Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword [Review]

Robert Hill-Williams
Guest Writer
 
May 12th, 2011

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Within a half-hour of starting up Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword (WFaS) for the first time, I fell asleep.  Over the course of the following twenty hours I spent with the game this result repeated itself no less than two other times.  Eventually I was able to leap this stumbling block – otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this – but only after I had dragged myself through a less than thrilling opening and familiarizing myself with WFaS‘s myriad systems and intricacies.  Thus I finally found a game to play that did a fair job in keeping my attention, but only several hours into my experience.  This case of lulling me to sleep is not passing damnation on WFaS as a whole, but it does illustrate an important point: With Fire and Sword can be terribly boring and not everyone will make it past the dull introduction and into the meat of the game.

WFaS is not the true third game in the Mount & Blade series, despite appearances.  Instead it is an expansion for the original Mount & Blade game with the North American release carrying some improvements taken from Mount & Blade: Warband.  The improvements consist of updating Mount & Blade to the Warband engine, the inclusion of multiplayer, and of course the addition of firearms and grenades to the new post-medieval timeline.  TaleWorlds Entertainment actually enlisted the help of developer Sich Studios for this effort, unlike the previous installments of Mount & Blade where TaleWorlds was the sole developer.

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The result of the collaboration is a game that seems to qualify less as an expansion (only barely squeaking by because of the game engine update) and more as a standalone mod for which you must pony up cash.  Thankfully this expansion isn’t priced like a standalone game and instead canters in at a fairly reasonable price of $14.99.  Unfortunately, reasonable pricing doesn’t mask some of the deficiencies present in this version of the game. These shortcomings have a bit to do with flaws in design, but some of it will have to do with individual choice of playstyle.

WFaS feels old; not just because of its post medieval setting, but because the game doesn’t feel as though much has changed since the original Mount & Blade‘s 2008 release.  It comes across as archaic and assumes that the player already knows exactly what they’re doing.  The interface is cumbersome and, for lack of a better word, ugly.  The tutorial is a waste of time and only explains the most rudimentary points of the game.  Commonsense things like moving your character, moving the camera and swinging a sword are covered, rather than aspects past basic control such as the game itself.  Even your first experience with combat deals with swinging your sword at a wooden fence, which you hack at for what feels like an eternity before it falls down.

You then proceed to learn how to ‘block’ against the single attacker that is in the road of the village.  I use the term loosely because what I found was that it was mostly useless; blocking never creates an opening for you to counterattack because the enemy can swing endlessly at you.  This forces you to block until you get tired of the repetition and decide to suck up the damage while attacking the opponent.  The best defense in my experience is a good offense.  After dispatching your attacker, you meet a group of adventurers and take on more foes.  Here the game feels like a terrible mash of bodies colliding into each other while wielding weapons, their legs comically moving at constant right angles.  This was not large-scale combat – it consisted of all of nine combatants – but the way that segment of combat worked left me worried about WFaS‘s promises of combat on the scale of hundreds of men.  I could put up with the silly character animation, but I couldn’t abide feeling like my character had no place in combat once there were more than a couple of fighters involved.

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After that skirmish you are given a horse for the first time.  Gameplay while on horseback tends to be more enjoyable but still seems to carry the problems from being on foot.  The same convoluted combat issues arose while mounted when our group again clashed with another group of five mounted enemy riders.  There were certainly instances of the sort of combat you would expect on horseback, with combatants riding by one another and trying to unseat each other with swords and lances.  Unfortunately this seemed to be less the norm as groups of four or more simply rode into each other, coming to a standstill and attacking each other wildly in a tumble of weapons and limbs where it was almost impossible to enter the fray and actually hit an enemy.

Once you’ve endured the laughable tutorial (which I discovered much later on you could skip, much to my chagrin), you’re thrust into the world of WFaS.  That’s it.  There’s no further direction, no party of warriors to assist you, and no real idea of the possibilities that the game offers.  This is where my personal frustration began with the game.  The only quest the player is given is to speak with an elder in the nearby village.  Speaking with said elder gives the possibility of three more quests to undertake, which consist of convincing the local warlord to lower their taxes (it’s almost impossible to persuade him without giving him most of your starting money), obtaining supplies for the town (requires traveling at random to different towns and again spending most of your money), or taking care of some bandits outside of the village.  Thinking in standard RPG/quest terms, I initially went with removing the bandits.  So I rode my trusty steed outside to the conveniently waiting party of bandits.  It was only after getting into the fight that I realized what was basically a starter quest was going to pit me against eight armed bandits without any  assistance.  Even with me being on horseback and them being on foot, I was only able to dispatch a few of them before I was overrun and knocked unconscious.

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The game is not so cruel as to simply give you the game over screen when you are defeated, but instead you get taken prisoner and dragged around the map for a length of time by your captors until you are eventually able to escape…with almost none of your money, no horse, and lacking random weapons and armor.  This, of course, places you at a huge disadvantage in continuing the game.  I eventually gave up on that character and instead chose to start a new one (since I had neglected to save so early), thinking perhaps to try a different tactic to secure victory.  I was met with the same disastrous results, but at least this time I had remembered to save my game before undertaking any adventures.  Fed up with the bandits I instead turned my attention from the tiny starter village to the other surrounding cities thinking to find better fortune with different quests.

Maybe it was my bad luck starting out, but in my journey to the first city with my new character I was overtaken by a group of 14 bandits.  When waylaid like this (or in any combat situation you didn’t initiate) your only two options are to fight or surrender.  No amount of intelligence or persuasion will allow you to escape combat without either suffering a major setback and surrendering to capture, being placed in a fight with overwhelming odds (because any group smaller than you flees at your approach while larger groups attack), or sometimes both.  So once again I ended up getting dragged around the map until I managed to escape while being once more horseless, weaponless, and this time shirtless.  So I loaded the game again.  At this point I realized that not having anyone to fight on my side was becoming a bit of a problem.  The even larger problem with this was I had no idea how to go about getting any mercenaries as the game never bothered to tell me how to recruit anyone.

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I threw up my hands in frustration and walked away from the computer for a bit.  When I finally returned I had decided that I needed some outside help for a change, so I took to the internet and made my way to the Mount & Blade forums.  Here I found probably the best part of WFaS - the community.  I was able to download the instruction manual (it wasn’t available on Steam) which was a tremendous help as its 61 pages gave a ton of information that was never mentioned in game as far as I had gotten.  As much information as that gave it still didn’t solve my problem with how to proceed on quests.  The forums once again helped with this as there were helpful guides posted by forum members that gave hints and some guidelines to follow in successfully finding the game buried in the…game.

Armed with this new knowledge, and a basic knowledge of how the game worked (finally), I went about trying for a successful playthrough. With my newly gained wisdom, my newest adventure was leaps and bounds more successful.  I was able to make my way to the first city without incident this time and found my way to the tavern where you can recruit basic mercenaries of different types.  I managed to round up a group about twenty strong and then went to speak with the local warlord to see what quests he had available.  Completing quests with the different factions located in cities and towns raises your reputation with them. Over time, this allows you access to the major questlines that deals with one of the nations, depending on what nation with whom you choose to curry favor.  So I went to the friendly neighborhood warlord to start my first step in the glorious rise to conquest and power.  He sent me to deliver a letter.

This is where playstyle starts to play a huge factor in how your experience in WFaS will go.  You can deliver letters back and forth between different warlords, princes, tzars and kings for pretty much all of eternity if you so choose.  This will eventually garner you enough favor to get into the real part of the game, but is a slow and arduous process from which you will likely die of boredom long before actually getting anywhere.  You will occasionally be offered other quests, but they are basically the same fetch quests in different skins.  Here playing the game like a standard RPG does you no favor.  In spite of its open-world RPG billing, I found WFaS more enjoyable when played more like a strategy game that just happens to have quests.

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Under this mindset I focused more on fighting independent groups of comparable size and defeating them to gain loot and the game’s currency. I then, in turn, used those gains to buy more mercenaries and field a bigger army and continue the cycle.  This allowed me to finally amass some wealth and be able to journey without worry of not being able to pay my mercs their weekly wages or keeping them fed.  Once I reached a group of about 90 men, I could wander around the map with relative impunity since I hadn’t yet sided with one nation over the other.  This change of gameplay was a revelation for me and for the first time since I had started WFaS I was actually enjoying myself.

Playing the game from a strategy mindset became especially beneficial once I had established a large enough group as it allowed me to stay out of combat personally and instead let my underlings do the dirty work.  Your men perform better when you actually enter combat with them, but it was more convenient for me to replace the few men I’d lose in the auto-battle than waste time sitting on the field of battle.  I was able to distance myself from the combat that I found so ungainly early on and focus on parts of the game I found fun.  Namely winning battles for a change with odds that weren’t stacked terribly against me.

In an odd turn, I eventually did begin to take part in more battles as time went on – mostly out of curiosity – and found that larger scale combat can be quite enjoyable in WFaS.  It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll always be leading a downhill charge with you armor all aglitter, but it does mean there is considerable strategy in being a general on the field.  There are an array of commands mapped through the function keys that you can issue to different divisions of your forces.  In using these keys you can issue commands to your cavalry, marksmen, infantry, or other groups you set up.  These commands range from having a group hold a certain point (best used on high ground), spread themselves out or group closer together, follow your lead, or charge the enemy along with several other options.  This hot-mapping of commands and groups made me even more at home with the idea of the game as a RTS that takes place in third person when you’re on the field.

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The shift to a post-medieval setting and the inclusion of muskets, pistols, and grenades places greater emphasis on actually making use of all the commands at your disposal.  Unless you are vastly outclassed, a large group of marksmen used properly can decimate even a horde of cavalry.  Effective use of your forces places less of them in harm’s way until it is necessary.  Sending forty cavalrymen against one another usually results in a bloodbath on both sides, but by contrast sending those forty riders to run down the soldiers your artillery just unseated is a pretty one-sided affair.  In short, commanding your forces like a general of the era actually pays huge dividends in WFaS.  The historical accuracy of the warfare is something which is not unusual for Mount & Blade, but is decidedly different from most open-world RPGs.

A big point that WFaS carries in its favor is also a potential weakness: the game has incredible depth.  This is a weakness mostly based on the lack of guidance given within the game.  A player can easily wade into the deep end of all the possibilities that the game offers and drown there.  There’s a huge amount of paths to be taken in WFaS and not all are readily apparent.  There’s the more obvious pursuit of a military path (like I chose), fighting for god and country.  But others are of a different flavor, offering you the opportunity to become a merchant and gather a fortune by sniffing out the best trade routes and avoiding combat as much as possible.  Being a brigand who terrorizes the countryside and burning or looting villages and besieging towns is even viable, although you’ll quickly gain the ire of everyone around you.

Despite the deep pool WFaS lets you drawn from – twenty hours into the game and I feel like I’m just beginning to see how deep the rabbit hole really is – there are certain things that are taken off the table from the start.  Character creation gives you a lot of options, including an impressive array of beards, but creating a female character is not among them.  Also gone is the driving, overarching storyline of becoming a king or queen of a nation.  You can’t become a king in WFaS because, as the game puts it, no noble would ever swear fealty to an outsider. My army of hundreds and hundreds of heavily armed men and I tend to disagree.

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These are both disappointing absences here and they cut even deeper because they are features that were both present in Mount & Blade and the Warband expansion.  The removal of a female character option hurts because it may serve to alienate some gamers from a game that is already targeting a very niche market, at best.  The loss of the larger, more personally invested storyline may be the worst blow though.  WFaS has a lot of depth, but almost all of it feels impersonal.  The lack of ability to claw your way into true power steals something from the game.  All you’re left with is supporting someone else’s claim or controlling a city, which feel like cheap substitutes to ruling a kingdom.

In both cases it feels like an unnecessary step backwards and nudges the needle on WFaS a little further away from being a worthwhile purchase.  It’s not that With Fire and Sword is a bad game when you finally reach its core, but anything it does well Warband does better.  The only selling point WFaS has over Warband is the inclusion of firearms and even that is a double-edged sword in considering whether it is an actual improvement.  Even multiplayer is largely unchanged from Warband and only has one new ‘Captain’ mode of which to speak.  Strangely, you can create a female character for multiplayer.  Small favors, right?

In the final judgment, it’s hard to say Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword is a truly terrible game, but I also can’t say it’s worth plunking down 15 bucks.  My experience with the tutorial and demo for Warband gave me a better time than all the hours I sunk into WFaS, which says a lot about both titles.  The game’s saving grace if you do buy it is that it gets better the more time you spend with it, but you would be better off avoiding it altogether and grabbing Warband instead.  WFaS simply doesn’t do enough to move the series forward and falters a bit in even trying to keep pace.

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Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword
Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword
Sich Studios TaleWorlds Entertainment
Score
3.1\5
Visuals
2.5
The environments in WFaS are well-modeled, but that's the limit of visual treats you'll see in this game. The character faces and animations haven't improved much despite the Warband engine upgrade and watching them in combat is unintentionally hilarious. Horse combat looks a little smoother, but only when the AI isn't getting tangled up with itself.
Sound
3
The background music in the game is reminiscent of the time period, but quickly grates as the short playlist begins to loop over and over. Sounds of combat fair better, with the clomping of hooves, firing of guns, and sound of men in the fray of battle bringing a fitting feel to the fighting. There is no real voice work to speak of, aside from the the grunts of men in combat and the terrible voiceover for the tutorial (Which actually should never be spoken of. Ever.). The best outcome you can hope for is to get into fights on an intermittent basis so you can escape the menu music. And to skip the tutorial. Because arrrrrgh.
Controls
3.5
The controls for WFaS are spelled out plainly enough in the manual and in the options menu, where you have the ability to adjust the controls to your liking. The only way to really get used to commanding soldiers with the different orders is by trial and error, which can be frustrating in a game that is so unforgiving. Some controls still felt unwieldy even after spending a lot of time with them, such as connecting with a lance on horseback or placement of grenades. A more in-depth tutorial would have helped with these sorts of skills, but it is of course absent and leaves you with the trial and error method once again.
Game Play
3.5
The hardest to judge out of the group. On the one hand the game lacks features in place in a game that came out a year previous. On the other it's still an incredibly deep and engrossing experience once you delve deep enough. That said, you have to be possessed of the fortitude to last long enough into the game to really get to the meat of it and find what you'll grow to enjoy more and more over time. It's a tough sell to the average gamer, and even for an RPG-lover like myself it was very dry at times.
Fun
3
This is a fun nightmare shares many issues with the 'game play' category. There is fun in WFaS, but you have to dig to find it. Even within the fun times the potential for an about-face into frustration looms, especially if you are more combat-minded in how you approach the game. It is not a game that forgives mistakes easily, and that can sap the fun out of it in a hurry. Multiplayer helps a bit here because it is a more frantic and straightforward affair, where respawns are short and death isn't so painful.

META

The only things Rob has been doing longer than gaming are breathing, sleeping, eating, and reading. RPGs were what made him view games as an experience instead of a distraction, but these days he likes and plays every genre gaming has to offer. Outside of his usual reviews and articles on MTB, you can find Rob on the weekly Mashcast and frequenting Twitter.

Specialty: Role-Playing Games
  • toko

    Review's alright, but bitching about not being able to choose a female character is downright preposterous. This game actualy has a historical setting and this setting prohibits existence of such, it's as simple as that. Even if, as you claim, this alienates someone, adding an option of choosing a female character would have alienated tons of history fags who are well a part of this "niche". In this game you take a role of a noble/soldier from 16th centaury Central-Eastern Europe and this means you are a white (or at best asiatic) man, period.

    • Destraahd

      Hi Toko, thanks for reading the review.

      From a standpoint of strict historical accuracy, I understand why the option to not create a female character was not available. It was a more uncommon sight for a woman to be on the battlefield than at court, but yet the feature made it into Warband, even with it being based on the same book and time period. Mount & Blade is historically accurate to an extent, but it is also historical fiction, which means it can bend the rules. The inclusion of multiple endings and an ability to play a game past the story presented in the books off which WFaS was based speak to this. I do understand your point, but having the option available would in no way have lessened the game in my opinion.

      Even in the circumstance that you present of the races you can play is stretched in this historical fiction. You actually have the ability to play any race from white to asian to black, with skin tones ranging anywhere in between. Playing a black character would have been unlikely and by reasoning of historical accuracy probably shouldn't have been present either. The Crimean Khanate faction in the game was part of the Ottoman empire at the time and a nation of Islam, but they were on the fringes of that empire and were descendants of Mongolian nomads that settled in the Ukraine (well, what is now the Ukraine). Pretty far removed from the other Middle Eastern and African territories that comprised the Ottoman empire.

      That considered, though it was unlikely for certain races to have been present they are in the game anyway. It is also unlikely that an outsider could effect as much change as your character is able to in WFaS, but the options exist. You can still be historically accurate and include possibilities that were less likely. To excise certain features while leaving others simply didn't make sense to me, especially when more was cut than was added to the game.

      The ability to create a female character was a very small issue in any case, with my 'bitching' about it being limited to two sentences. Other problems with the game hurt WFaS much more than the option not to play as a lady, and I feel the review reflects that. As always, you are free to disagree because any review is just one person's opinion on the subject in question. But I do hope you at least better understand why I brought it up in the first place.

  • cristy

    you can skip the tutorial if u save at it's beginnings , exit then reload the save

  • medium sized puppy

    i may be shortminded since im a MaB fan but 1. mount and blade is an indie game so of course the graffics arent going to be very great, 2. you can pull back out of a fight without losing any men or anything if you have a good tactics skill (or lose some men to save the rest) 3. you get quest by talking to people like village elders, mayors, and nobles. 4. if you cant take out the bandits with any more than just yourself, you suck. 5. you dont always lose your horse ive only lost it once when being captured. 6. in the begining you have to use each type of sword attack to break the fence. 7. if you block and the immediatly attack you have the upper hand (did you expect the attack to be shot back after you blocked? if you hit a tree with a stick are you propelled back a few steps? ) and cristy you skip the tutorial by pressing tab. back to the review: if you expected for this game to be visually stunning such as EA games or Activision your stupid. the game is great if you can get past the graphic problems and the AI being retarded.

    • Destraahd

      The insults were unnecessary, but thanks for your opinion regardless. It's fine if you're a fan of the series. I certainly see the appeal in M&B, but it was simply buried underneath too many issues for me.

      1. I'm aware it is an indie game. I could point at a dozen examples of indie games that look great regardless, but more to the point, it's fine if graphics aren't amazing if the gameplay supports it. A 2.5 simply meant the graphics were slightly below average, which in my opinion is a fair assessment.

      2. Which is fine if you build a character to that purpose, or have men to lose. My situation starting out was neither.

      3. Also fine, and misses the issue I named, which was a lack of direction. I don't want to be lead around by the nose from quest to quest, but a better selection of quests (perhaps one from each faction in local towns) would help, as well as simply being made aware what your options are. Even if you start to pick up random quests, it's hard to tell where/how it influences different factions outlook on your character until it's done.

      4. You said yourself you were a M&B fan, and as such you are used to the combat. Not everyone is the same, and everyone's mileage may vary. The fact is there is a steep difficulty curve, and it's off-putting. For following common sense, and having no mercs to recruit in the first bar, I was greeted with an 8-on-1 fight in which I got swarmed. There's a problem there.

      5. In every single instance I got captured, in every playthrough, I lost my horse. I only lost random other pieces of equipment, but the horse was lost each and every time.

      6. It still felt like an eternity. Fighting an inanimate object is boring. Another instance where Warband got it much more right.

      7. I never had that experience. In any instance that I blocked and riposted, I was already being hit by their next strike. They had that little delay by being blocked. I don't expect an exaggerated knock-back, but I do expect to have an opening after successfully blocking a strike or a flurry of blows. (Also, a tree isn't applying an opposing force to your swing, so of course not. However if you commit to an attack and are parried, there is a deflection which creates an opening. Apples to oranges.)

      I don't expect the game to look like Battlefield 3, that would be silly. I do expect that the third game in a series over a period of 3 years would have improved graphically by some margin; WFaS didn't. Again, gameplay trumps graphics for me, but the game didn't deliver. And I fail to see how it can be 'great' if you ignore an AI that influences much of the outcome of the game.

      All of that said, the massive update they had for With Fire and Sword a couple of months ago addressed almost every single one of my complaints (at least on paper). The game really deserves a 'second look review' due to the substantial changes, but I can't imagine when I would have time to get back to it. As always, you're free to like the game and there's nothing wrong with doing so. I still hold my opinion of thinking (at the time) the game was deep, but only so-so in gameplay.

  • lolwat

    LOL.

    The idiot doesn’t know how to play the damn game. WFaS is fun.