This preview of Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword is based on a demo provided by the game's publisher, Paradox. The demo caps off at level 7, does not provide multiplayer, and provides only limited skirmish scenarios. Such limitations will not be present in the full game, which has no level cap and promises a rich variety of multiplayer scenarios.
Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword is an upcoming standalone expansion pack to the excellent sandbox action-RPG Mount & Blade. Like its predecessor, With Fire & Sword offers a completely open world, where you recruit and manage a large band of fighters and accept quests from lords and mayors, with longtime goals of joining a faction or even becoming a king yourself. The franchise's main draw throughout all its titles is its excellent combat system, which is flexible and intuitive, with each battle feeling unique as you employ different tactics or the tides of fortune just happen to sweep another way.
What makes With Fire & Sword different from its predecessor is that it is set in 1655, in a semi-fictional representation of Eastern Europe at the time, with factions such as Tsarist Muscovy battling Poland-Lithuania. It's a novel setup compared to Mount & Blade, which was set in a fictional land, albeit one that clearly resembled medieval Europe and its environs. The jump forward in time means a different – albeit not wildly different – visual style, as well as the addition of firearms. The game is based on a Polish historical novel penned in the late 19th century, called Ogniem i Mieczem, which is translated as With Fire and Sword. The work is generally considered a standard in Polish schools, but while I know of its existence it never passed in my curriculum as a student of history, and I am unfamiliar with the story and can not say how it relates to the game, other than being set in the same year and region.
The real life setting is utilized to create more unique and detailed models. Of particular note here is Moscow, which is adorned with St Basil's Cathedral and Kremlin. These areas will provide nice backgrounds to multiplayer battles, and in general cities in With Fire & Sword seem more visually unique and appealing than the cities of Mount & Blade were.
The addition of firearms (and grenades, which I did not get to try out as they are prohibitively expensive) is one of the biggest changes to the way the game plays. They are fairly primitive pistols and muskets, and as such not as unbalancing as some might fear, but they do significantly shift the gameplay balance. I can not comment too much on higher level gameplay as that was capped off, but at lower levels any firearm is essentially a one-shot kill weapon. They are hard to aim with and take forever to reload, but in the Mount & Blade franchise they're the first serious challenger to horse dominance.
Mount & Blade's updates and the Warband expansion already did quite a bit of work in this direction, trying to rebalance towards infantry and archers primarily by nerfing cavalry charges. It worked to some extent, but it appears firearms will do so to a much greater extent. Set up a line of rifle-armed marksmen on the battlefield, wait for the enemy to charge and watch them be scythed down in a hail of bullets. I can not call it unbalanced as the cavalry that survive will still wreak havoc when they reach the line – though I am curious to see how it works in siege scenarios which I was not able to fully test out – but it is a game changer, which is only a good thing in my opinion, adding more variety and flavor to battles that could before be resolved simply by heavy cavalry charges.
One disadvantage of the large amount of damage rifles and pistols cause is that - at least early on - this adds a large factor of luck to battles. Even bandits have some firearms, and if one of them is lucky enough to score a hit with his low skill and shoddy weapon, he'll still likely down you with that single shot, possibly turning the tide of the battle. For a game that you're encouraged to play without regular saving, that can get pretty frustrating.