Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword Review

Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword, developed by SiCh Studio and Taleworlds and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Firearms and grenades are balanced well, large online battles can incorporate allied AI units under human command, town management, new quests, reasonable $15 price
The Not So Good: Challenging difficulty increased further with firearm-wielding peasants, lateral changes to single player campaign, incomplete post-battle loot, must hire all the mercenaries you can afford at a tavern, still lacks competitive and/or cooperative campaigns, same uncoordinated battle AI
What say you? A notable standalone modification to the fantastic historical role-playing action game: 6/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
As technology progresses, military tactics must adapt. The use of gunpowder on the battlefield had a significant effect on how infantry was utilized, as the powerful (albeit slow) firearms could devastate opposing forces if used appropriately. Previous iterations of Mount & Blade focused on mounted and sword-based combat (it’s in the title, people!) that was prevalent in earlier ages, but now technology has caught up with the series in a new standalone expansion: With Fire and Sword. Replacing the fantasy setting with Eastern Europe and introducing more options for ranged combat, will this title provide enough value for new and veteran players alike?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
As you might expect in an expansion, Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword features incremental upgrades, mostly involving the new additions the historical settings and extra weapons have triggered. The real-world towns you’ll visit do not have any distinctive features (like specific buildings, but they do exhibit more variety and detail than in previous Mount & Blade efforts. The campaign map looks the same, though: if the cities weren’t named after real places, you wouldn’t notice the difference. Unit detail for the new units is nice: some troops are easily identified as belonging to a particular faction based on looks alone, which helps in the heat of battle. Generally the same sound effects are utilized (except for the new weapons, obviously) and there is the recognizable music from previous titles plus some new period-specific offerings. Overall, Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword features reasonable improvements in graphics and sound for a standalone expansion.

ET AL.
Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword exchanges the fantasy setting of the medieval combat role-playing game with a historical context and more modern, 17th century weapons. The game starts with a more traditional selection of attributes, rather than the question-based stat generation of previous Mount & Blade titles. The eastern-European setting doesn’t really do anything for me personally, but it might matter to some to fight with and against historical figures and nations. The campaign does include additional quests, including a main story that offers very simple diplomatic options with opposing nations (peace or war only). There are also multiple endings to encounter, increasing the replay value of the campaign. The game does not include cooperative or competitive online campaigns (still), though. Thankfully, Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword retains the “just another guy” approach of the previous games as the multi-nation war goes on around you. Your character is not the central figure in the game, just another person who might influence the general outcome of the conflict. I like that more realistic approach.

Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword gives you options for upgrading cities under your jurisdiction (gained by doing nice things for the various lords in each nation). All of these improvements, from arsenals to mills to academies, will enhance relations or tax income. You can also hire blacksmiths to produce high-level (meaning very expensive) weapons and armor. You can even commission a trade caravan to carry goods between cities. The options are nice, and give you yet another thing to do in the game. Unlike previous efforts, the ability to recruit basic infantry from villages is no longer available; instead, you must hire mercenaries from taverns in cities or rare camps placed on the campaign map. While this provides battle-ready units, it’s also quite expensive. If you choose the tavern option, then you are required to hire all of the available mercenaries you can afford, even if you would only like two or three of them. For a game that offers good flexibility, this limitation is puzzling. However, you can now outfit rank-and-file soldiers with weapons and armor purchased or picked-up during battle (instead of just your hero units), so that allows for improvements over time. Taking enemy cities can be hard, so Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword gives you some additional options. You can prepare the ladders for an invasion attempt as before, or negotiate with the opposition, poison the water supply (to decrease morale), demolish a wall (if you have a high enough engineer attribute), wait for a better day, or leave. While there are a couple of new orders to issue your troops, most conflicts involve the AI just doing what it wants as the orders don't have options for engaging specific foes for a coordinated attack.

Clearly, the most significant addition in Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword is the fire, in the form of muskets, pistols, and grenades. I found these weapons to be balanced quite well: they are very powerful, typically taking down an enemy in a single shot, but require long reload times. If you are using a musket, you must reload it while standing still, too, making you a sitting duck for enemy units. You can see why volley fire from organized lines was used during the time period. A pistol on horseback is quickly becoming my preferred method of engaging the enemy, since you can reload while on the run. Grenades are excellent at dislodging a group of closely spaced units, but are quite expensive to purchase.

The difficulty has certainly been ramped in up With Fire and Sword, as a couple of peasants with muskets can easily take your hero down with two successful shots. I had to resort to using the money cheat to afford the number of troops required to defeat the entry-level looters and deserters, and looting a village is quite difficult thanks to the proliferation of firearms among the residents. While the campaign map AI is smart, the battle AI hasn’t improved: enemy soldiers are still a mess, blindly charging towards the nearest enemy unit instead of utilizing formations and tactics and routinely getting stuck on bridges and other chokepoints. Judicious use of the battlefield commands is necessary to keep your units in line. I am disappointed by the limitations of post-battle loot: the game randomly allows you access to some, but not all, of the equipment used by the enemy after victory. Hey, if the peasants had muskets, then I want all of their muskets after I defeat them!

Warband introduced massive, sixty-four-player online mayhem (organized online battles are a sight to behold), and the action gets even more intense in Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword. New in the game is the “captain” mode, where you have a number of AI soldiers under your command. This can result in some truly huge online battles where death comes early and often, although it would be much more enjoyable if the new commands were better. The remainder of the online modes is retained for your online gaming enjoyment, resulting in well-balanced gaming value.

IN CLOSING
Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword provides good value for an inexpensive standalone expansion. The major improvement in the game are firearms, and they are balanced well: they are powerful, routinely delivering one-shot kills, but require long reload sequences and aren’t effective in melee combat. A cavalryman with a pistol is a force to be reckoned with. Firearms significantly increase the difficulty of the game (despite the same iffy AI): a handful of peasants (or other low-level troops) armed with muskets can easily take down your hero (I resorted to the money cheat early and often to afford enough mercenaries for human shields). I’d like to be able to take all of their muskets (and other weapons) after battle, though, but the post-battle loot is not all-inclusive. Restricting recruiting of allies to taverns and camps means necessary troops are more expensive, making a loss in a battle even more painful on the pocketbook. Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword includes more siege options in addition to simply storming the castle, and you can queue city improvements to increase income or relations in villages you control. The historical setting alone doesn’t really make much of a difference in terms of campaign mechanics, but the single-player campaign (sorry, kids, no online campaigns) does come with more quests and a story with multiple endings. The pleasing chaos of Warband’s online sixty-four-player battles returns with a new mode, where you can issue simple orders to AI subordinates for truly massive confrontations. Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword is more varied than Warband (and at half the initial price), so fans and newcomers alike should check out the latest entry in the franchise.