Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword Review
Fans of Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz have been crying for a video game adaptation of his works for years now, and it's easy to see why.
OK, that's actually a bold-faced lie. To be quite honest, most gamers have probably never heard of the man (I hadn't). Yet Turkish developers TaleWorlds apparently saw something they liked in his epic 1880s trilogy of historical fiction, using its take on the Khmelnytsky Uprising (??) as the setting for the third installment of their cult action RPG series Mount & Blade. Literary and historical buffs have reason to rejoice, but you may wonder what the game offers players who aren't as interested in the prospect of a virtual history book.
The truth is that although the source material is ridiculously complex, the strength of the Mount & Blade series still shines through. Mount & Blade is not a game with a large budget, a disadvantage it makes up for with well-polished game mechanics, including a combat system consistently lauded as one of the best in the historical simulation genre. Never before have I played a game where the tension of every battle was so real, adrenaline pumping as you charge toward the enemy on horseback, swiping at them and parrying their blows. Though you start the game as a lone mercenary who takes on small packs of bandits in return for equally small rewards, you'll soon be recruiting soldiers to join the ranks of your ever-growing band. The game promises truly epic warfare to those who progress far enough to amass their own army.
Aside from ditching their own fantasy universe for these historical settings, With Fire and Sword introduces one other crucial element to the series. Guns. It's often been said that you shouldn't bring a knife to a gunfight, but M&B tries its best to balance out the various weapons despite the seemingly obvious advantages that come from wielding a boomstick. Though guns are wildly powerful, they're also slow, requiring a reload after every shot. In the time it takes to fire, your company may already be getting their asses handed to them by a band of pike-wielding mercenaries, and you're usually better off taking sword in hand and rushing to join in the fracas. Guns are also among the most expensive weapons in the game, and though the basic pistol you're given at the start is competent, continuing down the road of a gunslinger will leave your coin pouch feeling rather light.
Along the way to becoming a truly fabled warrior, you'll be challenged with some of same tasks found in any RPG. Various elders and nobles offer quests to complete, marketplaces allow savvy traders to barter various goods, and loot on the bodies of defeated enemies is always a satisfying reward for your troubles. In the style of a classic pen and paper RPG, M&B offers an incredibly unique experience on each play-through. In addition to diverse character-building options and skills, the very nature of the game world allows players to shape their destinies. Will you serve the whims of a particular kingdom? Fight to deliver an exiled aristocrat to his rightful throne? Or will you and your band be admired for your noble actions, or perhaps reviled for your villainy?
The real struggle here is whether you have the patience to reach your potential. If you're used to banging out quests by the dozen, you'll quickly grow tired of the plodding pace of each M&B objective and being forced to watch your horse avatar travel the several minutes between each kingdom. This assumes you aren't overtaken by a large pack of bandits, who, after killing your men, enjoy making you their prisoner and dragging you several miles off course. And once you finally escape, you're often robbed of the essential item needed to complete your quest! There's also the problem of the game's incredibly complex source material. As someone who has no idea what the hell the Khmelnitsky Uprising was, my problem wasn't knowing which side to take, but rather remembering what side I was on. More than once I accidentally trespassed into enemy territory, suffering attack and capture by these various kingdoms while wondering what I'd done to piss them off. Lastly, coming from a small game studio, the graphics are obviously a few generations behind. They're competent enough for the game to be enjoyable, but hitting the random button on the character generator resulted in nothing more than a constant stream of horrific CG monsters which had me in hysterics.
Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword is the right fit for anyone interested in sweeping historical epics as well as incredibly complex and realistic RPGs. If you're like me, you'd be happier watching spiky anime-haired teenagers throwing fireballs at each other. A fantastic entry for fans of the genre, but a convoluted mess to the rest of us.