By Darren Henderson (DizzyPW)
Now that the madness of E3 2017 is finally petering out, I have had a chance to collect my thoughts. And those collected thoughts drew me to one conclusion. That hands on time with Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord was the most fun part of E3 for me. Maybe I should tell people about the experience? Well my sentient half-mad subconscious, I believe you’ve talked me into it. Let’s dive into E3 one more time to talk about just how good the medieval combat experience is in Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord!
The combat experience in Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord can be seriously overwhelming. Trying to learn what the heck is going on while commanding 30+ units in a warzone would be a hellish experience, even for a multi-year gaming press veteran like myself. Luckily the first step of TaleWorlds Entertainment’s demo was the arena. Not unlike WWE’s Royal Rumble, you get thrust into a rather large flat arena to do battle against 34 (or so? I can’t remember the exact number) of AI combatants. Your goal is to survive to the last man, perhaps racking up a few kills in the process for bragging rights. But you’ve only got a shield, a sword, and six or so throwing axes to make it happen. And yes, shields have durability, so use them wisely.
For starters I’ll get it out of the way, this is not some braindead AI we’re talking about. You can’t run in and bash them to death without resistance. While maybe 1/6 times this can actually net you a quick kill, at least half of the time you will end up with a kick to the gut that sends you defenselessly spiraling to the ground. Instead you have to analyze the situation and take appropriate counter-measures to each scenario. Is the AI using a sword and overly aggressive? Bash their head in with your shield when they pull back to attack you and then don’t ever give them time to recover. Raining arrows from afar? Use your shield to close the gap, or beat them at their own game with well-timed throwing axes, then charge them when a well-placed axe makes them falter. Get double teamed by a spearman and sword and board warrior at the same time? Die like a dog. There’s a reason those damn Romans/Greeks conquered so much of the known world haha. This combo basically got me every time, and I still haven’t figured out a good counter measure for it! The AI is smart enough that the spearman will actually hide behind the swordsman’s shield, and stab past his makeshift ally to constantly deal out damage to you. Color me impressed.
After two extremely poor showings, I got the knack for combat. It’s very jarring at first, but feels second nature once it all suddenly clicks. While ranged attacks like archery and axe throws act like any TPS would albeit with far more noticeable gravity pulling the projectiles down, the melee is an all new experience. By aiming the camera you can aim your melee swings, or move your shield into position to intercept attacks. This can feel like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time at times as you might click the block button before you tilt your camera, or tilt your camera but be in a refractory phase after doing an action and unable to block in time. The whole thing is a very cerebral experience that leaves an immensely high skill ceiling for players to master through hours of gameplay.
Another nice touch was that you can even pick up gear of fallen enemies to use as your own. This became key in my final arena playthrough as I cycled through my entire gear set about three times before finally getting downed in the final three due to the spearman, sword and board combo. The AI is very skilled, and once you engage in combat there is no real opportunity to turn and run away effectively. If you engage, you have to go in with the mentality that you or the enemy isn’t leaving the battle. But there’s a ton of tricks you can pick up to tilt the encounter in your favor. Well timed kicks can push them off balance, or if you have a shield handy you can slam it in their face to push them back. Both leaves you very vulnerable to counter attack though, so use them sparingly. Also during one confusing point I accidently equipped two shields before proceeding to bash my foe into the ground, using them as blunt weapons. Finally there is a combo attack system in which if you time your strikes alongside your vision tilt, you can chain one attack after another for a brutal combination with virtually no downtime between swings. Even knowing I could do it, I barely managed to use it in actual combat once or twice. Clearly it exists to separate hardy veterans and punish novices still getting their feet wet.
I’m still kind of grumpy that I didn’t get a chance to complete the arena. I feel like it’s a mandatory prerequisite to be able to handle yourself and perform well once in actual combat.
Battle Demo Part 1 – Mounted Cavalry Command
Just as I was starting to get my bearings with melee combat, it was all thrown out the window as I mounted up for part 2 of the experience, an actual cavalry battle on horseback equipped with a spear, sword, and shield. Surprisingly the horse riding came more naturally to me than the combat system. The controls are as simplistic as possible with holding back (s) as your means to slow down, continuously holding forward as a means to speed up, and all the aiming and attack systems carrying over the same as in the arena.
However, that’s not to say mounted combat is in any way easy. Landing a well-placed spear thrust was hard enough against a stationary target in the arena. Trying to hit a moving target while on a horse charging forty MPH is a whole new level of insanity. I wouldn’t mind a jousting practice mode to get the hang of it, as learning to do so in the middle of combat is too much. But that said, you can only do so much as a commander. Knowing how to use the F keys to boss around your subordinates is the subtle but real skill of these large scale battles.
Commanding units will feel very familiar to Total War players. My recent experience with Total Warhammer in particular made this system feel right at home. Just imagine you are the lead commander of a squadron in Total War, and you will instantly get what is going on here. You can tell your units to spread or tighten into formation, follow you into battle, line up and charge forward into an enemy, retreat and spread out, or focus effects on guarding you should you be seriously wounded.
What makes perfecting this system truly challenging is that your horse leaves your NPC followers’ horses in the dust. You have to keep this in mind or you will find yourself alone and charging into a hail of archer fire. Getting it just right so that a few of your NPCs take the initial blunt of the charge is the key to maximizing your usefulness on the battle. Of course with all the chaos going on, there is quite a bit of luck to this. You never know when someone is going to shoot an arrow into your horse’s eye and send you hurtling to the ground after all. Your horse has a separate HP system, as does all enemy mounted units, so keep that in mind when going in for an attack. If you can down an enemy commander’s horse, you will have a much easier time circling around to pick off the less mobile and isolated target.
My initial four charges broke the enemy’s lines horribly, before I got too wrapped up in the battle and rammed my horse straight into a hillside. With enemy units quickly approaching from behind, I lacked the time and momentum to pull a perfect Mario Kart style 3 point turn, and asked my guide how to dismount. Dismounting doesn’t change your roll as a commander. I was still able to utilize my cursor and commands to line up my squadron to pick off the bulk of the approaching enemies. I only had to dirty my blade on a single foe before the entire pack of goons were dead around me. Utilizing the commands at distance, I ended the match without ever even making visual confirmation of the enemy commander following. Truly knowing the combat system is secondary to knowing how to properly command your forces.
Battle Demo Part 2 – Mounted Archery Khuzait Ambush
I took like a duck to water in the second round of mass combat as I took on the role of a Khuzait mounted archer commander. Mounted archery is extremely challenging, but if you have a steady hand and proper timing, you can dish out insane destruction on your foes. With archery you have a few seconds after pulling back the bowstring to ensure a tight aiming reticle. If you hold the bowstring any longer, your reticle will expand at a rapid pace, ruining your accuracy. You can still fire it off if there is a large enough pack of enemies, but since you are only packing a little over 40 arrows for a battle, I recommend making every shot count.
The interesting mechanic of mounted archery is that you can only reasonably fire decent shorts off to your left. Being that your right hand is pulling back the bowstring, it makes logical sense that this is the case. But in the heat of combat it becomes challenging to both keep your squadron on point while always keeping your enemy target on your left side. Even worse, at one point I was over eager and found myself sandwiched between the two main enemy forces in a crevice between sand dunes. With enemy mounted spearmen charging at me from the right side, the only counter measure at my command was to charge forward, take evasive maneuvers, and hope no straggling soldiers would break my horse’s momentum.
A nice feature that was present in last year’s demo made its return here. Each shot you fire off and land will showcase the damage dealt and to what it was dealt. But for bragging rights, they will also tell you the difficulty of the shot you landed. Even if you only dealt 30 damage to an enemy horse, that 13 difficulty rating will boost your moral pretty fast.
It was during this battle that I got a real sense of how awesome the real-time physics rendering is in the demo. An enemy mounted spearman broke free from the chaos and picked up a huge amount of speed to charge at me. At about 10 meters I managed to land an arrow right into the horse’s eye for over 150 damage (most of my arrow shots were doing about 18-40 damage, and point blank spear stabs about 50-90 for reference). The horse died on impact, and the poised spearman went flying to the ground just short of reaching me. That’s so satisfying!
Between my keen aim and well commanded squadron, the second demo battle was a complete route. It was over in barely a minute, and I still had about 5 arrows left with no targets to put them in. Back to the Total Warhammer comparison, if a battle becomes too one sided or key commanders become injured, the enemy will enter a routed state and begin to flee. Once all surviving enemies are in a routed state, the battle ends. I imagine this will become key in multiplayer combat at launch as you will need to carefully control the loss of units versus kills while keeping all your commanders safe and sound to maximize the power that morale has over the battlefield.
Battle Demo Part 3 – Mounted Cavalry Hard Mode
Having seen my action combat and RTS skills in action, Frank gave me the greenlight to challenge the first battle a second time… only now on hard mode. The AI, already formidable before, upped their game to levels I simply couldn’t match. Two mounted squadrons ran cross patterns through my ranks, thinning them out in nasty fashion before the ground infantrymen even had an opportunity to clash. I managed to separate and slay one of the mounted squadron’s captains to sway the battle back into our favor, but my crossbowmen were left unprotected and a prime target for the other mounted enemies in the meantime.
While in my first run I found I could run through the enemy’s backline nearly unscathed, the archers taught me a valuable lesson in charging solo on hard mode. My horse was sliced to shreds by the barrage of arrows before a wayward infantry unit stalled me long enough for the second mounted commander to run his spear through me at high speed. The spear strike likely would have been an instant kill had I not pulled back and made an evasive dash to the side, but even still I lost 60% of my health from that single strike. I called my squadron back for one final charge, only to find while circling the outskirts of the battle that only five or six horsemen of my original twenty-five answered my call.
Together the six of us made a brutal last stand against overwhelming odds, sending the main line of infantry spearmen and another group of crossbowmen fleeing from our presence. But as I turned to charge once more, I found myself completely alone behind enemy lines. My remaining squad had gotten caught up in the ranks of the fleeing enemies, unable to return to formation. With the meter at the top of the screen indicating the battle was about to be lost, I desperately charged the second remaining squadron of crossbowmen. I fell to three back to back arrow strikes before ever getting in spear length of the squad. My remaining units immediately fled as my death was the final straw to break our morale.
Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord’s mounted combat and squadron commands met and exceeded my expectations. I never felt like I lost due to shoddy unresponsive controls. It was clear that my inexperience was my downfall, and that the difficulty curve present would make even veteran gamers like myself have to work at the game to overcome the odds. The sound effects, physics, and pacing of battles all meshed together into a beautiful massacre that I feel I was only barely able to appreciate at its fullest. There’s clearly an immense amount of depth to be found here, and the better you get at it, the more that awaits for you to discover and master. With so many factions’ fighting styles to learn and learn to fight against, I could see myself playing Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord for hours without tiring. Gritting my teeth as I face off with superior players in deadly combat time and time again.
Despite the amazing state the game is clearly in though, TaleWorlds still feels it has a long way to go before its ready. They aren’t even teasing a release date. So we’ll all have to sit on our hands and bide our time until the day comes that they feel it’s ready.
If you want to see more of the combat in action, be sure to check out our interview with Frank Elliott here.