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).