Paradox Interactive, a publisher not all too familiar to console readers, has quickly made a name for themselves in the PC community for their wide range of games across multiple genres. Their games have been proof that gameplay rules above visuals. Mount & Blade has always been a great example of this. The 2008 hit did not wow players with its visual design, but more its likeness to many other great games. It takes the strategy of the Total War series and boils it all down to managing your Captain through the harsh world around him. Where it differs is in its combat. When a battle starts, its up close and personal old school swords and shields gameplay takes center stage, where there is no greater thrill than riding head long into a group of swordsman with your hordes of cavalry in tow, laying waste to all who stand in your way.

With Fire and Swords adding the biggest change to the series yet, guns, more specifically muskets and pistols, this is not a Modern Warfare title, but Eastern Europe in the 1600s. It is a big change for the series for several reasons. Adding guns is not simply adding more ranged weapons, it really changes the mechanics of the combat. The musket’s strength is in its pure damage. Charging a musket line on horseback is going to have you tasting dirt in no time. It does, however, leave you very exposed during the long reloading times, and unless you are on horseback, only the pistol allows you to reload while moving.

The guns add a great addition to your party, and if used correctly and in the right numbers, can turn a battle in your favor. One of my biggest worries with adding guns was the camera angle, due to the time it takes to fire and reload. Thankfully, the game’s first person mode adds a level of accuracy to the game, and is needed when firing the guns, enabling you to get a good shot off before engaging in combat with your opponent or taking out the horses in your enemies’ cavalry.

As mentioned, the game takes place in Eastern Europe around the 1600s, pitting five factions against one another, and it is your job to get notoriety with the factions and takes arms under their banner and fight their enemies, while earning renown and honor in your battles. You could also take the fate of the world into your own hands by besieging castles and towns under your own banner, while managing cities, taxes, and garrisoning your army to defend your settlements in your absence. It is this level of micro-management that always gets the inner PC gamer inside me excited.

The nitty-gritty of the Mount & Blade games has always been in their great up close combat. On its easy setting, the AI can be blocked by simply countering and swinging as they fall in line to your sword. On the harder difficulty, the AI can be brutal and it is here where Mount & Blade shines. The AI marksmen will pick you off if you run head long into the battle, causing you to pick your fights and use the game’s combat tactics to best use. Ironically, as good as the AI is at adding challenge to the game, you will often be mid-fight, only to get picked off from seemingly nowhere, leading to what can only be described as a “really!?” moment. Many times, I’ve been happily shooting away only to see myself fall to a heap on the ground to a head shot from a guy who must be using a prototype sniper scope from across the battlefield.

The visuals of Mount & Blade have always been to show scale rather than the finer details. Enough so, that you can tell at range if an enemy is using a sword or wielding a bow, and what type of armor they are wearing. Also, the terrain serves its purpose with seemingly hundreds of different battle locations. You can be fighting on a hilly forest one minute, and on a wide baron expanse the next. Cities also got a bit of a do over in Fire and Sword, seemingly helped by some of the incredibly colorful architecture of Europe in those times. The common folks are less colorful to talk to, but you can’t blame them really, if I did not have games or Football I’d be pretty dull as well.

The towns, however, do still house all the main things a town needs. From the blacksmith to the goods merchant, there are always new weapons and army to buy, and you will often find yourself going to towns trading goods from one region to another to maximize your income. Giving a good time investment there proves there are money and riches to be had in the different regions, with salt being a particular pain at the start.

There are hundreds of missions to do for people, from taking some cattle to Moscow, or making peace between factions, all offering varied levels of wealth and faction respect. It can take many days to build such levels and you will no doubt be frustrated having to do errands for other people, but Rome was not built in a day. Likewise, your adventure will have its ups and downs as you run into massive armies and get crushed or have to contend with petty companion squabbles. It is by no means a perfect single player experience, but there is a lot of fun to be had in Fire and Sword, and with the right mindset this game will be for you.

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The game also features an interesting multiplayer component. There are several modes, including capture the flag, team deathmatch, and siege, as well as variants on those modes, Deathmatch honestly is what it says on the tin, an all out brawl with upwards of 100 people battling it out in small mini conflicts. Often teams will fight for control of bridges or abandoned buildings to gain even the slightest advantage. Siege is often the mode where a lot of fun can be had if playing with friends. In the process of writing the review, I had several siege games with a group of friends and honestly it was a lot of fun. Our small group of musketeers, in funny hats with weapons primed at the tops of enemy ladders, waiting for heads to peek as we all fire, is a genuinely satisfying experience, even if playing with friends is slightly difficult due to the server browser and lack of friends system.

The multiplayer, for the most part, does a good job of bringing over the fun of the single player combat to the multiplayer stage. It suffers from one major problem however, lag. No matter what game you play it is always a problem. The shooters of the world have been able to correct it with the hit boxes, some being worse than others (i.e. Call of Duty.) However, no one has really tried the close combat sword play with first/third person gameplay on this scale. You can, of course, try to make up for the lag yourself, but the best option is often get a huge two handed sword and swing it like a crazy person. Guns suffer the most due to lag, with bullets being the smallest projectile in the game. Dealing with lag can make hitting an enemy with a gun very difficult.

Ultimately the multiplayer is a flawed gem. There is a lot of potential for greatness and fun to be had, yet it can often be very frustrating at times, especially trying to win as the attacking army in a siege. However, with improved servers and changes to the balancing of certain game modes and weapons, it could become a very memorable experience.

When all is said and done the developers have made some good changes to the gameplay and visuals, while still keeping the game true to its roots. The changes are clear to see, and fans of the series should be happy. A few early release issues have now been patched. What lies in store for Mount & Blade in the future? Do we see another spin off like Warband and Fire and Sword, or do we get a true sequel to the series in a different time zone? I have the same request as I do with the Total War series, do not bring it into the modern day, or we will be laughing. As an Englishman, I’d love to see some love for a bit of western European history in the games next outing.

Title : Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword
Format : PC
Developer : Sich Studios / Taleworlds Entertainment
Publisher : Paradox Interactive
Release Date : 05/03/11

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*Paradox Interactive provided with a promo code for a review copy.