When a conflict proves inevitable, the game shifts to a third person action game in a realistic and sometimes beautiful landscape. With Fire and Sword adds some wonderful variety to the vistas available, but it's a shame because they will just be drenched in blood. Swinging your sword or club against a foe will deal damage, and blocking his attacks is a necessary skill to master if you plan on surviving long. Now that guns are a part of warfare in With Fire and Sword, leading your men in a charge after the riflemen have fired is a thrill but witnessing the horror of massacre is a feeling that many games can't muster. These are your men, and if they go down in a cloud of gunpowder, you feel genuinely bad that you were not able to lead them better. Such is war.
But war is also the extension of politics, and you can certainly play that game in With Fire and Sword. There is no artificial choice at the start of the game to align yourself with one of the five factions, but you will soon find yourself picking a side if you want to progress. Nobles are generally a snooty bunch, but if you perform tasks for them, marry well by courting a highborn lady, or gain renown on the battlefield, they will begin to respect you. The tasks they offer can be as simple as delivering a letter or collecting taxes from a rebellious village, but With Fire and Sword adds some overarching "special" missions that you can undergo for each faction. These add to the flavor of an ongoing story without hammering a linear questline down the player's throat.
The subtle improvements made for this standalone expansion are many and they add up to a deeper game. I personally love the dynamic economic model which tracks prices of everything from chicken to silks in each of the settlements, and that gameplay is aided by allowing you to send caravans from each city. Circling the wagons of your band to create a makeshift fortification is a great way to allow you to protect yourself from would-be marauders. And although I wasn't able to participate in a siege given the time I had with the game, Taleworlds has promised that there will be new, and sometimes dastardly options, such as firing cannons to knock down city walls, or sneaking in at night to poison the water supply.
So far, With Fire and Sword is a pleasant departure from the kinds of games that seem to flood the mainstream market. The user interface isn't flashy, and the dialogue isn't hip or snarky - although the quality of writing is a marked improvement from previous Mount & Blade games - but here is a game that gives the player the ability to enter a fully-realized world and shape it however he or she might want. I'm looking forward to when With Fire and Sword comes out early next month so I can make my way as a Cossack warlord storming the walls of Moscow, but part of me is even more excited to see what a true sequel might look like.