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Friday, May 6, 2011

Review: Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword

Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword is an extended expansion to Mount & Blade Warband; a wholly underappreciated RPG/ Strategy series. And, while it doesn’t do anything outright new, the tweaks are just enough that fans of the previous games will have cause to come back for more.

Yeah, it's an unfair battle here


Of course, the main new addition to this game is the guns. Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword is set in an alternative-history Europe, and instead of fighting with sword and shield, now you’ll be drawing blood with musket and sabre. Does this change a whole lot to the game? Not really. Musket reloading times is obnoxiously slow – you’ll be lucky to get off more than one shot in a battle before the sword becomes the better option.

But in terms of tone, the new weapons do help create a new atmosphere and setting to sandbox around in. With Fire and Sword features the same basic gameplay tenants as its predecessor – roam from town to castle, recruit followers, take down bandits (and later, entire armies), and pick and choose nations to ally with or destroy. This game’s vision of Europe is as very flat continent, so wandering around the overworld is a largely barren and expansive (i.e. boring to go from one end to the other) trek.

An interesting twist on the firing line - choose your own weapon

The villages and cities tell a more vibrant story thankfully. Though, like with Warband the real estate these locations take up is small, and once again villagers have a very too few things to say, while lords offer a few too many repeat errands to send you on, the locations are pleasant on the eye, and there is a good deal of variety in the architecture itself.

But beyond that, like with the original Warband, With Fire and Sword leaves you up to your own devices. A great strength of this series is the very real feeling that there is stuff happening all around you, regardless of your actions. Cities are besieged, whether you’re involved or not, and kings can be toppled while you’re hanging out at the tavern.

Battles really do look good - there was a lot of effort put into this part of the game


That kind of scope does mean, however, that there is the occasional moment where you feel hopelessly out of control of what’s going on, and the occasional quirk of the engine where, after going through the character creation process an overpowered enemy immediately pops up and slaughters you before you get a chance to escape. That’s offset slightly by the multiple difficulty levels that are on offer this time, but nonetheless players that like to take ownership of their games and dominate the unfurling events will feel a little disappointed as they get buffeted by the winds of change over this landscape.

For all the scale, the single most enjoyable aspect of this game is in recruiting, training, and growing a sizable personal army. You’ll start off struggling with a handful of mercenaries, but as the game goes on you’ll end up with some very powerful, very loyal and very well armed soldiers. Managing them; be it morale, wounds or balancing the unit to solve a number of battlefield problems is a genuine joy, offering a micromanagement complexity beyond that of building a single character in a conventional RPG.

The occasional one-on-one duel is really, really, fun

The downside to that (if you do indeed consider it a downside) is that by the time you have a warband of more than 20 or 30, the role your avatar directly takes in battles is relatively small. Though the combat itself remains enjoyable, it’s more likely you’ll be caught up in a swirl of activity and not actually achieve anything. Being a largely passive observer in combat is a somewhat acquired taste, but it is enjoyable in its own way. The only real downside to this system is that the AI can be genuinely brain dead at times. It’s rarely a critical fault, but it is unintentionally funny to watch people walk into walls or charge in the opposite direction of the enemy.

We have high hopes that the proper sequel Mount & Blade (should it come) really hits the big leagues. While With Fire and Sword is still rough on the edges like its predecessor, it is one of the few games that can genuinely call itself a unique RPG, and once the kinks are ironed out, this is a winning (or even #winning for Twitter folks) formula. So, if you are looking for something a bit different, and are willing to put up with some AI quirks, you’re going to have a good time here.
 



Review: Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword
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