Summary: Ever wondered what it would be like to be a soldier on the front lines of battle in medieval Europe? Since we still don't have time machines or flying cars to distract us from the fact that we still don't have time machines, here's the next best thing: the Mount & Blade series of action-RPGs. With Fire & Sword is the latest standalone expansion in this indie franchise, introducing primitive firearms, fully customizable armies, a much deeper simulated economy, and more. Find out whether or not it's worth playing in today's review!
As a bonus for FiringSquad's readers, Paradox Interactive was nice enough to provide a handful of codes redeemable for a free copy of Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword on Steam. So, if you want one, read through the article and tell us what about this game makes you interested in playing it. If you're a fan of previous M&B games, be sure to share your experiences with them and explain why you can't wait to try this new release. Five (5) lucky people who comment will receive a key in their email sometime this week.
Mount & Blade is one of my favorite indie games ever and is truly unique as a sandbox action RPG with real-time, large-scale battles. The first one was great, but standalone expansion Warband added so much more, including a fantastic, albeit laggy, multiplayer mode. Thereís actually some misconceptions about this latest release, With Fire & Sword, which I fell victim to, myself -- it is not a sequel or expansion created by TaleWorlds, the developer behind the first two games. Theyíve officially entered JoWood and Painkiller territory by drafting an ambitious modder and mildly polishing his work for commercial release. However, it hasnít changed much from its original form as a mod from the first Mount & Blade back in 2009. It was ported to the updated Warband engine (for better graphics) and translated to English, then sold as a brand new game to unsuspecting westerners. Needless to say, itís very rough around the edges, but I admit that Iíve still enjoyed playing it.
The biggest new feature in With Fire & Sword is definitely the addition of firearms. With its 14-century setting, gunpowder-based weaponry like muskets, matchlock pistols, and even rudimentary grenades make their way onto battlefields previously populated by swords, shields, bows, arrows, and the like. The result is a new and deadly dynamic for combat, as itís entirely possible to fell and be felled by a single bullet. New strategies emerge as you try to work around that fact, especially if youíre a melee character that must close in before engaging the enemy. Explosives are extremely expensive and difficult to master, but are powerful enough to wipe out scores of soldiers or even blow holes in castle walls. The latter is one aspect of the wider array of options available for laying siege to cities and fortresses, which are even more numerous in the landscape.
Thatís not the extent of new stuff included in With Fire & Sword, and I havenít even touched on the basic gameplay thatís been around since the original! Whether you choose to be an independent mercenary or a vassal of one of the five warring factions, you can have a hand in the conquering, destruction, or creation of empires. This is not a game of diplomacy; you must prove your worth on the battlefield and turn the tide of war from the front lines and forge your reputation as a fearsome commander. Soon all will know your name and the story of how you rose to power, so you have to make sure it is one you can be proud of. Fans of Mount & Blade and newcomers alike ought to be interested in learning more about this latest iteration of the series, so donít dilly-dally, turn the page and read on!
When most people hear ďaction RPG,Ē they think isometric, hack-Ďní-slash click-fests with skill bars like Diablo or Titan Quest, but M&B is different. You roll your avatar from a good old-fashioned character sheet, and then embark on an open-ended journey to conquer the world. How you go about it is up to you, as there are several options available. Do you join a faction and accept the [dis]advantages that go along with that, or do you stay in charge of your own destiny and carve a new empire out of the crowded land? You can even champion the cause of a banished heir and help them lead a rebellion from within the faction they should rightfully rule. Your first task, however, is to gain some experience in warfare and raise a private army of infantry, marksmen, and/or cavalry, which will require some serious thaler ($$$).
Much of the single-player game revolves around the campaign map, which is rather large and seen from an overhead, not-to-scale view. The worldís conflicts, economies, and politics carry on with or without you as the various factions wage endless war for one reason or another. You will see generals, warlords, and mercenaries with their big armies traveling to and fro, trade caravans and scouting parties scurrying about on their own business, not to mention the bandits and other outlaws lurking about and preying on the weak. Playing Mount & Blade takes some getting used to, since all of this can be somewhat overwhelming at first. To help alleviate that, the game defaults to being paused while youíre standing still, only coming to life when you are traveling or deliberately waiting.
There is some strategy involved with this, as you must be wary of all the individual parties, including your own, represented on the field by a person on foot or horseback. You have a limited field of view, but if you have the skill, you can see trails left behind by others, which you can use to track enemy positions or follow someone who is faster than you. Your movement speed is determined by the size of your party, number and quality of mounts, inventory encumbrance, and skill in path-finding. Generally, a weaker force can outrun a stronger one, which is good because you donít want to get into a battle where you are severely outnumbered. Be sure to exercise caution until you have built up an adequate fighting force to defend yourself with.
Of course, the real focus of the game is on the combat. Thatís the best way to get money and equipment in the beginning, not to mention the only way to gain experience and level up. You can click to travel to any other party you see and challenge them to a fight, although youíd generally only do so if they are your enemy and you have a fair chance of winning. At this point, you go into moderately large battlefield arena with randomized terrain based on what location of the map you were on and assume control of your character in a third- or first-person perspective (I prefer the former). Your goal is to kill, injure, or rout all of your enemies in a full-on, real-time battle, so hopefully youíve brought some friends along. Even so, this is often easier said than done, especially when youíre just starting out and your skills and equipment leave something to be desired. Everyone has to start somewhere though, so get in there and crack some skulls! Your weapon proficiencies are improved as you land hits, and you gain experience for every person you kill or knock unconscious. Your party members get experience, too, and can be upgraded. At the end of the battle you get to plunder some loot and share a pool of bonus XP among your party.
New to the franchise is a loosely-knit series of story-related quests, and theyíre actually pretty easy to miss. Everyone has to do the short tutorial after starting a new game, which introduces you to one of the main characters. He turns you loose in the world, giving you suggestions as to where to find some work, but you may never see him again, even if you get the task to find him from someone else. Itís a bit odd how they touted an actual storyline with a main quest arc, but then implemented it in a very sloppy way. At the end of the day, itís inconsequential to the main arena of gameplay, the combat and conquests. Also, if youíre interested in engaging with other players online, you should know that they have made a significant addition to the multiplayer mode introduced with Mount & Blade: Warband. Previously it was limited to a group of players (normally up to 32, but there were mods to allow more) engaging in small-scale combat, but now it is more similar to the mayhem youíll find in the campaign: up to 16 players can wage war on each other while commanding their own squad of AI soldiers.
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