I spur my steed to a full trot, swivel on my saddle to aim behind me, and squeeze the left mouse button. With my rifle level with my eye, I release my grip on the mouse. Blam —a spearman slumps forward on his saddle, ragdolling off the mount. That's one less Cossack roaming Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword's sandbox world.
All the complaints I have about M&B—a UI that resembles parchment in both style and functionality, an untactical AI, rigid animations, the absence of almost any guidance through its wide-open world—are forgotten like an ex-girlfriend's middle name the instant I dismount a man with a musket ball.
As this stand-alone expansion trots the unique roleplaying franchise into seventeenth-century Europe, it retains the appeal of M&B's messy, dated-looking-but-detailed gameplay in which you gather a small army and pillage or negotiate your way to nobility or infamy. The big, differentiating feature is the addition of primitive firearms: muskets, carbines, and pistols that carry only one round. Like only having a single rubber ball to throw at your classmates in dodgeball, the feeling of sniping a halberdier that's about to impale one of your cavalrymen—an asset that you've nurtured, leveled up, and pay a weekly salary—with that one shot has natural tension and drama to it.
Kiss of hot lead
In the hands of enemies, though, muskets produce frustrating deaths. If you're wearing simple armor—even with the difficulty turned down—a musketeer can two-shot you. The early game tested my patience, and I found saving often to be the only real defense against being gunned down and losing valuable coin and manpower.
I felt discouraged from fighting on foot, where I'm slow and vulnerable—a shame, because the melee combat is just as nuanced. For better (guns are empowering) and worse (your brilliant plan for a Spartan-style melee gang is doomed), firearms disrupt M&B's established parity of lances, bows, and swords.
Multiplayer recognizes this, and adds a Captain Team Deathmatch mode where each player brings a dozen-some AI-controlled troops into the match. Having more targets for your enemies to shoot and slash at creates a very useful buffer—you aren't the lone bullseye in the field.
The musketless M&B: Warband is still the version that I'd recommend to new players, but With Fire & Sword is half the price, offers a campaign that you can drop dozens of hours into, and adds satisfying, sneaky siege options like poisoning your enemy's water supply. WF&S rewards patience with some of the PC's most interesting, nonlinear, and action-packed RPG play.