The introduction of firearms is the most noticeable change brought about in With Fire and Sword, with early flintlocks and muskets representing a dramatic step up from the crossbows of the earlier games. There are still longbows for those who like to kill with artistry, as well as swords and spears and the sort, but right from the start it’s the rifles and pistols that steal the show.
In fact, the main criticism to level at the balancing of the singleplayer game is that the guns are introduced far too early, with players gifted a pistol and horse at the end of the tutorial sequence.
The addition of firearms (which are all one-hit killers) isn’t enough to break Fire and Sword totally, as even the best pistols still take an age to reload and are wildly inaccurate at range, but the early game is far easier than it’s ever been before. At the start of Mount and Blade even the smallest band of looters or deserters used to represent a tense challenge, but having a pistol shoved into your hands so early turns them all into easy pickings in With Fire and Sword. It seems strange that the most powerful weapon type in the game is handed down so early on.
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Thankfully, since you can only carry a limited amount of shot, bigger mobs are still a challenge, although seasoned players won’t start to sweat until they square off against equally armed foes. That one-hit kill rule goes both ways, which can leave battles feeling occasionally unfair.
This level of lethality also means that firearms will be a love-it or hate-it affair in multiplayer battles, as there’s no way to block the damage caused by a firearm. If two players both miss their first shots then there can be some incredible moments of tension as both rush to reload, or as one opts to instead close the distance and settle the fight with steel. Those who know when to drop their pistols or when to dodge left and right can quickly distinguish themselves on the scoreboards.
What’s hardest to judge about the new range of weapons, though, is what value they really contribute to the whole package. On the one hand, With Fire and Sword is clearly a budget game in terms of aesthetic, features and price point. At the same time though, there’s little here that’s wholly new, and some features have been lost compared to earlier entries in the series. The guns radically reshape some aspects of the balancing, but they’ve been around in free fan-made mods for a long time.
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Reconciling those two points can be difficult, because while With Fire and Sword is still a very fun game, it doesn’t necessarily feel like a whole new instalment in the series.
There’s a lot to recommend With Fire and Sword – tense multiplayer battles, a deep singleplayer mode that offers a moreish and unpredictable experience and a physics-based melee system that means battles aren’t as simple as clicking and hoping. That recommendation has to be halted, however, when you realise that the older games offered this too – and Warband offered more besides.
Ultimately, With Fire and Sword fails to offer any new killer features. Everything it does has been done before, either in the earlier games or in the free mods on which this latest title is based. It’s by no means a bad game, but its lack of ambition combines with the failure to improve old faults to create a merely average title. Mount and Blade: Warband still remains the highlight of the franchise so far.