Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword – Review
Loading up With Fire and Sword for the first time is quite a daunting experience; within just a few seconds of starting you find yourself staring at a rather intimidating on screen display, which can only be described as an encyclopaedic style list of potential stats to increase. Make no mistake that is very much a hardcore game, with no space for the weak and impatient; it’s going to abuse you as and when it pleases.
With Fire and Sword is a standalone expansion to the Mount & Blade series that allows you to conquer whomever you wish, ally with those you deem worthy and only venture on quests that are really worthwhile to you and, set in an open sandbox world, you’re given a plethora of choice and, as such, how you go about playing is entirely up to you.
The game starts out in much the same way as any other, with the obligatory tutorial level, but upon its completion is when things really open up, and quite literally too. There is no faffing around here; it’s literally a case of “right, you’ve done the tutorial – now go play in the real world”. Having the full game map open to you from the very outset is not only really refreshing, but rather daunting at the same time and, for the first time in so long, I was left thinking “so, what now?”
Traversing the world map is akin to running along a tabletop Risk game and, subsequently, it’s the amount of life on show within the world that makes you step back and admire it all. Battalions of troops march from one end of Europe to the next while groups of bandits and deserters ride around looking for easy pickings and trade caravans drudge their way from town to town with their goods. As a consequence, all this is happening with no bearing from yourself; you’re just one piece of a very large puzzle and, suffice it to say, the world does not revolve around you.
Wars are being waged, towns burned to the ground and trade caravans pillaged, and you could pick sides to become part of it all or sit back and watch, waiting for the prime moment to strike as you build up your own forces in preparation for that joyous day on the battlefield.
Combat is a mechanic you’ll quite often find yourself immersed in and, on the whole, it’s one that the game does pretty well. Once you find yourself in a battle, the game switches from the top down view and slaps a camera behind you for some third or first person viewpoint action depending on your preference. Once you’re on the battlefield you experience that bit of excitement as your forces and the enemy alike run headstrong towards each other, culminating in a titanic clash in the middle of the field. It’s that feeling that so few other games manage to capture – these are large scale battles at their best and it’s bloody brilliant.
For me though, the greatest part of combat was down to the ability to fight while still on horseback, riding straight through enemy lines of riflemen mid-reload and dropping your sword either side of your horse, skewering anyone in your reach. Turning around, you equip your lance, ride directly into the, now scattering, enemy force with an effect I’ve affectionately coined as ‘kebabing’.
It can be insanely enjoyable and the somewhat accurate historical nature certainly does add to it, so if you’re trotting around with a rifle under your arm then you have to be aware of its reloading time as a partially loaded gun is no good to you when a battalion of enemy Cossacks is charging down on your position.
That’s perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the combat system: you’re continually having to be aware of your surroundings and adjust accordingly. There’s no wading in and holding down the attack button, spraying anything that moves; you have to think about who your next target will be and then act upon those thoughts before the scene of the battlefield changes and you’re left isolated with an angry swarm of Swedish Pikemen coming at you.
It’s not all about the clash of metal though, as nestled within the relative safety of a fortress is the ability to send out trade caravans yourself, allowing for the economically minded player to earn themselves some heavy coin in the process. In essence, the trade system is the best way to earn money especially when you’ve got a few good trade routes sussed out. Of course, you still have to deliver the caravan to its destination yourself which not only eats up valuable conquering time but also makes you a prime target for any would-be bandits that happen to stumble across your tracks. In the grand scale of things, it likely sounds rather dull but in reality it offers an extra layer of depth to the world and, as a result, the game is only better for it.
As a result of all the adventures you get up to, you soon find yourself gathering experience points and, once the greatest feeling in the world occurs: the level up, you’re free to spend a bunch of points increasing your stats as and how you please.
The various stats are broken down into three separate categories: Attributes, Skills and Proficiencies. Attributes cover the basics of strength, agility, intellect and charisma, while Skills (which are far too many to list) range from the basic maximum health increase to faster travel while on the world map. Lastly, you have Proficiencies that take care of your weapon skills, allowing you to increase stats in specific types of weaponry depending on your play style. There is something for everyone, and no matter which way you prefer to set about your game you can bet that there will be a stat to cover it.
The depth of the character advancement options is so much so that it would be hard to find a dedicated RPG with as many possible choices, and you’d have to look towards the heavyweights of the genre such as The Elder Scrolls series to find one. To think that With Fire and Sword is part strategy and part RPG makes it even more special, and it’s something that should really appeal to the more dedicated RPG gamers out there if they don’t mind a bit of strategy thrown in.
Perhaps the biggest problem I had encountered was with the sheer randomness of it all. Granted, a random factor here and there can sometimes be a nice addition to a game often giving that extra sense of realism within the game world, but when that random factor is as high as it is within Fire and Sword the consequences are that, on occasion, it can quite literally leave you helpless with nothing but a rage quit as your only option.
On two occasions I found myself on the receiving end of the brutal randomness, the first occurring only a few seconds into the game where I was literally forced to surrender to a bunch of bandits who then seemingly had their way with me before carting me half way around the game world before I managed to escape. For a player but a few minutes into the game to be handed his arse in such a manner is nothing but sloppy game design. Some simple refinements to the ‘random engine’ would have made a vast improvement, at the very least there could have been some basic protection around your starting area to ensure you weren’t forced to restart your campaign numerous times before finally being able to take the three second walk to the first village that you’re directed to.
Rounding off the experience is a fairly robust multiplayer system with all the standard game modes present such as Deathmatch and its team variant, Siege, and of course the obligatory Capture the Flag. There’s something a bit special with a game when you’re able to join a server taking its player tally up over two hundred strong; this isn’t just multiplayer but mass online warfare we’re talking about.
The basic mechanics behind combat are still relevant during multiplayer with the only change being that you’re up against real people, something that makes combat inevitably harder, so prepare to have your arse firmly handed to you via Cossack blade. It’s the sheer scale of the battles that are really appealing and, unlike the AI in the single player (which can be a bit flaky at times), because you’re up against real people it makes it so much more exhilarating.
What I found particularly enjoyable was that your character’s progression throughout multiplayer is tracked and, as a result of earning money, you can then buy better armour and weaponry which, in turn, makes you a much more formidable foe. The crowning gem of the multiplayer aspect though, is that it doesn’t feel like it’s just been tacked on because it’s the cool thing to do; this is very much part of the game and one that not only adds to the overall enjoyment but completes the experience.Pros
- Very good combat system
- True open world gameplay
- World full of life
- Multiplayer that is great fun
- Dodgy AI at times
- Punishing and unforgiving difficulty
- Randomness can work against it
On one end of the spectrum With Fire and Sword is a staunch strategy/action hybrid, but the inclusion of a very detailed stat based character development system also means it has its toes dipping into the murky waters of hardcore RPG meaning there’s just enough for everything.
If you’re a fan of the previous Mount & Blade games or strategy titles in general then you may get some enjoyment out of this release, but for most gamers it’s going to be very hit and miss. That’s not to say it’s a bad game, but it’s one of those where, if you don’t have the correct mindset for it, it’s going to be a long, hard struggle. The game does have some issues but nothing that can’t be overcome with time and patience... a lot of patience.
The foundations for a pretty good game have been laid with only a bit of strengthening required to smooth out a few areas. The open natured element of the game has been done extremely well and you really do get a sense of openness from your very first steps onto the world map, so much so that you could play for days upon days and still not even start any of the main quest line.
It is, however, let down by a graphical setup that is clearly dated by today's standard but, if you can look past that, there are some excellent segments of gameplay that could eat up a lot of your time.
Consequently, With Fire and Sword is a game of patience and extreme challenge. You won’t get anywhere too fast and for just £9.99 you should get your money’s worth, but stick at it and that price point will seem like a bargain as you can literally lose yourself in this world.
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