Version tested: PC
In the marvellous but Marmite-y Mount & Blade and its semi-sequel Warband, you could end a man's life by cracking his skull with a warhammer, slashing his vitals to shreds with a sword, pin-cushioning his abdomen with arrows, or thrusting a lance through his family jewels. What you couldn't do was pull a firearm from your belt and blow his brains out. Clever Kievites SiCh Studio, realising that guns are amazingly rare in electronic entertainment, have rectified this.
At first glance, the idea of adding boomsticks to an open-world RPG built around intricate swordplay, artful archery and fancy horsemanship might seem odd, not to say dangerous. After a few days of play, I'm still not totally convinced it was a wise move, but I do have to admit that musket mayhem does have a certain smoke-wreathed charm.
The obvious risk with sprinkling gunpowder into Mount & Blade's finely-seasoned combat broth was that all the old melee tools and missile-slingers would be rendered redundant in an instant. The good news is there's still a role - albeit a shrunken one - for blade and bow in With Fire & Sword's violent version of 17th-century Eastern Europe.
If, for some quaint reason, you consider it unsporting to slay the finest swordsman in all of Muscovy or the toughest Tatar in Tatary with a pistol ball to the forehead, you can stick to familiar low-tech weaponry (except crossbows - they're gone) and still be effective. The impact of the new range of matchlock rifles, sidearms and grenades is offset by their unwieldiness, long reload times and high cost. In single- or multiplayer, as long as the sabre-slasher or pike-pusher picks his moments and uses cover and subordinate troops cannily, he's not at a significant disadvantage.
Firearms might not have upset the series' delicate combat balance, but their scary lethality does discourage some of the more gung-ho tactics that made the original titles such rollicking good fun. Where in ye olde days I would spur my nag towards a mass of charging foes without a second thought, now I'm more likely to hang back, aware that a few amongst the approaching horde are probably carrying rifles capable of knocking me from the saddle long before I get within lance or sword range.
Everyone, even the scruffiest bandits, seem to have a few gunners in their ranks. If peasant riflemen missed more often or were occasionally blinded or blown to smithereens by their own bargain-basement fowling pieces (sadly, With Fire & Sword doesn't feature comical face-blackening misfires or catastrophic barrel-splitting weapon failures) then this rampant gun ownership would be easier to accept.
Of course, there's more to this standalone expansion than just added shooting irons. SiCh have turned the clock forward a few hundred years and replaced fictional Calradia with a slab of pike-and-musket era Europe that stretches from the Baltic in the North to the Black Sea in the South.
Gone are old, familiar factions like the Nords and the Khergits. Now your choice-strewn rise from impoverished ingénue to wealthy, faction-leading bigwig is played out amongst a gaggle of squabbling Tatars, Poles, and Cossacks. On paper, the shift should be incredibly invigorating. In fact, I've found myself yearning for the snowy wastes of Vaega and the sweltering dunes of the Sarranid Sultanate on more than one occasion.
Despite a fat cache of solid faction-specific missions, the new historically-inspired setting just doesn't seem as colourful or as evocative as the old cod-medieval one. In Warband, when I needed a break from trade or banditry, village-nurturing or mercenary chevauchées, I'd search out the nearest tourney, go a-wooing or, maybe, spar with a few of my merry men. In With Fire & Sword there are no tournaments, no marriages or hands-on troop training. The developer has left them out for reasons of historical accuracy (which is fine) and failed to replace them with interesting substitutes (not fine).
The closest thing to Warband's tense and lucrative arena scraps are squalid pub-car-park fist fights. Most taverns in With Fire & Sword seem to boast a drunk willing to hazard a few coins on a bare-knuckle bout. Accept and you're whisked outside into an empty yard or street for a few minutes of grunty lunging. If these sessions involved a ring of baying locals or occasionally degenerated into mass brawls, they might have been more appealing. As it is, they're pretty tiresome.
In an era when every self-respecting rake had a pistol on his hip, and every self-respecting landlord a cellar full of vodka, it's sad that duels, impromptu shooting contests and drinking games aren't part of the rich tapestry of urban life. Combine the three - maybe mix in a little bear-baiting or Beard Tax collecting, for good measure - and you'd have, well, something a damn sight more interesting than what you have at the moment.
One of the odder omissions is the absence of female player-characters. Instead of the Warband system where you got to choose the sex and back-story of your hero, character-creation in With Fire & Sword involves stat distribution, (male) face sculpting and nothing else. More dye leached from Mount & Blade's bright vestments for no discernible gain.
Happily, not all of the changes are negative. The new wagon fort capability, for example, is 98 per cent splendid. For an old wargamer like myself, one of the more annoying aspects of Mount & Blade has always been the fact that, when being chased down by a superior force on the campaign map, you can't seek out a nice defensible hill, ruin or river crossing and await the inevitable clash. The new ability to circle wagons into a defensive laager in the moments before armies meet goes a long way to banishing that annoyance.
I'm also enjoying some of the economic tweaks. Though figuring out profitable trade runs early on is still a pain, thanks to an unhelpful interface, it's great that we finally get to organise goods caravans in addition to raiding and shepherding them. Once you've built up enough capital to invest in your first, and recruited the few dozen mercs necessary to keep it safe, you'll never look back. Profits can be squirrelled away in banks too, meaning that mid-game, you can be off climbing the greasy pole (or clobbering him, if you prefer) while compound interest pays your army's wages and bar bills.
Not that all of With Fire & Sword's armies require remuneration. Captain, the new multiplayer mode, lets you play team deathmatch with a squad of slavishly obedient bots at your side. As these micro-armies are controlled with the same crude interface as single-player ones, parade-ground precision and disciplined volley firing isn't possible. Still, it's a welcome step down the road to that mash-up of Mount & Blade and Total War that tops my 'Why Has Nobody Made...' list. Getting a Mount & Blade multiplayer team to work together can be a near-impossible task. Captain does at least give the illusion of coordination.
The worst accusation I can hurl at With Fire & Sword is also the kindest compliment I can pay it. Despite the new setting, infernal weaponry and bespoke story quests, most of the time the game plays just like Warband or the original Mount & Blade. The majority of the bread-and-butter activities are nigh identical, as is the pace and pattern of play. Once the novelty of gunpowder has worn off, series veterans may find themselves wandering back to familiar pastures - or wondering whether one of the tastier Caravanserai offerings (some of which also supply musket action) wouldn't have provided as much pleasure.
6 / 10