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An Evening With: Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword

If you’ve read our review of Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword (WFaS) you’ll already know that we found the single player side of things a little underwhelming compared to the superior (and older) Mount & Blade: Warband. But the title did succeed in rekindling our interest for Mount & Blade’s superbly chaotic multiplayer.

Throw upwards of twenty people into a relatively small map space, give most of them horses and the rest guns, then ask them to do what comes naturally in a videogame. That’s WFaS’s multiplayer in brief.
Let’s see how it plays.

Game 1

Mode: Captain Deathmatch
Map: Hill Road
Team: Muscovite Tsardom (Marksman)
Score: 227-300 (loss)

It may sound more like a superhero equipped with a deadly tinderbox, but Captain Deathmatch is actually the new Mount & Blade (M&B) multiplayer mode exclusive to WFaS. In it, you’re given a small squad of bots to point at the other team and have to tot up a collective number of kills before the other side does the same. The great strength of this mode is it makes matters even more frenetic than usual, because you’re trying to effectively command your troops while keeping an eye on your own back. With poor captaincy, It’s not unusual for these matches to turn into a frightening, multi-legged amorphous blob of infantry, horse and musketeer all vying for a clean melee hit.

Upon joining the server, it seemed the Russians were already some 100 points down on the Poles (with the first to 300 kills being the victor), so I opted to aid the ailing Tsar and lead some musket-wielding marksmen into the fray.
In WFaS’s multiplayer, you’re supplied with a certain amount of gold (decided by the host) to spend on upgrades like better guns, sillier hats and horses that can actually move their legs a bit. In Captain mode this extends to the quality of your troops too. After improving my arsenal (who wants to go into battle with something called ‘worthless bullets’ eh?) I didn’t have too much cash left for this, but after some financial juggling was able to bump up my marksmen from hopeless peons to semi-trained peons.

Choosing un-mounted, musket-armed troops proved, almost immediately, to be a mistake. A lot of people on the Polish side were commanding the fast-moving ‘Winged Hussars’ (or ‘those fucking Winged Hussars’ as I came to know them). This meant they were able to close the meagre distance on this map and cut down my somewhat immobile marksmen, along with my good self, with ease. I managed to pop off a few decent shots, one of which killed the horse from under another player in spectacular fashion, but mostly just proved to be a sitting duck for any cavalry keen to rack up some points.

A handy thing about M&B is that you can re-equip yourself between respawns (taking a totally different role if you wish) or just nab handy things from the battlefield. Weapons from fallen soldiers littered the ground, so it was easy enough for me to find a horse-bothering polearm to wield in place of my musket. I’d hoped to mount up and use it like a lance, but this proved an unsuitable combination (you can’t wave that particular weapon around while mounted) and I was cut down again while fumbling pathetically for a sword.
As the fight drew to a close, it seemed the Muscovites had pulled back the score to some degree (though we were still around 70 points adrift). I pulled my marksmen back to a nearby stable and tried to hold it down while mounted Hussars pounded the turf all around us. Within a minute or so, it was all over. My personal squad’s stats were something of a disgrace: 22 kills with 60 deaths. Sorry, Russia.

I guess this means they won’t be russian to hire me again.

(Sorry, everyone.)

Game 2

Mode: Capture the Flag
Map: Village By The River
Team: Crimean Khanate (Mounted Archer)
Score: 0-4 (loss)

M&B may have some of the most dispassionate multiplayer map names in history, but it more than makes up for it with some delicious faction names. Where else can you play as something as exotic as a horse archer from the Crimean Khanate?

To get my excuses in early here, the side was already 2-0 down when I joined this (not that I really helped a great deal in pulling that score back). I’m not entirely sure what the time limit was on the match, but it seemed to drag on forever. I only stuck around because I was able to play as one of my preferred troop-types: the Crimean mounted archer. Yes, despite guns being the big deal of WFaS, I still get a kick out of peppering somebody with arrows (at least, when I’m able to steer the horse straight enough to hit them). M&B employs the terrific mechanic of leaving arrows sticking out of people when they hit home, which is automatically hilarious when it results in guys limping around carrying more arrows than a road-sign distribution warehouse.
The main focus of this map was an unforgeable river spanning the middle of it, from right to left. Small bridges allowed passage on both sides, with a larger bridge in the middle. Unsurprisingly, there were quite a few people slogging it out in the middle portion for most of the match. That, I felt, lacked creativity. I found it much more entertaining to ride off around the sides and attempt to do drive-by arrowings of the local Swedish population on the other bank. Or, more often than not, charge in and die (as my final stats of five kills and twenty deaths will atest). It’s not the most astute tactic, but for me M&B has always been about riding around like a nutter. Especially when playing a horse archer.

I’m not sure Capture the Flag really plays to M&B’s strengths (especially as a lot of people seemed to be ignoring the flag completely), but this match did provide one ridiculous moment when a cunning Swede nicked our banner and I seemed to be the only one to have noticed. We engaged in a ludicrous game of cat and mouse, with him weaving, snake-like, to avoid my arrows and ducking in and out of cover taking pot-shots back with his pistol. He managed to make it across the river, while I used up my remaining arrows trying to fell him. A couple hit home, but he still made it back to base with a handful of souvenirs in his thigh. Eager to take revenge, I located him in the distance and charged across the middle bridge with no care for personal safety. Closing quickly on my trusty steed, I swung my sword at his head but was easily parried. Stranded deep in enemy territory, I was cut down by a swarm of eager soldiers with Game of Thrones nicknames.
And that ignominious end, frankly, summed up much of this match.
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Game 3

Mode: Siege
Map: A Castle In The Hills
Team: Polish Republic (Infantryman)
Score: Castle uncaptured (loss)

Since the chance presented itself, I dived into a Siege game and chose to be a Polish infantryman (a nationality and role I’d not yet explored during this Evening With). I and my newfound Polish friends were tasked with storming a pesky Swedish castle. Damn those Swedish musketeers with their floppy hats, dandyish appearance and limitless supply of inexpensive IKEA furniture. Clearly they must all be slain.

My default equipment of ‘old pike’ sounded a bit fishy to me, so I upgraded to something called a balanced pike (less slippery, presumably) and found some fashionable gear to wear. Some of the player-base may not be prepared admit it, but half of the fun of playing M&B is engaging in shameless dolly dress-ups.
Somebody smart on our team used the group chat to inform us that a small door on the right hand side of the castle had been opened, so I made a beeline straight there. Well, ok, I made repeated beelines there after making it and being killed. Making it, killing a guy … and being killed. Almost making it, because someone on the walls killed me. And then, finally, making it there and being killed. Again. That’s kind of how the Siege mode goes in M&B if you’re the attacker. You usually spawn a short distance away and if you’re not a mounted character you have to jog towards the action for a while, risking death from the walls all the while. That part is a touch boring, but once you get near the courtyard area of the castle that your side needs to capture (represented, of course, by a slowly tumbling flag) then it’s all business.

My pike’s range proved useful against other foot troops, but less so for stopping bullets. It was an even whirl of melee in the courtyard for a while, until a few of the Swedish types on the walls realised that the side gate was open and decided to actually start defending the fortress. At this point, our chances of success faded. There was no hope of getting over the walls to the front of the castle, because toddling up a ladder just makes you easy pickings for a gunman. As the clock ticked ominously down, the courtyard swelled with Swedes and became a mortuary for Poles. Their flag wobbled for a spell, but we couldn’t hold it for anywhere close to long enough and they carry the day.
At this point another ten minute match kicked in automatically. But I have other modes to be unsuccessful at, so further Siege antics will have to wait for another day.

Game 4

Mode: Team Deathmatch
Map: Arena
Team: Muscovite Tsardom (Bald Bomber)
Score: 300 – 158 (sweet, beautiful victory)

I needed a change of scene and a change of tactics.

Team Deathmatch is a pretty simple affair. Two teams, rapid respawning; try to kill the guys who aren’t on your side and reach a collective points total before they do.

Something caught my eye in the armoury. It was round, black and looked like it had escaped from an episode of Danger Mouse. Yes, grenades (which, true to the era, look like mini, unstable bombs) seemed like a potentially hilarious option for someone as unskilled at combat as me. Cost was against me though, as they were more than a touch pricey. In fact, if I bought one I wouldn’t be able to buy anything else at all and would be forced to go into battle as a bald man wearing the equivalent of a potato sack.

Well, so be it.
The Bald Bomber’s first troublesome mission was, well, to bomb somebody. There seems to be a bit of a pesky bug (or perhaps an odd balancing system) with grenades, which prevents them from exploding if you happen to be dying at the time as they’re thrown. You’ll see the projectile head towards your target as you collapse, but it won’t go off. I guess this is to prevent people chucking down a bomb at the last second and taking their attacker with them, but it turns out that’s exactly what I was hoping to do. Foiled again.

Honing my tactics slightly, I was able to get off a few more successful detonations. The crowning glory being a wonderful lob into a melee mob which took out two foes and cost me my own life. Since our eventual margin of victory was 2:1, I consider this moment a vital cog in the eventual triumph. Never mind that my own kills to deaths ratio was 2:1 the wrong way.

Grenades proved to be amusing for a while, but their limitations got old rather fast. I’m sure I’ll return to them, but during the closing stages of the match I entertained myself by grabbing a selection of polearms off the ground (pikes, halberds and the like) and trying to unseat Crimean horse archers with pointy sticks. There was limited (but satisfying) success to be found here, but for once the game concludes with me on the winning side. Ten thousand huzzahs (and zero bloody Hussars).
Horseplay

WFaS’s multiplayer doesn’t go much beyond the concept of ‘use your sabre and pistol to inflict pain, oh and sometimes try to capture this,’ but it doesn’t really need to. The melee mechanics and mounted combat are identical to Mount & Blade: Warband, while the addition of guns adds a slightly new dynamic and doesn’t upset the balance of multiplayer power (sure, some people can one-shot you, but the firearms are inaccurate and take an age to reload). Whichever mode you opt for, I found that more players made for more enjoyment. Get yourself on a map with 64 chaps and just absorb the mayhem. The new Captain mode isn’t exactly worth the price of admission, but it’s enough of a twist on the central concept to be interesting; plus it has a lot of scope for large, confusing battles. And those are always good.

The M&B community seems more than large enough to support ongoing multiplayer, and I found I was able to hop into a game at almost any time, any day of the week here in the US. You might have to wait for your favourite mode to come up during slower periods, but that’s about it. Public servers are widespread too, so you don’t need to ingratiate yourself with a private group to get a match or two. WFaS feels pretty playable up to a ping of about 200 (although I’d imagine you’d want a lower ping if you’re some kind of pro), which is relatively forgiving as well.

WFaS’s single player may have let me down, but the title proves that it’s almost impossible to screw up Mount & Blade’s multiplayer madness. Saddle up if you’re able, and go kill some Hussars for me.

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