Since the series’ debut in 2008, medieval sim franchise Mount & Blade has almost accumulated a cult status, known for its notorious initial learning curve and epic-scale real time battles. Last year saw the release of the Warband expansion, introducing a new faction and mechanics to the fictional realm of Calradia as well as a multiplayer component. Warband was well received, and despite the combat side of the game remaining almost completely identical to the original, it proved engaging enough to bury any complaints.[boxout]With Fire and Sword, despite its alternate themes and improved gameplay features, can be categorized a spin-off as opposed to a direct expansion or sequel, even. The 2011 update warps players from Taleworlds’ fictional kingdoms, thrusting them into the pages of an 1884 historical novel, depicting various military and political events in 17th century Eastern Europe. It goes without saying that the source material is alienating to both newcomers and returning fans of the series. One aspect of the latest instalment Taleworlds continued to promote was that the game would include a substantial plot. The original Mount & Blade lacked any sort of narration, and in hindsight that tradition should have been continued. If you aren’t partial to walls of text or fancy remembering the names of over 100 17th century European officers, you will likely lose the thread within the first ten minutes. The notion of combining the Mount & Blade formula with a rich element of story-telling is admirable, though it falls completely flat on its face in this spin-off.
It’s likely a clear-cut narrative will be the least of worries when venturing into Fire and Sword, anyway. Even as a Mount & Blade fanatic, I found myself stumped within minutes, despite having spent hours upon hours with the game’s complex mechanics.[drop2]Put simply, in Fire and Sword you assume the role of a soldier who possesses unmatched skills in leadership. Dropped right in the middle of a raging conflict between five well-established factions, players are given the freedom to do whatever they choose. The only two progressive options the game offers is to align yourself with one of the factions and swear an oath to their ruler, or establish yourself as a mercenary horde, though either way you will have to mass respect and a company of soldiers.
For the most part, you will be gazing down on your character and their army from an almost birdseye view on the world map. Across the vast expanse of land not only will you come across settlements such as villages, towns, camps, and even forts, but other wandering patrols and faction-aligned parties. When you originally set out, a company of around a dozen men will be immediately available.
Generally speaking, soldiers are disposable as they can be hired from the various mercenary camps or taverns at a rock-bottom price. If they are hewn down in battle, you simply hire more, though the most tactical players will invest in their troops. Equipping your men with improved armour and weaponry will enhance their performance and durability in combat. Morale is another key statistic to keep an eye on; keeping a healthy stock of food, completing quests and walking away from battles victorious will send high spirits amongst your ranks. Troops with very low morale have a tendency to scarper if left unwatched.
If you want to serve under one of the game’s five factions (Russia, Ukraine, Sweden, Poland, and Crimea), you will first have to build a rapport by seeking out their enemies and aiding their generals in battle. In time, the faction ruler will call for your services, at which time the player is able to swear allegiance. Becoming a vassal of a kingdom will determine your relationships with the four other factions, and you will also be called upon to join military campaigns by your marshal.
It may sound simple written in a review, but the moment you step foot in Fire and Sword you won’t have a clue what to do. Tutorials are sparse, and there no pointers or guides as to where to go or what to do which can form a solid barrier to entry for newcomers and MB veterans alike. You will continually find yourself switching between the game and forums/wikis for directions and advise. It was acceptable in the original Mount & Blade, but several years down the line, one would have expected the issue to be addressed.
When in battle, or upon visiting a settlement, the game switches to a third person perspective, granting you full control of your character. As mentioned before, despite how much Mount & Blade sounds like an RTS, all combat sequences can be played out in real-time. The number of troops on either side of the battle will depend on the size of both forces as well as the “max troops” count which can modified in the options menu to make skirmishes a little more digestible. There can only be two sides to each battle, one army positioned at one end of the enclosed battlefield with the other situated opposite. An invisible perimeter surrounds the conflict and can be crossed in order to retreat.
Any troops present who are under your control can be directed with a number of movement and formation orders. For instance, you can command your marksmen to hold position whilst you wheel infantry and cavalry units around to perform a pincer attack. Though a little finicky to begin with, you will soon become versed in battlefield tactics. Instead of dropping you into the boots of one of your soldiers, you will actually take the helm as your customised general. Using a tight-knit set of controls, you are able to switch between weapons, equip shields, block, pick up items, mount and dismount horses, as well as attack with both ranged and melee weapons. Though your character will be able to use any of the various weapon types, it’s best to train using a specific few. Delivering successful attacks will increase weapon proficiency which can also be enhanced by simply levelling up. Damage is usually pre-set (indicated by weapon stats in the inventory screen) though speed will also have a part to play. A well-timed jab with a lance from horseback can inflict catastrophic damage, capable of downing even the most well-armoured foes, likewise if a pikeman manages to barb a speeding mount or rider.
Even more lethal than speed-driven attacks is the introduction of firearms. For the last few years Mount & Blade players have been limited to bows and crossbows as well as thrown weapons for ranged attacks, whereas in Fire and Sword pistols and rifles are just as common. A well-placed volley of shots from powder weapons is more than enough to wipe out an entire oncoming warband, though these new weapons are balanced with painfully long reload times. With that said, their inclusion will change the way you play as you command your troops to diligently weave into ranks of marksmen instead of risking a full-scale charge.
Fire and Sword also carries a multiplayer component, employing the same combat mechanics between two bands of player-controlled soldiers. With a limited number of game modes and the absence of any sort of progression/rank system, players will find little incentive to spend hours in this section of game, especially if you happen to be new to the MB experience.
The Mount & Blade series has never prided itself on presentational quality. Nearly any PC and the majority of mid-spec laptops can run Fire and Sword without a hitch, though there are numerous options which can enhance the game to its full potential (increased number of troops on screen, model quality, shadows/reflections etc…). Audio is also somewhat of an oversight too. The original (and rather impressive) soundtrack makes a return with several new tunes, though committed players are more than likely to employ their own custom soundtracks.
- Real-time combat is still as heart-pounding as ever.
- Firearms add a perilous twist, which some fans will welcome.
- AI has been improved as well as battle structure.
- Even more customisation, for both troops and characters.
- Could takes days if not weeks to finish, plenty of value for money.
- Visuals have seen a noticeable boost.
- Story needs to amount to more than walls of text.
- New setting fails to make up for lack of innovation and fans will actually miss the realm of Calradia.
- Multiplayer is succinct, though lacks any form of incentives/progression.
- The in-game world is far too barren and lacks diversity.
- The learning curve for new players is punishing, even at its best.
- The quest system is in dire need of reform.
Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword is by no means a poor showing; what’s great about the series has been enhanced and remains at the centre of the experience. However, it feels as if Taleworlds has tried so hard to incorporate the novel-inspired setting that the developer has forgotten to include any worthwhile innovative mechanics or to make the game accessible for its players. Though existing fans may find the inclusion of firearms a substantial enough reason to jump ship, any newcomers wanting to find out what made the series such a huge hit are better off buying Mount & Blade or indeed, Warband.