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Should I be Excited about…Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword?

The Mount and Blade franchise has become somewhat of a guilty pleasure for me. As we are flooded with review copies of games at the CalmDownTom office (and by office, I mean crack house), I find myself increasingly playing things I shouldn’t. “How wondrous” I once thought, “to get games for free and play them all day, even if they’re bad”. Of course the reality is that once you have a mountain of games that you’re SUPPOSED to play, its the games you shouldn’t play that you pine for the most. Like a groom lusting after the bridesmaid (not literally), every moment I should have been playing Dragon’s Age 2 or Nail’d I kept sneaking off to stab some barbarians in Mount and Blade.

It was with some significant excitement then that I received the preview copy of Mount and Blade: With Fire & Sword then. Finally I had a good reason to play the type of game I wanted to play. Even better, it was a preview copy, so I got to play before anyone else. My excitement was tinged with trepidation though. Mount and Blade has always been an aquired taste; technically rough and unpolished but with deep gameplay to go with its indie production values. Would this entry finaly polish the game to the level of a modern, mainstream release; and if it did so, would it lose its original, genre defying gameplay structure?

No and No. This instalment of Mount and Blade makes small, incremental improvements to the ageing engines graphics and presentation, but you’d be hard pressed to find a modern game on console or PC with less polish. This may be a preview copy, but the presentation is sparse and the textures and level of detail remain well below the bar for a modern maintstream release. For the moment at least, the dream of a modern Mount and Blade with the visual fidelity of Battlefield 3 or the new Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is a long, long way off.

That’s not to say the game doesn’t have it’s own unique charm. As I mentioned in my retrospective on the last game in the series, Mount and Blade can impress through the sheer number of well animated combatants on screen with their own behaviours and tactics creating some stunning battle scenes. The site of an army cresting a hill, sunset behind them and swords held aloft is a glorious sight.

For this newest instalment the game setting has changed significantly. The game and its storyline is based on the novel Black Hetman by Alex Trubnikov while some in-game characters are taken from the Henryk Sienkiewicz’s historical novel With Fire and Sword. This bases the game in Eastern Europe and changes the period weaponry significantly from the medieval staves and poleaxes of the previous series entries to muskets and pistols.

If the graphics engine and presentation has remained the same then its these changes to setting that have refreshed the franchise. The weapon sound effects for the muskets in particular sound especially good and the time they take to reload is balanced with their deadliness on the field.

What remains clear about this preview version is that much work remains to be done. Spelling mistakes in menus and a buggy map screen that collapsed into a comedy pink colour due to a graphical crash are all serious but easily fixable minor problems. There are other more esoteric problems that hopefully will be fixed too. Especially awkward is an early moment in the game where your crudely textured armour resembles a black suit and tie. Wearing the same armour, the slowly approaching enemies look like they’re recreating the eponymous scene from Reservoir Dogs. Meanwhile, being chased by what looks like an angry bunch of bankers with axes is unintentionally hilarious.

Despite all these minor issues, the soul and heart of Mount and Blade remains. A complex, deep combat system tied to an involving, open ended party based RPG, Mount and Blade is a genre all in its own. Rough edges and angry bankers aside, the fans of the franchise will love this new twist on the classic formula. With just a little more work, Mount and Blade with muskets could be the best Mount and Blade so far.

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