Friday, June 24, 2011

-REVIEW: Mount and Blade: With Fire and Sword-
another example of words fixing nothing

Title: Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword 
Developer: Snowberry Connection, Sich Studio, TaleWorlds, CD Projekt
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release: May 2011 (PC)
Price: $14.99

Experience the world-changing effects of gunpowder weapons on medieval warfare in unbelievably frustrating detail


cowboys and indians

Historically accurate games are pretty compelling for the most part. In one sense, it’s easier to make a game that’s historically accurate, because it relies less on creative juices and more on solid research. In another sense, historically accurate games can be a complete nightmare because some parts of history were just so consistently clusterfucked that a game about them would be equally so.

Guess which sense Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword has.
Epic! A horse dies at the end
 it ain’t all bad

Before I get to the negatives, let me first say that Fire and Sword dramatically improves upon its predecessors in a single (important) area: consequence. Both Mount & Blade: Warband and the original Mount & Blade were compelling, satisfying plays, largely due to their combat systems. When it came to narrative, purpose, or sense of “place” within the space granted, they were very thin. Some argue (and I agree, to certain extent) that this lack of place was in fact an overabundance of freedom, and those who felt a bit lost or aimless in it were simply whiny, flailing babes begging to be swaddled by the big, strong freedom men of the freedom frontier. And of course the big, strong freedom frontier men of freedom wanted nothing to do with that.

Personally, I found not the aimless wandering of Mount & Blade: Warband or Mount & Blade a bit disorienting, but rather the lack of game-ending events. It’s at this point some of those mighty freedom frontiersmen may stomp their freedom boots loudly and contest, “wouldn’t it be even more frustrating if you actually died? Preposterous!” But I say no, good sir. Cease your wafflestomping and hear me out. A wise man once said to me, “death is what makes things important. Death means permanence. And permanence is not a game.” But what I say is that permanence in a game is exactly what makes that game compelling. And Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword has it, whereas WB and MB do not.
Intrigue! Text! Intriguing text!
 What Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword also has is a much more concrete sense of narrative, purpose, and telos, which is represented by its rather well-implemented quest chaining and slightly bothersome inverted escort quests (where you track down individuals, instead of following them about to a destination). These elements do make Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword worth playing through, because it feels much more like a personal story than Mount & Blade: Warband and Mount & Blade did with their singular need to be dominated. But sadly, they do not save the game from this withering criticism:

It isn’t very fun.
Each of them is hiding 3 guns. Also, you lose.
 The devil and god are raging with pistols and muskets

The aforementioned combat of the first two games is indeed the series glowing charm; the spotless talisman which rests upon the hairy, bare-chested pedigree that is Mount & Blade. And rightfully so. There are few modern games that can match the visceral satisfaction granted by the combat system in this game. The nearest equivalent I can think of is from a game called California Games, which had an event called the Flying Disk.

The FlyingDisk was likely the most difficult event to perform in the game. Chalk it up to limited RAM headroom, but the UI on the thing was nigh unintelligible: little green and white lines flanked by small white arrows denoting the “speed” and “angle” of your toss (parenthesized due to the fact that these things were oversimplifications, subsequently sleuthed out by a puzzled 8yr-old me and 10yr-old my brother). Confusion was compounded by the fact that some mimefact of your disk-tossing avatar (inexplicably placed off-screen but for a small minimap at the top) spontaneously seized with a button press after the Disk was released, for no obvious reason but added interactivity. But! Once it was mastered, it was the single most satisfying event in the game. A good throw catapulted the Disk effortlessly through the air, its release punctuated by the now purposeful sprint of that pixeled twin, sailing, sailing, sailing hundreds upon hundreds of meters, onto a now elegantly timed pixeledtwinseize, which then resulted in an explosion of points. It was the satisfaction of a csikszentimihalyian flow of perfectly timed button presses, filled with a blissful, anticipatory gap represented by the gentle sailing of a virtual Disk. This is the signature feeling of the combat of Mount & Blade. And it is almost entirely circumvented in With Fire and Sword.
No amount of "Sword" will help you here. This game really should have been called "Fire and Fire: With Fire...and Fire"
 he who controls the powder controls the universe

The era (and book) which the game is based upon is the basis for this circumvention. In “RL” history, the advent of gunpowder and its weaponization altered the nature of combat.  The ease of use, lethality, and range of gunpowder weapons not only made feudal knights themselves obsolete, it also negated their entire arsenal and armory. Any derivatives of these implements were thusly obsolescized as well. Once these weapons were fused with mass production, melee combat became ludicrously inadvisable. In a game engine and design pedigree where melee combat is perhaps the most satisfying, most tangible motivating force for playing, it is perhaps an understatement to say that forcing combat to become an almost entirely ranged affair was a bad decision.
They run because they stole my chocolates! NOBODY STEALS MY CHOCOLATES
 Some say it encourages a more “thoughtful” style of approach to combat situations. I say it turns what used to be a fun, deep, satisfying third-person combat system into a boring, interminable, frustrating third-person real-time strategy game. Now, this is a bit hyperbolic, since there are many situations where you will outclass or outnumber the enemy such that you may well be able to relive the glory days of riding into battle and experiencing the exhilarating rush of the slicing a foe in twain, but for every major battle, where the enemy either equals you in strength or number, your best bet is to simply send wave after wave of fodder against a neverending hail of steaming musketballs.  And still, there will be no guarantee that a stray steaming musketball will not strike your skull like an unforeseen sforzando and likewise bring your otherwise successful campaign to an untimely end (there’s death in this game, remember?). So, so frustrating.
Option #4 is "I want you to make a nobleMAN out of me." *wink *wink
 No amount of story, well-written or otherwise engaging, will make this reality more bearable. It pains me to admit it, but this entry into the series strayed too far from its roots. Despite its hamfisted charm and laughably awesome character creation tools, despite its historically accurate, unintentional commentary on 17th century Eastern European fashion, despite its dated ragdoll physics and enjoyable equine death animations, Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword is simply not very fun to play.

crimean? more like crummian

The game isn’t a complete loss. Along with aforementioned pros about the quality of the story and the sense of place, the considerable multiplayer component is worth mentioning. It is one thing to give unthinking, unfeeling, incalculably precise robotoids gunpowder weapons (in a word: deathmachines) and it is an entirely other thing to give whimsical, foolish, errant meatbags the same. It turns out that doing so can be quite fun. The manipulable nature of human opponents actually balances out the lethality of the weapons, making it surprisingly easy (and delightfully satisfying) to cleave these poor bastards in half as they attempt to reload. Also, the “Captain Team Deathmatch” mode can make for some fun, quick, and enjoyably epic battle sequences. But this is all dependent on your ability to find a decent multiplayer server (which may or may not be an issue, because to be fair, I haven’t checked).
And so we meet again, pointy hat man
 The game, though, still hangs lowly on the coil, teetering precariously over the chasm of obscurity. This game, it should not have been judged based on its predecessors. But the moment it took on that name, I believe it took on more than it was meant to. In one sense, this is indeed a Mount & Blade game. In another, it’s a clusterfuck.
All good Orthodoxians never get baptized without their axe.