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The Mount & Blade series has been one of the biggest indie successes in recent years. It first took hold on my hard drive as an unfinished curiosity and developer TaleWorlds rewarded early adopters with free updates. The money they raised from the open beta allowed them to finish the game and it took off and spread thanks to word of mouth. The follow up, subtitled Warband, added multiplayer into the mix and now With Fire and Sword brings firearms to the table.
For anyone who hasn’t played Mount & Blade before it is a strangely compelling real time RPG with plenty of combat. It’s not pretty or polished but the sword fighting mechanics and the horse riding, combined with a medieval style setting, are a big attraction. There’s also classic RPG levelling up, party building and loot collection to keep you hooked. The final strength, which can also be a weakness, is the fact that the game is completely open -- it is a true sandbox in which you carve your own path and create your own story.
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With Fire and Sword was born out of a successful mod and is based on a novel set in 17th century Eastern Europe. The move to a genuine historical setting is something that many fans have been waiting for, although it is far from painstakingly accurate. You find yourself as a lone adventurer amidst a battle for supremacy between five nations -- Polish Republic, Muscovite Tsardom, Crimean Khanate, Kingdom of Sweden and Cossack Hetmanate. It is an odd mixture that’s also reflected in the bizarre costumes and troop types you’ll encounter.
Sadly the game engine is not new, the maps don’t look any different and neither do the animations. If you’ve played previous Mount & Blade releases then you’ll know exactly what to expect. There are some new styles in the architecture and new weapons and outfits, but beneath the veneer this feels very familiar. Obviously the big new thing is guns and explosives.
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Does M&B Need Firearms?
I’m just going to come straight out with it. I think Mount & Blade needed guns about as much as it needed a hole in the head and that’s exactly what you’ll get if you try and play the game the old way. Guns are wildly inaccurate and incredibly slow to load but they’re seriously deadly. You can forget about circling a group of fifty enemies on your horse and gradually reducing them to a pile of corpses. Even with great armour those guns are going to cut you down fast. Battles are now filled with the sound of musket shots and puffs of smoke fill the air. You have to be cautious and use your men wisely to win against greater numbers and multiplayer is more deadly than ever.
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What Else is New?
There are other additions to the game such as grenades and destructible walls which add some variation to sieges. There’s also a new multiplayer mode that allows you to command a small group of men in combat. The new set up makes for more interesting tactical battles and you’ll definitely want to engage your brain a bit more instead of relying on brute strength and combat skill to see you through.
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The big disappointment here is the single player game. Riding between kingdoms, picking battles here and there, building an army from a rabble of peasants into a well-oiled fighting machine and gaining fame and glory in jousting tournaments made the previous M&B incarnations hugely enjoyable. The more modern styling doesn’t work as well and beyond that there are a number of changes which make the early single player game into a series of boring chores. The tournaments and arena battles are gone. Your only option is to start bar brawls which aren’t much fun. You can’t recruit from villages anymore so you have to hire mercenaries from taverns or free them from captivity after battles. In effect you are forced to complete a number of quests, most of which are unchanged grunt work from the earlier games, before the action really gets fun. There is very little new content in terms of quests.
There is a conscious effort to create more of a storyline and, as you win the respect of a faction and embark on your rise up the ranks, there is a more involved narrative rather than a random series of quests. The cost is a reduced sense of freedom about how to carve your rise to power. The story unfolds via text and some of the stories and background history is quite good, some of it is rather dull and there are awkward inclusions and even the odd typo. The same goes for the characters, there are well rounded and interesting people and there are thinly outlined cardboard cut-outs. There’s even a bit of humour in the shape of Tepes, a descendant of Dracula that you’ll encounter lurking in one of the taverns, though I don’t recommend you recruit him unless you want a mutiny on your hands.
You can now equip your armies exactly as you like (provided you have the cash) and so you can build a special customized force. This will be a major plus point for many players but you’ll need to build a decent fortune before you can really get the force you want. There are also more choices when developing villages and towns and more economic options but this side of the game has always been weak and the improvements don’t go far enough to really transform it.
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To Buy or Not to Buy
Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword has its highs and lows. As a single player experience it really suffers from a slow and boring early game and, while there are a few new elements, veterans of the original aren’t going to be blown away. Since it doesn’t hang together as well as the earlier releases it seems unlikely that newcomers will be impressed either (better to start with M&B: Warband). On the other hand, the multiplayer experience is much more interesting than Warband. You’ve never experienced anything quite like the chaos of these battlefields.
In the end let’s remember that this is being offered for just $15 and it undoubtedly more than justifies that price tag. Hopefully a more major overhaul and a return to the sword, bow and lance focus is on the way but until then this will keep you occupied.
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All references screenshots from Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword for the PC.