticipation. Finally, the clash of swords perfectly culminated the building excitement with some of the most intense action I experienced in gaming.