I've been meaning to take a stab at free-form medieval RPG series Mount & Blade for years. YEARS. So it thrills me to say that I'm currently having an incredible time with Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword, the latest game in the series which came out last week.
Join me for the adventures of Captain Smith, the worst mercenary leader to ever roam Eastern Europe.
The Mount & Blade games are all about getting involved in the warfare and violent politics of medieval Europe in a very real way. The end game sees you leading your grubby band forth to siege cities, instigate rebellions, and even work with rightful (or pretend) heirs to out various kings and leaders to slot your boss in their place.
To start with, though, you're placed at the very bottom of the ladder. You are a dude with a shirt and a sword. And I'm going even lower.
For starters, there's an option in the menu, on by default, which causes your hero to take half damage in combat. I quickly correct that. Also, in character creation, I shunt all of my points into Intelligence and Charisma rather than Strength and Agility. I want to see just how bad a fighter I can take to the top.
If I listen very closely, I think I can hear the game laughing in my face.
As for looks, I spend some time wondering whether to give Captain Smith a haircut that looks like the world's most terrifying leech...
... but eventually settle for something more scholarly. This, my friends, is the man who will come to be feared throughout Eastern Europe, where Fire & Sword is set. Men will learn to tremble under his milky gaze.
The game's tutorial kicks off with your character arriving in a town beset by looters. A decrepid man wearing a dressing gown comes jogging up and starts beating Captain Smith like a carpet.
A dreadful turn of events! This is NO WAY TO TREAT A HERO and will not be tolerated. I begin waving my sword around in semaphore until the elderly criminal accidentally gets in the way of it and concertinas to the ground. A noble kill!
Down the road a band of French "adventurers" are preparing for an assault by even more looters, and ask for my aid.
This is going to be messy. Or is it? Captain Smith has a plan.
Once the melee begins, I boldly step away and circle round to the rear, where I can poke holes in the looters from behind, not unlike a man trying to hit a light switch with a broom, but I emerge from the fight unscathed. I am a man of wit and foresight, it is true.
Modest, too! I am destined for greatness. Is there somewhere I have to register for a castle? Because that should happen.
The Frenchmen hand me a pistol and instruct me to shoot a lock off the stable door, despite the fact we're meant to be protecting the town from looters. Never mind.
Now, firearms is actually what I put all of my (few) weapon skillpoints into during character creation. They're a new feature of Fire & Sword. "Watch this!" I think to myself, take aim and… miss.
With my new bloodstained French friends watching, I painstakingly reload the gun (it takes some eight seconds) and fire again. And miss again. For my third shot I walk right up to the padlock and shoot the lock off at point blank range.
This does not bode well.
The Frenchmen and I commandeer ourselves a horse each, ride out and slay the rest of the looters in a battle across a shallow river that probably would have looked really cinematic had I not been off to the side, taking potshots with my pistol. I think I hit somebody at one point but it's hard to tell because when I'm holding down the aim button and my screenshot button at the same time I expand the game's console, unintentionally blinding and paralysing myself.
Oddly, there doesn't seem to be an option to join up with the Frenchmen after the battle. Pfft! As if I would have asked them, if, you know, it had been an option. Sorry lads, but I've got this whole manifest destiny thing to take care of. The Frenchmen do, however, give me some tips, and I listen carefully. Apparently this whole region is rife with conflict between the Moscovites, the Polish, the Crimean somethingorother, the Swedish and somebody else. They also tell me that I might find work in the nearby town of Zamoshye, and the nearby castle of somethingsomething.
I bid them farewell and ride off on my stolen horse, impatient to become a legend.
The queasy-looking village elder of Zamoshye has a couple of things a man of future wealth and taste such as myself might help him with. First, the Mayor of the nearby castle of somethingsomething is taxing his village too much, and someone must persuade him to go easy on the peasants. Second, there are some bandits in the forest that need taking care of. No problem, guy, I tell him. This? This is easy. This is no problem.
My plans are threefold- (1) ride to the castle and have a word with the mayor, (2) hire some mercenaries while I'm there with my small pouch of change, and (3) profit.
(1) goes wrong because it turns out the "mayor" will not be persuaded, thanks to my persuasion skill of 2. I elect to pay off the villagers' taxes myself, in secret.
(2) goes wrong because I no longer have enough money to hire a large amount of dudes. I only have enough to hire five bearded drunks who call themselves "pikemen".
(3) goes wrong because when I return to the mayor he gives me 100 thaler as a reward for getting the taxes lowered. I paid the mayor 200 thaler to make it happen.
Still, early days yet! I head into the forest to find the bandits. And I find them!
Oof, six of us versus six bandits. This one could be close… but you don't go down in history for not taking risks, says Captain Smith. CHAARGE!
This time around I do an excellent job of fighting, almost certainly killing a man. Basically with my pikemen in the fray, I'm free to sit high on my horse and oversee the proceedings like Hell's own tennis umpire, and instead of calling shots I'm taking shots. BANG! Reloadreloadreloadreload BANG! Miss! Swear. Reloadreloadreloadreload
The final tally when the smoke clears is six dead bandits and three dead pikemen. My first proper battle is a success. Nothing for it but to ride back to Zamoshye and collect my reward in oh wait shit hang on what
WHAT?! NO NO NO
About two hours into the six hour ride back to Zamoshye my party is ambushed by bandits. Specifically, the "Zamoshye Bandits" who I was sent to get rid off. I'm left wondering who in the shit I just ordered my men to kill.
The Zamoshye bandits ask for money. I have none. I say this hoping my men don't overhear as it's payday in a week.
Three of us versus seven bandits. This one could be close… but you don't go down in history for not taking risks, command Captain Smith. CHAARG– OH JESUS MY NECK
I haven't even loosed my first pistol shot when one of the Zamoshye bandits, who it turns out are marginally better equipped than the paupers I just brutalised, pegs me in the chest with a musket shot. Captain Smith goes tumbling off his horse like a sack of potatoes.
…my… my men… you must fight… for… me.. you don't go down in history… for… oh, balls.
Oh, this can't be good.
Quintin Sith is a writer for Rock Paper Shotgun, one of the world's best sites for PC gaming news. Quintin wasn't very good at his early career as a globe-trotting hobo (or "globo"), and has since limited himself to the domestic journeys of videogames. Follow him on Twitter.
Republished with permission.