Mount & Blade: With Fire And Sword
The Mount & Blade series has acquired quite a reputation. As one of a very small number of PC exclusives, it stands out as a game with indie production values combined with studio ambition. The graphics are a generation behind, the combat is clumsy but realistic, single-player is open-ended and multiplayer is as compulsive as any AAA shooter. For those who haven't played a Mount & Blade game, they're historical RPG action-adventures. You travel across a map, visiting towns and cities, completing quests, earning gold, building a merry band of followers and slaying looters and bandits—eventually taking part in much larger battles and sieges involving entire armies.
With Fire And Sword doesn't deviate from the traditional set up. It's being billed as a sequel, but it's more of a standalone expansion (there's not much to be gained from criticizing this—even as a full game it's cheap as chips). There are typical new features: new multiplayer maps, a new multiplayer game-type, and improvements in several areas. Whereas the first Mount & Blade was entirely focused on single-player, and the sequel (Warband) was largely concerned with multiplayer, With Fire And Sword should be a more balanced affair.
The single-player will see major improvements in its narrative. Previous Mount & Blade games followed no storyline, instead presenting a medieval nation at war and allowing players to follow their own path, completing quests at their leisure and joining a faction here and there. Or not: The aim of Mount & Blade was always options. With Fire And Sword is similarly laid out with a sandbox style map, which you can navigate to find new towns and cities. The difference here is that there's an actual storyline, and it's not just any old story. The game follows the historical novel of the same name, published in 1884 and written by Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz. What this means is characters and events actually relate to and affect one another. The novel itself is pretty broad in scope, chronicling the Khmelnytsky Uprising and various people and events within that time period. Whereas Mount & Blade was previously open-ended, With Fire And Sword brings its chapters to a close, though there will be branching options for maximum replayability.
Along with the new story, the setting has moved to the 17th century (roughly 1648-1657), meaning players can enjoy a new weapon type: gunpowder. You can now switch between your sword and your musket at will, and you're even able to shoot from horseback. Gunpowder weapons are extremely powerful but very difficult to use: Players must hold down the fire button for a couple of seconds to aim before they can make the shot, a maneuver that's especially troublesome on horseback. Along with the slow-paced sword fighting, the control feels clumsy at first, but once you find the rhythm it's incredibly addictive.
The RPG elements of the game are delightfully rubbish. There was no voiced dialogue in the preview build of the game, but the text was of an amateur Dungeons & Dragons game night quality. Upon encountering some bandits, I was invited to “see what trouble is afoot!” The dialogue system is a million miles behind the advanced conversation trees BioWare has been using for years, and only provides the bare essentials. There are little quirks dotted throughout the game. Every Tavern I entered contained a barman, a traveler (for information), a mercenary (for hire) and a patron. I bribed one traveler into telling me the locations of several key people, whom dialogue options suggested I needed to track down. Unfortunately, my basic quest book failed to log any information, leaving me scrambling for a real pen and paper to jot down the relevant rumors.
Mount & Blade: With Fire And Sword won't be a huge departure from the previous titles in the series, but it's a refinement of a decent formula. For a cheap indie game, it has plenty of gameplay hours built in between the lengthy and replayable storyline and the addictive multiplayer. Just be warned: While the game's ambition is impressive, there are quirks-a-plenty that belay the game's indie origins.