I’m not exactly sure what is so captivating about inhabiting a simulation, as opposed to a more linear game. Yes, you can get swept into the story of, say, Nathan Drake finding the lost gold of El Dorado, or the political machinations that doomed Rapture, but even though narrative games might allow you an illusion of choice, the player’s options are severely limited. Most of these choices, at their core, merely allow the player to decide how best to kill his enemies in the confines of the story that the game designers want to tell.
But that’s not the case with Taleworlds’ Mount & Blade games. Here, the player inhabits a world that doesn’t care a whit whether your character even exists. Nations rise up, wars are fought, cities razed, and your character can influence them, participate in the battles, gaining prestige and maybe a castle to rule, or not. Hell, you could pass time buying and selling vodka, or courting ladies, and let the wars go on without you. Such excellent display of player agency is so refreshing that I find myself coming back to Mount & Blade again and again.
With Fire and Sword is an update to the simulation that adds context, but doesn’t significantly alter the basic assumption that the player must make his own way. Inspired by the conflict dramatized in the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz with the same title, northeastern Europe is in tumult. The Kingdom of the Swedes is attacking the Russians based in Moscow, the Poles are at war with the Cossacks from the Ukraine, and the Crimean Tartars don’t like any of them. To top it off, the invention of gunpowder has become ubiquitous enough that even common thieves and bandits will likely have a rifle or two at their disposal. Swordsmanship, horse mastery and archery are still important skills, but a loaded gun trumps all.
Of course, the firearms of the 17th century are imperfect machines to say the least. At the start of the battle, they are loaded and ready to inflict massive damage, but reloading the muzzle with powder and bullets takes precious time, especially when your enemies are charging fast. Having a pistol and a rifle at your disposal will help in the early battles, so that you have two weapons ready to fire to start.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Mount & Blade, the game is played on a map populated with cities, fortresses and villages. In With Fire and Sword, that map uses historical locations from the actual region and how they were aligned amongst the five factions loosely follows what really happened. Traveling between these locations are bands of men, some of musketmen led by nobles or warlords, others merely farmers or merchant caravans. The player character controls one of these bands – starting out with a population of one – and you can move wherever you wish as time passes in the simulation. Entering a city will bring menus to speak to merchants or enter a tavern where you can hire mercenaries – which is the only way to increase your manpower in the early game. When you meet one of the other bands, though, you can have a short dialogue, and, in some cases, a battle will be joined.
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.