Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword Review

When I think RPG, the first thing that springs to mind is spellcasting. Dragons, elves, comically oversized weapons and armor — they’re all par for the course. Over the past ten years, fantasy has just become less… fantastic.

So it’s more than a little ironic that a game depicting a historically accurate 17th century is more unique than the dozens of titles that sprinkle their fictional worlds with magic fairy dust.

With Fire & Sword, which I had the opportunity to preview before release, is the second standalone expansion to the action RPG, Mount & Blade. Players take on the role of a mercenary that works his way up from humble beginnings to become a fearsome warlord renown throughout the land.

The game’s plot is based on the historical novel With Fire and Sword, written by Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz and published in 1884 — it’s fair to assume the game’s indie developer didn’t buy the rights to the novel; it must fall under public domain. The game revolves around five factions vying for control of Eastern Europe: the Crimean Khanate, the Kingdom of Sweden, the Cossack Hetmanate, the Polish Republic, and the Muscovite Tsardom.


Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword (XBox360 [Reviewed], PS3, PC)
Developer: Taleworlds
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release Date: May 03, 2011
MSRP: $49.99

Grounding this expansion in a historical setting is a welcome departure from the fictional world created in the original — if there are no fantasy elements, there’s no need to jumble letters together to generate city names. Conquering Moscow is much more satisfying than conquering Imaginaria.

But the first step in your journey to conquering Eastern Europe is character creation. An impressive — if not overwhelming — array of appearance customizations allows you to generate any number of ugly renaissance men. The wealth of customization options is appreciated; don’t get me wrong — I suppose I just didn’t realize how badly a lack of proper hygiene and grooming ravaged the face. And when I said renaissance men, I meant just that — men. You cannot create a female character in the singleplayer campaign, which I would presume is for historical accuracy and not downright sexism if not for a certain Saint named Joan of Arc.

Hideous male character created, you move on to allotting points into abilities like strength and intelligence, as well as weapon proficiencies and general skills. Once again, With Fire & Sword doesn’t skimp on the customization. Your character can specialize in trade, diplomacy, archery, or any combination of a couple dozen fields. A new player can be easily intimidated by the sheer number of choices to make, and no direction is provided regarding how players should be spreading out their points. The issue is compounded by the clunky user interface, which will continue to rear its ugly head throughout the game. Improvements to the menu’s visuals have been made since the preview, but patchwork won’t suffice — a complete overhaul is in order.

After crossing your fingers in the hopes that your character doesn’t turn out underpowered, you load into the game world and play through a tutorial that explains the combat mechanics — but little else. With the tutorial completed, you are tossed into the world, with only a hint at where to go for your first quest. How many soldiers should I buy? What army size can I safely face in battle? How far from this area should I travel? I had to remake a new character a couple times and listen to some advice from Mount & Blade veterans before I realized how I “should” be playing the game.

Once you’ve trialed and erred your way into getting the hang of the game, you have the option of following the plotline quests and eventually allying yourself with one of the five factions, or you can flip the plot the finger and have fun raiding, pillaging, and trading sandbox-style. The plot doesn’t impose itself on you, thankfully, because reading the text-heavy conversation menus becomes tedious — I hope full voice acting will be included in any future iteration of Mount & Blade. The game’s sandbox nature alleviates this tedium, however, allowing you to progress through the storyline at your own pace.

While this freeform play style is one of Mount & Blade’s greatest strengths, allowing you to decide what activities you do and do not wish to partake in, ultimately, you are shoehorned into trading goods or embarking on insipid delivery quests if you wish to earn money at a reasonable rate. I hoped that combat alone could earn me the funds I needed to raise an army, but when a single trade run grossed more money than an entire evening of battles, I realized I’d have to bite the bullet.

Which brings us to the biggest innovation of this second expansion: the titular “fire.” Gunpowder weapons make their debut, from flintlock pistols and muskets to early grenades. Though certainly a strong selling point, whether firearms actually add to the game or not is up for debate. They most definitely change combat, making it more tactical and less heroic. Valiantly charging ahead of your army on your trusty steed becomes a death sentence once you’re up against a firing squad.

Guns also introduce a powerful random element to combat — a single bullet can kill you, but their aim is remarkably inaccurate at distances beyond ten feet. Battles become a game of Russian–err, Muscovite Roulette anytime large numbers of musketeers are involved.

In the hands of a player, guns seem to be a suboptimal choice. Combine their awful aim with their reload time of 5-6 seconds and you’ll only be able to take down a single soldier from an advancing army before it’s upon you. Arm a couple dozen of your troops with muskets and these boomsticks begin to shine; otherwise, the trusty bow should is the skilled player’s ranged weapon of choice.

Though arrows deal less damage than bullets, bows are more accurate, fire at machine-gun rates relative to muskets, and once enough skill points have been sunk into specializing in archery, they become once-shot killers like their gunpowder counterparts.

While it’s difficult enough to hit a stationary target with a gun, it’s monumentally more difficult to hit a target jumping and shuffling left and right while compensating for lag and firing at a rate of one bullet per six seconds. But that doesn’t detract from the fun of With Fire & Sword’s multiplayer modes in the slightest — in fact, it helps reduce the frustrating one-shot deaths.

In multiplayer, each match is its own self-contained entity. Your character doesn’t level up, but as you gain kills, you earn money, which you can spend on better weapons, armor, horses, or, if applicable, troops. The Captain Team Deathmatch mode puts each player in charge of a small squad of soldiers, presenting the following strategic decision: do you upgrade your soldiers, or your own equipment?

If you’ve read other Mount & Blade reviews, you may be wondering why I haven’t harped on the graphics yet. Yes, the graphics engine is dated, and the characters don’t have as many polygons as we expect in 2011. But the game isn’t ugly – on the contrary, the distinct architecture and equipment of the various factions provide visual flair. As an added boon, the lower poly count means my computer can run massive 200 versus 200 army battles on the highest graphical settings without breaking a sweat.

When the dust kicked up by charging steeds settles, With Fire & Sword is an engaging and addictive game — just like its predecessors. Mount & Blade veterans may find With Fire & Sword offers little in the way of innovation, and may in fact be a step backward from the series’ first expansion, Warband, as it lacks certain features introduced therein. Gunpowder is the main new feature of With Fire & Sword, but free mods for Warband have offered boomsticks long before With Fire & Sword hit shelves.

While With Fire & Sword may not be worthwhile for Warband veterans, this standalone sequel will hook new players who don’t know what they’re missing.

Pros:

  • Engaging sandbox gameplay
  • Strong multiplayer options
  • Massive battles possible through a polished combat system
  • Original historical setting

Cons:

  • Clumsy User Interface
  • Not “newbie friendly”
  • The addition of guns is of questionable merit
  • Plot fails to engage

 

Score: 80/100

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