The Mount & Blade games have crafted themselves a nice tiny niche. The grand scope of TeleWords to combine Total War’s global strategic conquering with the vast openness of a free-roaming Role Playing Game hasn’t always been successful, but has developed a series unique enough for it to rise above it’s shortcomings. Previous outings favoured the Medieval landscape of Calradia, a ‘made-up’ land consisting of several nations each fighting one another for territory. Subsequently, wars were fought face to face, with swords and pole-arms taking the brunt of an attack while arrows rained down from a distance. Battles were up close and personal.
The difference between the last M&B stand alone expansion, ‘Warband’, and this latest offering, ‘With Fire & Sword’, is a good few hundred years. Calradia has been ditched and replaced with the more real world Eastern Europe at the height of the 17th century. A leaning towards historical accuracy means that the nations fighting here are representative of the actual nations from that era, with each favouring a new method to wage long and bloody war. Firearms.
Guns are at the forefront of this latest expansion. Such is the extent to which they have been proliferated, that seldom does any battle go by without you being on the receiving end of a volley of musket fire. Consequently, the way in which wars are waged has changed drastically. Guns can vary from pistols, to short ranged carbines and the long ranged muskets. Early makeshift grenades also make an appearance but tend to come at a huge cost. Hectic, close melee fights still occur, but this time the emphasis is put on the long ranged weapons and how much death they can cause before the bulk of the sword carrying infantry can get close enough.
While perhaps down to personal preference, there’s a part of me that doesn’t quite see the change in focus in the way combat works as a good thing. M&B succeeded in making you feel like being a part of the battle, heroically charging head first into a formation of advancing enemy troops as you sliced left and right on the safety of your horse. Here, it’s a little difficult to make such gutsy moves. Guns may be burdened by some wild accuracy issues and re-loading times that are achingly slow, but their range and stopping power can decimate ranks of soldiers with relative ease. It’s difficult to rally your men into a successful charge when just one bullet can dismount you from your horse and end the battle before it’s even begun.
Conversely, it’s difficult to hate the new weapons either. The fact that they have realistic bullet trajectories means that there’s a certain level of skill required to master them, and with such huge gaps in time when re-loading a gun, simply waiting between shots can be perilous and nerve racking. Mustering a line of musket equipped troops to fend off an advancing group of enemy soldiers carries it’s own rewards too, allowing for far more interesting siege battles where you need ranged superiority.
The general day-to-day gameplayremainslargely unchanged. Again you are thrust into a huge open world inhabited by five warring nations. With nothing but a horse, a weapon and some basic equipment, you venture onwards in an attempt to make a name for yourself. Initially this involves doing chores for villagers, mayors or even faction leaders which can range from clearing out gangs of bandits to the more mundane tasks of delivering letters. Once enough money has been acquired from these simple jobs, soldiers can be recruited and an army raised.
From there it’s left to you to decide what path to take. An honest life as a tradesman shipping goods from town to town, a loyal helper to one of the prominent nations or just a general pain the backside as a rogue, looting and pillaging villages for wealth. As ever M&B just lets you get on doing your own thing, never seeking to interfere and never punishing you for making bad decisions.
A few improvements help alleviate the burden of money management. Trade routes can now be set up automatically, assigned protection details and left to reap financial benefits while you gallivant across the country. A banking system also allows the storage of money that builds interest, ensuring that the need to pay soldiers their wages never becomes a headache. This frees up time to focus on more important matters such as the busy business of fighting wars, where monetary concerns can often trouble you when you really don’t need it.
But that’s about it. In actuality, Fire & Sword makes some noticeable omissions of features that appeared prominently in Warband. It’s all owed to the fact that before it became a stand alone expansion, F&S was once a mod, and that’s precisely what it feels like. There are no options to involve yourself in fighting tournaments as you could in Warband. Fun little side activities that allowed you to test your fighting skills and make a little cash. In it’s place are the less exciting and fairly uneventful one-on-one pub brawls, which become a chore to do far to quickly. The whole marriage aspect of Warband has been dropped completely, a feature that allowed for some political manoeuvring by getting yourself hitched to a particular nations family and strengthening your bonds with them.
But by far the biggest gripe is with the terrain itself. Calradia offered snow covered plains and vast deserts. It’s environments were varied and in keeping with the distinct style of each of the factions who lived in it. In comparison, Europe remains one large mass of green, a repetitive mix of the same flat terrain you’ll visit everywhere. Only the collection of fancy hats is enough to distinguish the five nations from each other, leaving the game with a lack of character that Warband had in spades.
Online, things fare better, which is curious to sayin an age where every online game must reward it’s players. Mount & Blade still strips multiplayer gaming back to the basics. There are no achievements, no killcams, no rewards or unlocks of any kind, and yet even without these trinkets dangling in front of you, online battles can still be hugely involving. A combination of the realism of how it’s period 17th century weaponry works together with huge player numbers (some servers support upwards and over 200 players) allows for some unique battles.
Sieges remain the most popular game mode, with two sides sitting in either roles of attackers and defenders and each fighting to control a flag contained within the castle or fort’s interior. It’s a mode that requires no short amount of skill, discipline and patients, yet on servers where player numbers reach over the 100 figure, the sense of being caught up in the ensuing carnage of a massive battle is unsurpassed by even the greatest online shooters. There are scant few improvements that have been made since Warband however, a few tweaks here and there wouldn’t have gone amiss, and a clearer system on how money works would make the equipment selection screen a little less baffling.
But that sums up Fire & Sword all over. It’s not a successor to the excellent Warband, but rather a continuation of the series that does a few things differently, though never quite enough. A new method of fighting may give returning Mount & Blade fans a few hours worth of enjoyment, but that nagging sense that Warband still remains the better game just never goes away. As a mod it has a lot to commend, but a stand alone expansion it just doesn’t quite justify it’s added cost.
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