If only it was as simple as saying Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword is the latest addition to the Mount & Blade franchise. Despite having TaleWorlds name on it, this particular game was actually developed by a separate company in the Ukraine, and it was originally made for the first Mount & Blade game but was only released in Eastern Europe. Now it's finally been given a western release using the newer engine and some additional improvements, but again, if only it was that simple.
Do you know what this game needs? Bayonets
Thankfully, With Fire and Sword does improve the overall formula somewhat - there are changes, additions, improvements... but we suspect a combination of its past and the effect some things like the new setting means that some of the improvements introduced in Warband are missing as well. For every step forward, there's also a step backward, and whilst it's not the end of the world, you are left with an experience that - whilst fun and familiar - is also tad dated.
The new historical setting is arguably it's greatest strength - unlike Warband which was little more than what the original game should have been, With Fire and Sword gives a brand new map based on 17th Century Poland (and some surrounding areas), new factions and even a new storyline to follow through. The game is based of two well known books in Europe - Alex Trubnikov's Black Hetman and Henryk Sienkiewicz's historical novel With Fire and Sword. The main 'story' within the game actually has multiple endings too, offering some replay ability, although since this game isn't really built for a core narrative, it can be a bit hard to 'find' sometimes.
Obviously, there's also the inclusion of Gunpowder as well, which is a major change to the game's combat. Much as firearms revolutionised warfare in real history, so has it revolutionised warfare within Mount & Blade. Armour becomes obsolete, troops don't last as long... it can be a bit of a shock, to begin with, but once you get used to it you find yourself adapting to it easily enough. The AI - whilst never being that smart - seems to cope with the new weapons well enough, and you even start seeing Napoleonic tactics emerge - firing lines, skirmishes etc... There also other additions to the combat engine, such as formations, although the command interface still needs to be improved.
It's mainly the little things that really give the game its charm. You can now create wagon forts to defend yourself if you're attacked on the road - which combined with firearms just make me think of the film Zulu and causes a mini fangasm. You can also customise the gear of troops you recruit from certain places, you can help specialise your companions, you can interact more with towns. There's new siege mechanics that make sieges more interesting and just lots of little things that make you go "oh, that's kinda neat".
One of the new maps. I don't think God can save you this time though...
But it's not all great, and if we're being honest, on the whole not a lot has changed. Outside of the new story-driven quests, you still find yourself carrying letters, collecting taxes, fetching debts or hunting down criminals. We've been doing these more standard quests ever since the first game, and to be honest it's getting a tad boring and repetitive. Granted, once you've got going and declared for a nation, it just becomes a matter of raiding and kicking butt wherever you can, but variety has never really been this games strong suit, and it's starting to lose its appeal somewhat.
That, and we're not a fan of some of the changes - recruitment for example. Instead of recruiting from villages or taverns, you now recruit from taverns, town garrisons and mercenary camps (which come with the customisation). However, - garrison recruits are limited, and mercenary camps are too expensive (and you're locked by region - so for example you can't recruit and improve one type of troop at a different camp). To be honest, we just ended up recruiting from the taverns and freed prisoners. They don't last as long, but are cheap and easy to replace.
At the time of writing, the polish of the game was still a little iffy as well, even with a patch. We've experienced random crashes, one tavern area was completely broken, and couple of other technical hiccups. Talking to TaleWorlds, it seems these problems might not be the same for everyone, as they couldn't replicate it themselves, but just so you're aware. We've seen what appear to be some basic design flaws: For example the 'assess local prices' ability quoting you for things the town/fortress in question doesn't actually sell, inconsistencies between what is actually a full town, and what isn't, and the new trade caravan feature doesn't seem to work properly.
With Fire and Sword does have the multiplayer mode that TaleWorlds introduced with Warband though, and it's still a great feature. Server population can range from anything from 48 up to 222 which we've witnessed. Along with the previous multiplayer maps and modes, there is an additional seven new maps, and a new mode called 'Captain' that has smaller teams on each side, but each player can control a squad of soldiers, much like you do in single player. The core experience is still pretty much the same, but the impact that firearms have has naturally bled into the online space as well. Except everyone is infinitely more skilled than you with a musket, so expect to die a lot.
We've always been impressed with the history of the Mount & Blade franchise, but that history can only carry them so far. With an established fan base, publisher support and a bigger studio, TaleWorlds are really going to need to step up their game from now on. As good as With Fire and Sword is, it's bit too much of an incremental update, so it's hard to make a value judgement for consumers. At the end of the day though, there's only a few key things you really need to know about it: It's cheap, It's fun to play, there are SOME differences, but a lot of it could easily just be modded into Warband.
He who lives by the sword... gets shot by those who don't
MOUNT & BLADE: WITH FIRE AND SWORD VERDICT
Mount and Blade: With Fire and Sword is as engaging, addictive and fun as the previous games. Unless you really don’t like firearms, it will appeal to fans of the series, and even newcomers might appreciate the improved degree of direction you’re given at the beginning. Had we not got this free for review purposes however, we’re not sure if we would have bought this title or not. Still, you could think of it as an investment in whatever TaleWorlds is going to be working on next - we think they deserve that much, at least.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Multiplayer is really fun still, and the new maps and modes are quite interesting.