Mount and Blade erupted out of nowhere in 2008 and began an impressive, horse-powered rampage through the PC indie scene.   Despite it’s jagged aesthetic and murky depths, the rags-to-riches tale of lonely street urchins growing into kingdom crushing warlords garnered Talewords a rabid, dedicated following.  The expando-sequel, Warband, released last year, added further depth to the core game, as well as a full fledged multi-player – turning a rugged jewel into a masterpiece of biblical proportions.

With Fire and Sword is something of an experiment for Talewords. While the core game has changed very little, a radically different era, as well as minute yet decisive changes to some important mechanics, have radically rewritten the rules of the M&B campaign.  I’ve got my grubby, rugged hands on the trial version, and from what I’ve seen, Fire and Sword will likely be just as divisive, and successful, as its predecessor.

Now, I’m a seasoned M&B player – I’ve crushed countless empires, besieged many a castle, and charged down more brigands than I can sanely recount – so I jumped right into the campaign. The clock has turned forward since ye olde dark ages, gone are the knights in shining armour, their crumbly castles and glistening lances.  It’s the 17th century now, and you’ve been plunged into the depths an imminent civil war in Eastern Europe.   Where once you had squires and lords, now you have musketeers and counts – and guns.

The advent of firepower radically reshapes your typical battle.  Even in a fancy suit of armour, trotting around your enemies in endless circles like the worst act at the three legged equestrian world championships isn’t enough to guarantee victory in these battlefields. A single stray bullet can end your pathetic life, knocking you off your horse and leaving you lifeless in the Polish highlands.  This adds a deadly tactical edge to any skirmish, where any mistake can cost you victory. The outcome of every battle is constantly in the balance, but they are all the more epic for it.  Entire ranks of musketeers will fire barrage after barrage, obscuring the battlefield in clouds of smoke and death.  Cavalry charges, once all but indomitable, can be all but stopped in their tracks by a well placed wall of fiery doom.  While most basic M&B strategies will still function, With Fire and Sword’s battlefields are still far, far deadlier places than their medieval counterparts.

Even the campaign has been permeated by this fatalistic, precarious philosophy. Where M&B Calradia’s was an utterly insane, war ravaged wasteland, some alternate, twilight version of medieval Europe, Fire and Sword is firmly grounded in reality.   You’ll no longer be able to pick up militia-men from every village you pass through like over-ripe strawberries, mercenaries are the order of the day in this era, and my road to glory seemed both harder and longer than in the previous M&B opus.  Factions are more reluctant to allow you into their fold, meaning you’ll spend far longer indulging the menial demands of local mayors and local lords before you can affiliate yourself to any of the powers of the land.

Thankfully, these petty quests aren’t all the drudge-worthy, mind-dumming fedex demands that seemed omnipresent in Warband - althout they still exist – but more often than not, you’ll find yourself hunting bandits, fulfilling ransoms, and recovering lost maidens.  There aren’t anymore tournaments to farm, so your worldwide quest for winnings is a thing of the past: the result is a world that feels far more alive and heavily grounded in history.

Even in my short campaign, I crossed blades with a secret order, met a man who’d been beaten in a duel by the mighty D’Artagan, attempted to depose a prince for Cardinal Mazarin and enlisted a slave-turned bodyguard into my ragged company of mercenaries. While Warband told an epic tale, if you searched for it hard enough, here every character and faction is alive with history and lore.

There are other small, but effective changes to the gameplay. Trade has been overhauled – you can now send caravans from city to city to do you trading for you – and sieges apparently now allow you far more player choice in how exactly you wish to attack.  The result is a Mount & Blade experience that is both completely familiar, and profoundly alien.  But like a drunken ex-girlfriend, behind that veneer of welcoming warmth lies a layer of deathly treachery.  Frankly, I can’t wait to get my grubby paws on the full game and start tearing a bloody path through the fields of Europe.