The Mount and Blade series is fast becoming the best (and only) detailed horse combat game out there. While the lack of competition certainly means that Mount and Blade has happily cornered this particular niche market, it also means that developer Taleworlds can safely iterate the design of the game in a way that is starting to feel a bit boring. Mount and Blade: With Fire and Sword is the latest installment in the franchise from Taleworlds, and though it’s everything its predecessors were (and a bit more), it feels far more stale than I could have predicted.
Fire and Sword takes its forbearers’ medieval horse combat and pushes it out of the fictional medieval land of Calradia and into a more historically (and geographically) accurate age of guns and canons. Fire and Sword takes place in Eastern Europe and Russia, not that the change in setting matters, apart from the requisitely Slavic names for towns and NPCs.
Apart from the introduction of guns and grenades, this is Mount and Blade as it was in the game’s last expansion, Warband. It’s still a mix of RPG, first- and third-person horse fighting and army commanding-lite. As always, I started the game as a frighteningly-rendered European mercenary, out to make my mark on the world. I completed quests and killed bandits for experience, vital resources, and money, amassed a band of merry cutthroats that would grow into an army, and spent most of my free time watching my army trundle across the game’s campaign map. Quests are still far too hard to complete: the game can be horribly vague, costing me precious hours, food, and money as I chase after quest objectives that are hidden, fast-moving, or seemingly impossible to complete.
Combat’s just as finicky and drawn-out as it always has been. Once mastered, the game’s somewhat complex recreation of swordplay, gun fighting, and archery can be rewarding, but they can also be incredibly frustrating. It took me, long, long hours to perfect my rifle skills and it was in no way a rewarding experience. Guns certainly do more damage than do bows, but it takes about 15 seconds to reload a pistol or rifle. That was often enough time for the in-combat enemies to swarm me and cut me (or shoot me) out of my saddle, if I wasn’t careful.
It wasn’t until my second playthrough that I decided to specialize in grenades, and in grenades I found a solution to the Mount and Blade series’s greatest flaw: grenades are incredibly effective against M&B’s combat dog piles. Still, the Mount and Blade way of combat is still the “throw all of us and all of them together in the center of the ring” school of combat design. This means that I did little actual “commanding” in Fire and Sword. Instead I rode around the outside of the blob and hacked at my enemies’ backs, before fleeing in terror when (inevitably) a group of ten or so swordsmen gave chase. Grenades therefore alleviate the boredom of combat somewhat: instead of hacking at enemies, I lob grenades at them until they chase me away.
If that sounds like thrilling tactical gameplay, than you’re the kind of person for whom Mount and Blade is expressly designed. The laborious overworld travel bizarrely makes combat into a welcome respite. After watching my little army (represented by a lone horse) cross all of Poland, a boring yet unpredictable clash with bandits or looters becomes a thing to relish. Overworld travel is boring and tedious, but it can also be incredibly annoying. Many quests tasked me with tracking down enemies (to kill) or friends (to deliver a letter) and tracking people down in Mount and Blade is by far the game’s most frustrating and time-wasting device. Often, I’d have to chase my target down over the course of ten or twenty minutes of play. The world map is huge, so traversing it is never an interesting experience. Enemies whose numbers didn’t match my own would instantly flee at the sight of me. Worse, even when I’d sighted my target, the minute disparities in party movement speed (even fully upgraded) meant that I could spend three to four minutes chasing an enemy before I actually drew that enemy into combat. Nothing about the world map movement, quest-completing, and leveling portions of Fire and Steel are fun or rewarding. Every task takes longer than it should, and every reward is far less grandiose than I needed it to be.
All of this combines to make a rather drab, punishing game, but it’s even more punishing when its harsh failure mechanics are taken into account. It’s easy to run out of money, since your units quickly demand immense sums of money for their weekly services, and quests can takes hours of play and weeks of in-game travel to complete. When I did run out of money, the resulting hits to my army and reputation were hard to come back from. The game really needs a feature akin to Pirates!’ “temporary retirement” mechanic, whereby players can divide up the treasure among their crew, put in at port and hire a new, unsullied crew, keeping their experience but wiping the slate clean everywhere else. The fact that Mount and Blade still doesn’t have such a basic, player-friendly feature is surprising.
I’m not surprised that the M&B games haven’t tried to revamp their hard-to-learn and harder to implement combat and questing mechanics. They don’t have any competitors breathing down their necks, Taleworlds is an extremely small company, and I’ve no doubt that they have their hands full making the minor combat and diplomacy upgrades present in Fire and Sword. But it just isn’t enough. What’s the point in buying a new M&B game every one and a half years if the only new features are a different set of high-level political maneuvers and guns that might as well be slow-firing bows? The game (as it has remained, mostly unchanged, for the last 3 years) is fundamentally flawed.
It may do things that no other games do, but I’d love it if Taleworlds and their partners could make the game smoother and more playable. As it is, Fire and Sword is as deep and semi-playable as its predecessors. I just can’t imagine anyone who isn’t a dyed in the wool M&B fan playing this game and loving it for what it is. I’m sure that its low price tag and new, Slavic locales will draw many players back to the fold, but I for one am ready for some serious changes to this franchise. I’d love to love a Mount and Blade game again.