Reform, you fancy-dressed, rifle-toting, spineless women!
Mount and Blade is easily one of my most favourite games ever made. When playing a game like Medieval 2: Total War (or in fact many strategy games) I’ve always wanted to take actual control of the General unit and fight inside the huge battles raging in front of me. Mount and Blade let me do that. Then Warband came out and let me do that and start my own empire. Warband made it possible for me to rampage across a map, leaving a trail of fire and destruction in my wake, like Genghis Khan (except in European armour), capturing city after city, burning village after village, and scattering the pathetic resistance in front of me. With Fire and Sword is a ‘stand alone expansion’ that developers seem fond of making these days, and it adds in firearms, as well as focusing on a real part of the world. The game is set in Eastern Europe in the 1600s when firearms started appearing as actual weapons that people used in war, as opposed to curiosities developed by alchemists, who probably said “Shit, it still isn’t gold!” when they made them. In any event, instead of riding down hapless footmen from my mighty steed with a lance, this release promised to let me shoot them from a distance! It’s the best way to make war, or so I’m told. Rather than just do a straight review though I figured I might tell it like a story while also pointing out things that I like or don’t like.
Thus begins my story as a man with both fire and sword. There are no female player characters in this game, unlike Warband where you could be Genghis Khan with breasts. Um… disturbing thought there. Moving on, after spending ability points and selecting how my character would look (there’s no background selection this time around), I was dumped into a tutorial, which taught me how to attack fences, parry attacks, and shoot people. The graphics are pretty much the same as the previous games, except obviously with different content. There are no major improvements, and the interface is pretty much identical. I bashed my way through the fences/people, got a horse, and ended up talking to this guy called Jaques de Clermont, who had an outstanding moustache, a fancy costume, and fire and sword. According to him, he’s descended from a famous crusader, Count Simon de Clermont. Honestly, I’ve never heard of him, so I’ll take his word for it. It also may as well not matter, because this guy has nothing of value. Honestly I don’t care for the man’s story. I demand information, namely on how I can start my rampage of glory.
It transpires that Eastern Europe is on a razor’s edge, with… oh wow, I can’t even pronounce some of these names. Something about the Tsar from Russia has joined with the Cossacks, and now they’re going to launch an attack on the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Poland never gets a break. In any case, it seems someone has beaten me to the “rampage of glory” part. Actually, I’m starting to doubt that I can even rampage on my own, like in Warband. There’s an actual story taking place here, with an actual progression and stuff like that, so it seems as though I’m not so much here for the glory as I am for the storyline progression. Well, that’s taken the fun out of it. Still, I suppose I could rampage for someone else.
The world map is huge, and I can actually recognise some of the names of the towns and cities. I zoom out and quickly lose my place. It’s way bigger than any of the previous games. There’s lots of room, even some areas where there’s nothing at all. That’s… less good. Also the vast majority of the map is grassland. Well, that’s to be expected, because this is actually based on a real place on Earth, and Terra Firma doesn’t suddenly swing from grasslands to desert all that often. In any case I’m directed to Zamoshye to see if I can help the village elder. I’m in a helpful mood (and I have nowhere else to go and no idea of what to do) so I decide to pay him a visit. Thankfully Taleworlds included a new option to “Talk to the elder…” as opposed to making me walk around the village to find him. Nice improvement, which the Star Wars mod for the original M&B included. No option to recruit from this village, so I’m on my own for the moment.
The Elder says that they’re under threat from bandits, that they’re suffering under taxes, and that they can’t get any goods from the bazaar. I didn’t start this game just to cart boxes of cheese around, and I can’t be bothered settling a problem with diplomacy. It’s time to kill some bandits, with fire and sword.
Predictably, the bandits claim that they’re not bandits. But who cares, we’re going to fight this out anyway. The battle begins, and there’s 7 of them, and only one of me. For my part, I’m armed with a carbine rifle, a sword, and some bullets. I also have a horse, and they don’t. My confidence is already fairly low, but I decide to take a shot anyway. I aim my rifle, and fire blindly into the cluster of angry men running towards me. Amazingly, I land a shot, and one of them is killed outright. 1 down, six to go! By the time I finish reloading my rifle, they’re pretty much in range to either shoot or stab me. Two of them decide to shoot, another goes for the classical sword. I quickly let fly with the rifle and smash one guy in the chest, before swapping to my sword. They’re too close for me to fiddle with the rifle, and shooting on horseback is hard. The shooting mechanics are pretty much like replacing all the crossbows with rifles, including the painfully slow reloading times. Honestly, it’s hard to tell the difference.
If you’ve played the Star Wars mod on the original Mount and Blade and used the laser rifles, it’s somewhat like that except much slower. I revert back to the sword primarily because I can’t hit anything reliably, and hacking people up is still fun. Apparently they can’t hit the broad side of a barn either, and my horse takes far more damage than me. This is interesting because I’m dressed in some sort of weird robe which provides bugger all protection. Long story short, I hack up the remaining bandits, and try to shoot the last one as he runs. Somehow I manage to miss while standing only a few feet away. So I cut him down with my sword. I then proceed to take all their stuff, including their shitty bullets (which provide damage bonuses, much like different bolts did for crossbows) and clothing. I also take the swords and a single rifle, which is inferior to mine. I return to the village, where I decide to go settle a dispute with the tax man.
That was easy enough. I just paid the taxes for them. At the same time, in a parallel universe, one of my friends started up GTA3. I also checked out the local merchants to see what I could buy. The answer was a resounding “not much” but I did pick out a nice hat for myself. I decided to take a walk around the town. The “town” was massive, as in way bigger than anything you’ve seen in the previous games. It’s so goddamn big that I just said “screw it” and decided to try to visit the city walls. Except I couldn’t get up the stairs, some invisible barrier was blocking me. Since I was moving too slowly to go anywhere interesting, I decided to go back and deliver the news to the village. Except some Looters attacked me on the way home! I’d just levelled up and invested some points into shooting from horseback, so I quickly mopped these idiots up without taking any damage at all. I also took a bunch of supplies from them.
Unfortunately the supplies I took were of no use to the village, who were demanding salt. I set off to the town again, looking for salt. No salt. There was no salt at the villages. There was no salt that the town off in the distance. I wiped out some more bandits, hoping to find salt. No salt. God damn, where’s the friggin’ salt?! I eventually found some to the south in a Cossack town. But there were only 2 bags, and the son of a bitch at the village wanted 3. I ended up travelling right to the coast, controlled by the Crimean Khanate, to buy some goddamn salt. Along the way I’d avoided pretty much all the bandit patrols, riding hard into the night. What a joke! And at the end of it, I was still no better off, except the Polish Republic liked me a bit more.
I decided to go see what kind of trouble I could get myself into. I headed for the nearest town. Smolensk unfortunately was now under siege by the Muscovites. Huh… I guess this isn’t a safe place to be after all. I decided to gain entry into the town all the same. I visited the tavern and found a drunk. I suggested a toast to Carl. This resulted in me being attacked by 3 angry men armed with swords.
Given that I had no armour, no shield, and no hope in hell of winning, I was soundly beaten and kicked out of town. This adventure wasn’t going well. So far I’d managed to help a village, for no real gain, and to get my arse handed to me by a bunch of drunken Poles. This resulted in a quest, advising me that I was wounded and I should rest. So I did. A bunch of things happened over those 5 days; people got captured, people lost battles, sieges started and were abandoned… and I was sitting in a goddamn tavern recovering from my wounds.
It was time to get serious. It was time to raise an army, and go join a faction. Wars don’t fight themselves! My first order of business was to get an army. I had food. I had a little bit of money. And I had ambition. And a hat! But where do I get an army? The villages didn’t offer recruitment options, and the game hadn’t told me where to go. It’s at points like this that I realise that I’m playing a different game. WF&S looks and plays a hell of a lot like Mount and Blade, probably because the interface is the same and firearms are basically crossbows without the bolts, but there are differences which separate the two. With all that said though, so far I’ve felt like I’m playing a mod. It’s a very good mod, with a lot of content, but it doesn’t feel like there’s anything majorly different. Going from M&B to Warband, you could see the differences; all the new political options, the new faction, the new weapons, the graphical update, the difference was much larger. Here the differences are minor, and the biggest difference (firearms) so far appears to be crossbows without the bolts. But still, I’m having fun. I’m only slightly disappointed that there’s no option for me to break out on my own and carving a path to glory. Granted, sometimes I’d just join a faction in Warband and conquer in their name, but M&B has always been about options from my perspective, and I can’t help but feel I’ve had options taken away from me.
I finally found that I could only hire mercenaries. I found a bunch of Musketeers waiting for someone to hire them. So I did! Directly after that we got into a fight with a bunch of bandits. The bandits lost. Skipping ahead (and using a cheat to get money so I could actually do something interesting) I picked up some more men, some armour, a pistol, and a mission from a Muscovite prince to deliver some goods to another army. I delivered the goods, but the bastard I delivered them to threw a fit because there were no weapons in the delivery. I was then sent to go intercept a cartload of weapons heading from one town to another. My small band of 14 men were eager for action. As was I, so far I hadn’t done a damn thing worth mentioning. While looking for the cart, I came across a Mercenary Camp and hired 20 infantry soldiers and a couple of others to join my ranks. With my mighty army of 42 men, we crushed the caravan guard! Then 2 of them left with the cart and the job was finished.
I then decided to go pick a fight with some Deserters. I’d like to say that we crushed the lot of them, but I actually lost about a quarter of my force, which was pretty bad considering they had about 30 men. After recruiting all of the people they had taken prisoner, I was only standing at 45 men. And at this point I couldn’t see the point in going on much further, and went back to playing Warband.
I know this is a rather abrupt end to the story, but that’s just about all I was thinking: “I wish this was Warband with guns.” The appeal of the Mount and Blade games is largely that you’re playing a game world that you can shape. Warband is the best of the series by far in terms of player interaction and gameplay. You’re given a horse, some weapons, and are free to take over the known world. In WF&S, you’re locked into a specific quest line, because stepping outside those quest lines means going to the randomly generated missions we’ve all played before. Oh, you can rise to the top of one of the states, but you’ll need to follow a quest line to get there. It’s a long way to the top, and it’s not always very interesting.
The other problem is part of the introduction of the “Fire” part of the game. Muskets can be an absolute pain in the lower abdominal region at times. They’re very powerful, even if they’re very slow, and they pretty much make everything else obsolete. A line of Marksmen will fell pretty much most things if their shots connect, and facing a wall of musket fire at medium or close range is pretty much certain death at times. This is highly accurate of course; the British pretty much took over the world in later years by standing men in neat rows and firing away. But is it fun? Not always. Losing is occasionally fun in games, especially if you’re fighting a rear-guard action and it’s some sort of heroic last stand, but falling at the first charge gets a little tired after the 8th or 9th time it happens. What WF&S gains for in historical accuracy, it loses in gameplay value.
The gameplay is quite good and it’s a damn site better than what most of the big studios are churning out, but it isn’t as good as Warband. The “loss” of many features at the expense of historical accuracy makes the game feel a bit boring and uninspired. I appreciate that they attempted to make a game with a real story, but every step of the way I just wanted to take my band of musketmen and burn a hole in the map. Also the muskets occasionally unbalance the game.
For a M&B game, the graphics are quite good. By any other standards they’re not that good at all, but that’s not the point of M&B games. Trying run this with Crysis-style graphics would result in the game being unplayable. Bohemia Interactive is yet to learn that fact.
It’s okay. Nothing bad about it, nothing outstanding either. Troops say a few words these times as opposed to the other games where they all go “Graaaaaaah!” like a bunch of angry Orks.
The game world is massive and there are lots of things to do. But there aren’t as many in Warband, and the gameplay suffers for it rather than the lifespan.
OVERALL: 7/10 GOOD
Mount and Blade: With Fire and Sword is by no means a bad game. It’s quite good, and the introduction of muskets is definitely interesting. Of course they’re basically an ultra powerful crossbow replacement, but that might be because I’m so used to the gameplay mechanics that I can see the underlying structure used to make this thing. The problem that I have with the game (and that most of the fans have with it) is that it isn’t Warband with muskets and Russians, which is what I think we were all expecting. The crux of the M&B games is the freeform aspect, where we have the freedom to start our own kingdom if we want. I might not want to do that all the time, but the option should still be there. It’s a bit of a step backwards to the old Mount and Blade in that respect, and that’s not really a good thing. They should have done this with the Warband engine and then attached the story to it. Also the musket mechanics are a bit strange, and a bit too close to real life. This is a game, and games have to make concessions at times. ARMA2 does this and it’s the hardest of the hardcore military sim games. Still WF&S is quite good, so long as you’re not expecting Warband with guns. There are mods for that, or so I’m told.