Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword Review
With its horse based combat, RPG levelling and open ended gameplay, the Mount and Blade series has carved a completely unique niche for itself. Technologically scruffy, resulutely old-school and unapologetically hardcore, its the kind of game that has a small target market, but an utterly dedicated fan base.
With the last in entry in the series (Warband) bringing long awaited multiplayer combat and incremental updates to the formula, developer Taleworlds had to come up with something new and special to make this new version stand out. The solution was obvious but a complete success; give everyone guns.
Now we’re not talking machine guns or rocket launchers here, this is some old fashioned military hardware. Black powder and muskets are the order of the day. The game sees these weapons integrated into the more traditional swords, shields and axes of the earlier games and by setting the action in the 17th century and in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the Khmelnytsky Uprising, the experience is as authentic as it is unique.
While the game may be based on a historical Polish novel of the same name, there’s little story or guidance once the singleplayer campaign begins. Early on a newcomer to the series will probably feel a little out of their depth. After a brief tutorial, the player will be left to travel and explore as they see fit and other than a few vague pieces of advice from an NPC, they will be very much left to their own devices. Starting without any soldiers or mercenaries in their party they will have to avoid enemy looters and make their way to the nearest city to recruit a team and gain missions. Facing enemies so early in the game can be a brutal and humbling experience as you try and charge ten musket wielding enemies while firing your puny pistol. Being defeated doesn’t result in death, but rather sees you stripped of items and dragged around the map thus further reducing the chance of getting a foothold in the game world.
Once the rather unwelcoming opening portion of the game is done though it begins to become clear just how much freedom and opportunity is available in the game world. Early on you can set off and engage random brigands and looters, take on missions for town mayors or attack caravans laden with supplies. Later in the game it opens up completely and allows the player to lay siege to towns, manage armies and even choose factions to fight for or against and potentially overthrow monarchs. Its staggering to see how an initially simple medieval combat game evolves as you play to become more like a horseback version of Sid Miers Pirates or even something as open ended as David Braben’s Elite.
We covered the combat extensively in our preview, but to say it is unique is an understatement. While on foot combat features in both singleplayer and multiplayer, its the horseback combat that stands out. Based on momentum and physics, the action of shooting arrows, swinging swords or firing muskets all feel satisfying and solid. The precision and timing required to hit an enemy with the swing of a sword or a loosed arrow are difficult skills to learn, but practice brings rewards and within a few hours of play the well balanced combat becomes great fun. Crucially, there’s no other games that offer a combat system that’s similar. When you feel the need to run down a footsoldier with a lance or shoot a knight off his horse with a musket there’s only one game that you want to do it in.
When we previewed the game one worrying factor was the frequency with which the game would crash and the general lack of polish. Thankfully, the game seems to run well now with none of the random crashes or obvious spelling mistakes and AI bugs we found before. It remains a remarkably rough looking game plagued by interface diesgn issues and outright ugliness. Everything from the menu screens to the over-world map is functional but amateurish. Its only when the actual battles begin that you see some of the visual charm Taleworlds have managed to produce with modest technology.
As you enter a battle there’s a thrilling sense of apprehension and excitement. Like the moment at the start of Braveheart (hold….hold) the enemies are often so far away you can’t see them. As they crest a hill, they seem tiny but move fast. Whether the combat arena is a deserted moonlit valley or a sparse forest at sunset, the game engine conspires to make the movement and animation of the huge groups of NPC’s and the dynamic combat look impressive. The behaviours of the AI controlled NPC’s are generally convincing and at its best the whole spectacle can look like a battle scene from one of the LOTR’s movies.
Rounding out the package is a robust multiplayer mode. At the moment the game is absolutely crammed full of busy servers waiting for you to join and smite fellow humans. The number of different modes is impressive and the strong community behind the game makes multiplayer a vibrant and busy environment to enter. A range of character classes and a variety of weapons to buy makes each game both chaotic and chaotically brilliant.
Currently riding high in the steam sales charts, its hard to say how much of a niche experience Mount & Blade is these days. The fact that its scruffy look and low production values are overlooked by its legion of fans is evidence of its other virtues. Crucially, Taleworlds seem to be in tune with their community and have never been complacent, adding major features and additions with each new release. At its low price point, its hard to think of a game that offers more value. Taleworlds deserve every one of their fans, and you owe it to yourself to become one.
9 poleaxed Poles out of 10