Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword Review
I won't blame you if you've gotten this far without having heard of Mount & Blade. It's like the independent game for those sick of "mainstream" independent games, and while the franchise has been around for years, its simplistic graphics and unguided sandbox style of play make it one of the more hardcore PC games around. The Warband stand-alone expansion added multiplayer modes along with an enhanced campaign with plenty of new features, allowing players to be a brigand, a lone badass stalking the medieval countryside, or the king of a nation, guiding hundreds of his soldiers at a time into huge battles.
And so it is with the newest game, Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword, which is TaleWorlds' attempt to turn one of the best user-made mods from the original Mount & Blade into a stand-alone game. But they didn't just grab the mod, shoehorn it into the first game, and slap a $15 price tag on the box; instead, they've brought in a lot of the features from Warband - the biggest being multiplayer modes - and fleshed out the experience a little better to at least somewhat match the Warband experience.
Unfortunately, they didn't do much to make the game more accessible. Do remember that Mount & Blade is made primarily for hardcore European players, and if games like the Gothic series or even something like STALKER have taught us anything, it's that European developers make difficult, often mildly unpolished games with a wealth of wonderful gameplay, charm, and depth hiding just beneath the surface. That's no exception here, because With Fire and Sword's historical basis and new features do a lot to bring players in, but this is also the toughest Mount & Blade we've seen yet.
The game is actually based on a 130-year-old Polish novel called (you guessed it) With Fire and Sword, with 17th century Eastern European nations from Sweden down to the Ottoman Empire warring against each other in a sort of "based on a true story"-type format. There's a major strategic element to the game in your movements of hundreds of troops on a real-time (but pause-able) map, and tactics become vitally important when you join a battle, commanding your troops while you fight simultaneously.
Along with a generous range of melee weapons, mounted combat, and bows, you'll also find that crossbows have been replaced with an extremely deadly new type of weapon: firearms. Now, rifles, pistols, and muskets grace the battlefield, turning every ranged fight into a slow-paced, but very deadly dance. You fire, he fires. You reload, he reloads. All the while, you're trying to reposition yourself so that his shot misses and yours hits. And if you find yourself staring down the barrels of a half a dozen guns or more, then you might as well kiss your ass goodbye, because no 17th-century armor stands up terribly well against a round from a musket.
In the campaign, you start out just like you do in other Mount & Blade games: alone, with a weapon and a horse, holding a neutral reputation with every nation. You'll take on quests to root out and kill bandits and looters from the countryside, and use the spoils you've gained to buy new equipment and slowly build an army. (Or you can skip the army and just travel alone or with a few trusted companions that have skills like your character does.) At some point, you'll be pulled into the conflicts between nations, and once you've captured a few cities of your own and gotten caught up in a war or two, that's when things really start to get interesting
Combat takes place just as we've seen it before, with battlefields and terrain greatly affecting your tactics and use of troops, and huge hundreds-plus melees rage on between opposing armies. Your part in these battles is vital, and you'll need to choose your weapons carefully and build those skills through the tried and true Mount & Blade RPG systems of advancement. Guns do massive damage but they're a little inaccurate and they take a while to reload, while bows offer accuracy and a better firing rate but often take two or three hits to kill someone. And if you want to stay away from unleashing ranged damage, you can swing melee weapons all day. That said, if you're going to go medieval and just swing a big, ugly weapon, you'll at least still need some guys with firearms to back you up, because almost every force above the basic squad of brigands is going to be taking potshots at you from a distance.
Much like with past Mount & Blade games, battles are often against dizzying odds and there are some fights you simply can't win, no matter how hard you try - but here, it sure feels like those times start much earlier than in past games. It can be very frustrating, but it is possible to get past the difficulty curve and build an effective army, one that you've trained with your heroes and then carefully equipped through the new Mercenary Camp feature. It's unlikely that many gamers will get to that point, though, as this is an absolutely brutal game - even on the easiest difficulty - but it is satisfying if you can get there. What I'm not so sure about is whether the addition of firearms actually makes Mount & Blade's brand of combat better. It's possible that the effort on this might have been better spent going into some kind of next-gen sequel, but at least we know that TaleWorlds is also quietly working on something new that they haven't announced - we can only hope that they've got something big coming.
Multiplayer in With Fire and Sword is definitely a blast to play, though, and the 16-player matches you can get into are unlike anything you've played from another developer. The clashing of steel is chaotic and wild, and skilled players quickly find themselves at the top of the score list with dozens of impressive kills. That being said, there's little in the way of persistent rewards for playing online, so if you're going to play this for more than a day or two, you'll need to do it just for the sheer joy of killing other players online.
As someone who spent dozens of hours in the first two Mount & Blade games' campaigns, I had high hopes for this new stand-alone game, but I'm torn. While the starting price of $15 is lower than Warband's was when it was released, you can now find the latter for less than ten bucks. With Fire and Sword adds difficulty without an equal level of satisfaction for winning, and the inclusion of firearms makes the results on the battlefield feel much more random than we've gotten in the past games in the series. If you're looking for a new multiplayer experience unlike any you've played, this is a good place to start, but if you want a complete, exciting, and altogether more "winnable" campaign, you might be better off sticking with Warband.