IGN Review of Mount and Blade: With Fire and Sword
If I had to sum up Taleworld's original Mount & Blade, I would call it the ugliest game you need to play. It was a strange blend of real-time strategy, economic simulation, role-playing and first-person action that, although aesthetically nothing special, offered a uniquely addictive and challenging kind of fun. You were tasked with rising through the ranks of fictional aristocracies through cleverly trading goods, doing favors and, most importantly, murdering thousands of peasants, bandits and soldiers on the battlefields.
Around this time last year, Taleworlds released a standalone expansion called Mount & Blade: Warband, which added a couple new factions and a multiplayer mode to the game, and now the company has released another standalone expansion, Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword. With Fire & Sword is based on a polish historical-fiction novel of the same name, and for the first time in the history of Mount & Blade, Taleworlds has attempted to weave a sort of structured storyline into the game.
The adventure begins with an encounter in a small town between some noblemen and a group of bandits. You lend a hand in beating back the bandits, learning the basics of both swordplay and the newly-introduced guns. Then you're taught the basics of riding a horse and told that it might be a good idea to help the local village. After completing a couple simple tasks for them the trail of breadcrumbs disappears, and you're left in the middle of a world that vaguely resembles renaissance-era Northern Europe. Beyond the basics of combat, nothing in Fire & Sword is explained to you and only a vague goal -- to become a great leader -- is suggested.
Strangely, for the dedicated, this serves only to encourage you to become enveloped in the Mount & Blade world. It's a complex and ever-changing world, too. As you are gathering your small army and trading wool between cities, Polish Warlords are capturing Swedish territory, and bandits and deserters roam the world trying to eke out a profit. This can make the learning curve incredibly steep. There's nothing preventing you from being chased down by a pack of a dozen bandits in your first few minutes in the open world and having your only weapons taken away, making the up-hill journey almost vertical.
Even if you start off smoothly, progress in With Fire & Sword is slow. There are two numbers tied to your character that need to be raised before you can make any headway in Mount & Blade; your level (which is raised by gaining experience through combat and completing tasks for the various people in the game), and your renown. With every level you gain a point to spend on one of your four primary attributes, a point to spend on one of more than a dozen skills, and some weapon points to spend on weapon types (two-handed, firearms etc). Renown mostly determines how many people you can have in your army, but is also used to determine whether or not you can join a faction. Renown is gained only through winning large-scale battles where your character is still conscious. You get no renown for a massive battle if you're knocked out at any point during it, even if you ultimately win in a landslide.
is where Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword's biggest flaw rears its ugly, black-powder-filled head. The firearms added into the game are painfully realistic for the era -- they aim poorly and load excruciatingly slowly. That's kind of neat in a sense, because it makes guns viable only in special situations. They're also the equivalent of a tiny cannonball launcher, and if you hit someone in the head or face it's generally considered a one-hit kill. This includes when you are hit, and there are times when sheer bad luck results in you being knocked out of a battle by a stray enemy bullet before you even get close to the action (thus ensuring you get no renown). In fact, getting knocked out during fights happens a lot because of guns, which makes gaining renown prohibitively difficult until you buy excellent armor or level up specifically to get a lot of health, and you're not likely to get either of those without a good army, which you can't get until you get some renown. See the problem here?
There are also a lot of bugs. During many of my fights, the skybox wouldn't load, leading to a trippy, probably seizure-inducing graphical delay-effect where the sky should have been. While besieging a castle with my army, I got caught in a bug where all my troops had been defeated, the opponent had hundreds left, and I couldn't leave the "order your troops to attack without you" screen. When I tried to command my zero troops to attack, I got an error message that included the phrase "Divide zero" which is never good.
Even with the frustrations of bugs and firearms, With Fire & Sword's gameplay is so rich that I found myself whiling many, many hours away, slowly but surely climbing the hierarchal ladder of the Swedish aristocracy I swore myself to. I traded spices between nations to make sure I had the funds and the food to keep a strong, happy army, and I followed my leader, King Carl Gustaf, wherever he led me. But all the while I planned to overthrow him once I was sufficiently powerful. That's the beauty of the Mount & Blade format -- it's flexible enough, even with the added story elements of With Fire & Sword, that you can create and execute your own long-term strategies. Even in moments when the story elements kicked in, I was given the option to follow instructions, directly go against them, or ignore them indefinitely.
On top of the extensive single-player campaign is a multiplayer mode, with standard death-matches, team capture-the-flag, and other familiar game modes. It plays like a first-person-shooter underwater, with horses and spears thrown in as extras. Although the deliberate pace of multiplayer is certainly an acquired taste and takes a lot of practice to get decent at, the Mount & Blade multiplayer offers something that can't really be found anywhere else.