Considering that we know very well the sharpness of Turkish steel, our neighbors decided to conquer us through different means. As such, in 2009 Mount & Blade, a household production from a Turkish family, took us (and the world) by storm, also impressing a well-established publisher like Paradox Interactive. Its success encouraged the development of an expansion, Warband, which added the much-needed multiplayer, and now we have another stand-alone expansion, With Fire and Sword, which introduces new loud and smoke-producing toys: firearms.
Along with the switch to a post-medieval era – a risky move, according to some – the action too moved from a semi-fantasy setting to a more recognizable Europe. The five factions which struggle for control can be easily recognized as Russians, Polish, the Swedish monarchy, Tatars and Cossacks. Nations that existed (and still do), but the resemblances with the historical truth stop here (even though we have some high-profile city-states such as Moscow and Warsaw).
This is because the strategic map doesn’t resemble any actual region and the nations do not follow known political agendas or alliances, as they declare war and peace in the same random manner. However, things are not entirely dull in the single-player campaign, considering that the producers took Henrik Szienkiewicz’s literary work as inspiration.
This means we have three different storylines in the campaign, depending on which factions we choose to support, although we are restricted to the Slavic ones. Therefore, we have some special missions, unlike the usual transport, assassination or escort, which can only be completed for one faction at a time and in order. These missions manage add to the overall atmosphere, since aside from the rewards (which are pretty interesting and cannot be obtained in any other way), the stories behind them are quite well done and worthy of any dagger and cloak novel. Also, they aren’t mandatory, which means you can ignore them completely and enjoy the game without getting tangled in the slippery politics of the time.
Whether we choose to swear allegiance to one of the kings or we try to shape our own path, the adventures on the strategic map are pretty much similar to those from the previous games. There are villages, fortresses or castles which can be used for pillaging, capture or simple commerce.
Trading has been improved in this expansion, as we now have the ability to create our own caravans and lead them to their destination, often for a fat profit. In fact, with a little market research, great fortunes can be amassed in short time, which raised the question of their unbalance, however I wasn’t very troubled by the issue because I welcomed the chance to make a quick buck to finance my warmongering instead of grinding for gold. In fact, the entire economic system has been revamped especially if you choose to run your own empire.
If you choose to serve under a monarch, you will be summoned to take part in his military campaigns, you will also receive a village or even a fortress to manage and will be paid, often modestly, for your services. His enemies will become your own and you will have little influence on the kingdom’s foreign policy, but you will have an entire empire to back you up. However, jousting tournaments and the conquest of noble ladies are no longer available, which is a sad thing, considering those were fun and often useful gameplay options.
To be or not to be king
If, on the other hand, you decide to resign and start working on your own empire, you should prepare yourself for a world of hurt, for several reasons. First of all, the income tax and expenses system has been revamped, meaning that taxes come harder and lower in value, according to the prosperity of each of your domains, as well as their sentiment towards you. In other words, you need to take care of your followers by building social buildings in your estates (school, mill), appointing public clerks (judge, marshal), not to mention that you need to protect them from enemy lords who wish to pillage them.
Another difficulty in maintaining your own empire is the somewhat artificially demigods which are you enemies. It doesn’t matter how often you destroy their armies or how badly they lose the battles, they will always come back with superior forces, both in numbers and quality. They appear to have a bottomless treasury if they can afford all these well-trained troops, despite the fact that their properties are very poor and that you do everything possible to hinder their economy and military.
However, the thing that really comes to spoil the entire macro-economy of the game is the siege dynamic, which is, simply put, broken. In previous titles, the defenders of a fortress could easily resist an attacking army almost double their number, but in Fire & Sword we no longer have this privilege which some would even consider realistic. We now need throngs of men on the walls just to be sure that the city will hold, which makes the maintenance costs skyrocket.
Things tend to be a bit better if you climb personally on the walls to defend your realm, but this is impractical when you have a large empire to manage. Also, the access points, once few and well-defended, have become many and easy to conquer, which makes sieges a less tactical affair and a more number-oriented one. Not to mention that an enemy fortress under siege will magically replenish its defenders overnight, if you could not slay them all in one sitting, making the vital tactic of grinding the defense, obsolete.