I recently got the chance to take a whirl with Paradox's latest entry into their Mount & Blade series, With Fire and Sword. Having no previous experience with this extremely open-ended action RPG series, I have to admit I spent much of my time feeling quite overwhelmed. And although I eventually clawed my way through the steep learning curve, at no point during my limited introduction to the single-player aspect of the series did I ever feel I had a handle on exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword is mostly a sandbox RPG. After a rather extensive character-building, I was dropped right into the action with only the briefest of tutorials. With a few pointers on the basic controls, I was soon on my own to visit the local towns and hunt for a bit of work and adventure. The game consists of a few different screens, starting with an immense map of central Europe. Player can wander this map, moving from town to city to fortress, looking for quests from the various locations. As the game is set during a time of great political strife, players soon find themselves allied with and against various factions and kingdoms, depending on their actions.
The towns themselves are mostly a bunch of static menus, allowing players to shop, gain quests, and hire allies for their burgeoning armies. I didn't spend much time dallying about here, as most of the action in the game takes place outside the safety of the gates. After players hit the main map once again, they are given the opportunity to encounter various patrols, be they bandits, friendly troops, or enemy armies. Should the encounter become hostile, battle commences and the Mount & Blade series begins to shine through.
Although the graphics and sound are quite dated, the action of the battlefield is still somehow engrossing. At first, when it was just me against a handful of troops, things weren't all that exciting. However, after I began amassing a small squadron of my own, and could take on larger numbers of enemies, the appealing chaos of the fighting system began to shine through. Controlling the character initially took some work to get used to, but after a while combat felt almost natural. As the title suggests, players can spend a great deal of time fighting from horseback if they choose. Charging a horde of enemies, gun blazing or saber flashing, while being flanked by dozens of friendly pikemen and musketeers, was a surprising amount of fun. Battles always had a largely chaotic feel, which only grew with the size of the armies, and this barely-controlled, frenetic pace did keep me on the edge of my seat throughout.
Being an RPG, main characters will gain experience and levels as they fight and complete quests. With a very detailed set of skills and attributes, players can quickly tailor their character to their chosen style of play. From frontline combat-monsters to snipers to skilled commanders, or some hybrid of the three, if players manage to navigate the complexity of the character sheet, most tastes will be accommodated.
Aside from the battles and character development, there is an overwhelming amount of things for players to do. So much so, in fact, that I felt a little put off through most of the preview. I'm the sort of person that wants a clear goal, especially in my RPGs, which the sandbox feel of With Fire and Sword simply lacks. Sure, players can do just about anything--build armies, join any faction of their choosing, protect or lay siege to cities and fortresses, or even vie to become ruler themselves. But for me, with my lack of direction, I spent much of my time aimlessly taking on small quests picking (admittedly amusing) fights with the locals.
In my few levels of advancement and exploration, I am sure I barely managed to scratch the surface of this title. While the battles were fun, the sheer amount of open-ended wandering managed to blunt my enthusiasm a bit more quickly than I had expected. Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword does promise more detailed storylines and quests in the single-player campaign, as well as an extensive multiplayer mode, so there might be a lot more once I can dive a bit deeper in. As it stands right now, I am tentatively hopeful that the full release will deliver a strong and complex world to explore and exploit.