This article was first published in PC PowerPlay issue 264 from July 2017
On the desolate steppes of PC gaming culture, the Mount & Blade series has garnered the sort of following that most devs can only dream of. Yet TaleWorlds founder Armağan Yavuz acknowledges that in spite of its cult appeal, Warband was far from perfect. “With Warband we had great success, a much higher level of success than we had ever imagined, when we were setting out. But it was still regarded as kind of a rough gem. There were a lot of interesting ideas in the game, but most of them we didn’t have the time and resources to polish very much.
“In Bannerlord, we want to do everything right. We want to create a game that is still true to the basic premise of Mount & Blade, which is letting you become an adventurer in a sandbox world. Giving you a lot of freedom, but also making sure that everything you do has effects on the game world, and is meaningful. Taking the old basic premise and making sure that everything is as polished as it could be.”
To that end, the graphics engine has had a complete overhaul. “For example, we use physically-based rendering now. Which allows us to have much better fidelity. The engine is generally more optimised, so we can show bigger battles, and it performs generally better. More beautiful scenery and larger battle maps.
“But the most important thing is that we are also using a much more advanced scripting system, using C#. And that allows us to model the world in much better detail. And have game behaviours that are much more exciting, deeper.” The combat AI in particular has seen a massive improvement; Armağan compared its layered approach to the structure of an onion. “At the very basic level we have individual soldier AI, which decides how to move around and when to attack and when to move back, etc. Even on that front, we have a lot of improvements. The actions your opponents are making are more fine-tuned, and they will be more challenging to fight one-on-one against.
“But I think the more interesting things maybe are about how also they cooperate together, and how they move together. We have more detailed battlefield tactics and AI, so you will see that for your enemies, as you come across more higher level armies, they move much more like you would expect from a big, big, big army. So for example, you will see that maybe they will be splitting their cavalry, and they will be doing various manoeuvres with their cavalry, and their archers will come forward to skirmish you and then pull back, so that we have a system where we can model more detailed battlefield tactics, better.
“In Warband we still had basic systems, but they were quite limited. In Bannerlord there will be a much greater variety.”
An army’s tactics in Bannerlord will also reflect the personality of the lord commanding it. “A reckless AI lord for example will be much more inclined to just straightforward attack you. Whereas a really cautious AI lord will be much more inclined to retreat from battle when things start to go awry. So it’s like you’ll also get a sense of the AI’s personality from the way battle progresses.”
Armağan noted that the modding community that sprung up around Mount & Blade: Warband was one of the most interesting aspects of the game – and one reason why it was so long-lived and successful. For modding in Bannerlord, his team is trying out some new ideas. “First of all, since our editor is much more powerful now, and also the scripting system is also C#, those things make the modding much more fun, and much more powerful. But also one important thing we’re trying to do is to make it such that different mods can co-exist. Players can install multiple mods and cherry-pick different mods together to make their ideal modding environment.”
While the engine, the AI, and the modding support are all more advanced, the time period of the game world is moving backwards. Warband’s fictitious setting was inspired by 13th and 14th century Eurasia, but Armağan saw he could unlock greater gameplay potential by turning back the clock.
“We decided that it would be very interesting in the new game to go backward a little bit, and have a game that models the medieval ages, around maybe the 10th or 11th century. So we decided to take away some of the higher end, or more recent armours and such, but also we started to introduce more archaic armours and weapons. And I think the choice of the time period is very interesting and makes a lot of sense. Because what we had in mind was that we were talking about this Calradian Empire that had fallen in Warband, and we decided to go back and think about what this Calradian empire could look like.”
Back in the time of Bannerlord, the Calradian Empire is still intact – but it’s going through a civil war. “It’s surrounded by various smaller kingdoms, that are precursors of Warband’s kingdoms. It has a parallel with the fall of the Roman Empire. And so we had a lot of inspiration from Roman architecture, and Roman military technology in coming up with how the empire would look. And we have I think a very nice contrast when it is compared to the outlying kingdoms whose architecture and military technology is much more medieval looking, and much more distinct.
“There’s a lot of siege technology, and battering rams. All of these can be used by the players as well as the AI. It will be possible to direct them. Or also it will be possible to just take control of them and use them against the enemy. We will try to model the military technology of the time as much as possible.”
One quibble players had with the endgame in Warband was that once your empire was overwhelmingly powerful, dispatching the last of your opposition became tiresome. This concern has not gone unnoticed. “We are working in a way such that it will be, let’s say, more structured in how you can defeat an enemy. What we want to achieve in Bannerlord is to make it such that there’s a kind of difficulty in defeating the enemy, but once you really really overcome that, and the enemy is really defeated, the way the economy works and the way mechanics work is that once an enemy has run out of resources and power, it’s much more difficult for them to put up a fight. So the grand phase of the late game is addressed by that.”
The new-and-improved AI will better direct the behaviour of enemy lords at the strategic level, too. “They will be able to understand that, for example, that you are really about to take over and defeat everyone, and so you can expect a much more determined defence from your enemies. Those improvements are going to make the endgame more interesting.”
There will be more varied role-playing options for the player, too. While amassing a vast army and crushing all opposition will be the default course of action, you’ll also be able to win with a much smaller party. “It will certainly be possible to play as something like a merchant, for example. Without necessarily being part of the political battle, in a sense.”
Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord was first announced in 2012, and in the half decade since fans have been champing at the bit. When discussing this interminable dev process, Armağan was surprisingly frank. “The game has been taking a lot of time, that’s for sure. You can rest assured that we are really, really working very hard to make sure that we can finish the game as soon as possible. The one reason of course it’s taking so much time is that we are still learning, and we are not perfect, and we can sometimes, maybe, make silly mistakes and so on. Another reason is that we are kind of perfectionists in our own way. We are not happy with half-baked solutions. So we sometimes have to do things over and over again until we have something that satisfies us.
“Whenever we go over a hurdle and we design something that is beautiful and works well, we feel that the time we spent on this is worth the effort. I hope that players, after the wait is over, will feel the same thing.”
But just how soon will players be able to try Bannerlord for themselves? Armağan told us that there’s a good chance that the game will be sold via early access, and that such a paid beta scheme could even launch this year. For more details, visit TaleWorlds.com.