Well, look at you, Ubisoft, giving us some original titles and acting like a grown up game development company trying to do original things. Sort of. It wasn’t that long ago Ubisoft took an interesting chance with Rainbow Six: Seige, a highly tactical, slow-paced shooter that has managed to capture itself a dedicated audience who appreciate the emphasis on skill over pure twitch shooting. It seems Ubisoft want to repeat their success but in a very different setting. Enter For Honor. Who doesn’t want to see a knight go up against a Vikings? Or a fat samurai tackling a colossal armored foe? For Honor believes that everyone wants to see these epic fights and therefore presents a completely bonkers reason for why this could happen. Most importantly, though, this is a game about skill and some awesome multiplayer that pits twelve heroes against each other.
But before we get to that we have to tackle the singleplayer campaign where Ubisoft realized you can save a lot of time and effort in animation when your characters are almost all wearing helmets. Basically what the game comes down to is a nefarious plan to send the world into war thanks to one very angry person, a huge disaster that pits knights, Vikings and samurai against each other for control of territory. Don’t worry, though, despite whichever faction you opt to support when you first fire up the game you can play as any of the four heroes in each faction.
Somewhat surprisingly the three campaigns on offer are quite reasonable, if entirely unspectacular. They serve more as glorified tutorials for the multiplayer, a very basic foundation on which to build from with the various video packages that the devs smartly included for each hero. The characters and story are instantly forgettable dross that isn’t helped by the fact that the leads always wear helmets and don’t even have names, but there are a few fun set pieces and playing through them will help get the combat system basics cemented into your mind. Still, it’s fair to say that if you’re looking for a good, strong singleplayer experience this isn’t it. Multiplayer is the true focus of For Honor, and honestly while I’m sure many people would disagree with me I’d rather Ubisoft put their efforts wholly into the multiplayer if a singleplayer offering clearly isn’t going to be a true priority.
So let us get to the true meat of the game: the combat. Once you lock on to an opponent by holding the left trigger the right stick changes from controlling the camera to shifting your stance from left, right and overhead. This not only dictates what direction your own attacks will come from but where you’re blocking, too. Hold the stick to match the direction of the flashing red warning on the enemy and you’ll block the incoming strike, taking minimal damage in the process.
As for that whole attacking the enemy thing you’ve got two basic options: light attacks are quicker but do less damage, and heavy attacks are slow but deal much more damage. Each character also has chainable attack combos and a few special moves to augment them, such as a dash and then stunning blow. Figuring out how to nail these short, simple combos is vital, as is learning how other moves and techniques can flow in and out of them.
That’s the absolute basics that you need to know to start playing For Honor, but go in with this little knowledge and you’ll be creamed because there’s quite a bit more to learn before you pose even a slight threat to most players. First and foremost is the guard break which punches through a foe’s defenses so that you can follow up with an attack or even a throw, handy for tossing them off the edge of a cliff. Guard breaks can be countered with good timing, though, which is another skill you’ll need to become familiar with as time goes on. Then there is the parry, a perfectly timed tap of the heavy attack as the enemy blow comes hurtling toward your face. Get it just right and you’ll force the opponent off balance, opening them up for a snappy counterattack, something which certain heroes excel at. Get it wrong and their assault will turn your flesh into pulp. Then there is the art of feinting heavy attacks by canceling out of them, something you’ll find the higher level players using a fair bit as a way of playing with the opponent’s mind, although it is risky since a foe who predicts the feint will punish it hard.
There is a bunch of smaller things about using dodges, zone attacks, unblockables and more that I’ve not touched upon, but suffice to say while each of the twelve available heroes don’t have an extensive move list the combat has an impressive level of depth to it. For Honor puts the emphasis on skillful defensive play, as indicated by the stamina bars. Depleted via attacks, dodges and feints once stamina empties your character slows down considerably and can easily be knocked to the ground. A good player picks their openings careful, and so fights between skilled people are like dances of death, each trying to find a weakness while varying their tactics to throw the opponent of guard. A few light pokes here, a quick rush there, a feint and finally an opening.
On top of that you have the current roster of twelve heroes, each with their own strengths and weaknesses to be discovered. To really understand how to beat certain heroes you need to play as them, a smart way of encouraging people to diversify, at least enough to understand the basic principles behind the various characters. The beastly Lawbringer, for example, excels at savage counter-attacks and draining stamina, while the Viking Berserker has very limited range but can launch into infinite attacks while the Orochi has incredible speed.
It’s for this very reason and the emphasis on smart play that For Honor is at its very best in the 1v1 duels, where it comes down to pure skill. And yes, For Honor really does reward pure skill over all else, which is wonderful to see. Spamming attacks gets you killed in seconds, and putting in hours of practice against the actually quite impressive A.I. is a good use of your time, especially when trying to learn a new character. The downside is that it remains to be seen how divided the community could become as the weeks go on as this very much feels like a game you have to play almost every day in order to keep up. Because of that we could see huge gaps between groups as the more casual players or people who simply don’t have much spare time can’t hope to compete with the elite fighters who are willing to really learn the ins and outs of the game’s mechanics. As a fault, though, it’s one of the better ones to have. If a community is potentially going to be divided I’d rather it be due to skill than because of paid expansions or other nonsense.
This aside, though, taking on an opponent is incredibly tense and exciting, especially when you run into a skilled player who really makes you work hard for the victory. I’ve not played a game like this in a long time, a game that makes me feel nervous in multiplayer. There are no other players to hide behind, no chaos to blame. It’s just you and them and a whole lot of awesome fighting. Excitingly this also means you can learn from mistakes and correct them, while also getting a feel for your challenger. Find the right person and you could have a dozen rematches, each one unique as you attempt to vary your style to combat an enemy who is quickly adapting. It’s deeply satisfying stuff.
2v2 captures this sense of excitement pretty well, too. As the name implies you and one other ally get to face off against two opponents. It’s interesting because players implement their own honor system within the game; it’s generally viewed as dishonorable to toss someone off a cliff, and it’s extremely dishonorable to kill your opponent and then gang up on the remaining player in 2v2. The honorable thing is to simply wait for the fight to finish, and if the enemy player wins challenge them. There’s almost a touch of roleplaying behind it.
Where the game falters is actually within its showcase mode, Dominion. Here two teams of four players go against each other in a fight to control three points on the map with the middle lane being occupied by little A.I. grunts who can be dispatched in a single swipe. To control the center point you need to wade in and decimate the A.I. while the outer points are fought over solely by the hero characters. Once a thousand points is achieved by a team the opposition breaks, meaning their heroes get no more respawns. But here the excellently refined mechanics which feel designed purely for one-on-one combat gets ousted in favor of being ganged up on, most battles ending because somebody comes front behind and delivers a savage axe blow. The game attempts to let you fight against a few people by allowing you to block incoming attacks by just matching the direction of the person who you aren’t locked on to, but fighting back is close to impossible unless you happen to be vastly more skilled. It’s realistic, but not much fun. Thoughts of heroes squaring off against each other in the middle of a chaotic fight are overridden by 3v1 beatdowns that can’t be won. The game simply doesn’t feel like it was ever designed for this kind of mode. It’s a shame because Dominion can be a lot of fun, and some awesome moments blossom from the insanity, like when you go charging in as a Viking, bodily tackle someone and throw hem straight off a cliff, or when you do manage to hold off multiple people until the rest of your team come charging in.
The same can be said for the straight-up 4v4 mode without any A.I. bots scooting about, although again you do find a degree of honorable roleplaying. Sometimes. Much less so than 1v1 or 2v2.
Behind everything you’ve got the constant faction war raging for control of territories. At the end of each match you earn war assets, which is nothing more than a number, that can be deployed to defend or attack varying regions in a bid to grab the most land possible. These battles will last for a set time before wrapping up and starting anew, with rewards handed out for participation. It feels….well, kind of boring. It’s like being told about a battle being waged on some other planet. You’re so damn distant it’s hard to care.
Now we start to arrive at the problems, with the first being a big one: A triple-A multiplayer release in 2017 having no dedicated servers is mind-boggling. Sure, we all know servers are expensive to run, and the lack of them at launch perhaps indicate that Ubisoft aren’t quite sure how this new IP is going to perform, but it holds the game back massively. The way the game currently works is that instead of having everyone connected to a single person, and thus risk host advantage, everyone is connected to everyone else. It sounds fine on paper but in practice this is a royal pain in the arse. Having to patiently wait while the system deals with a leaving player or working around crappy connections isn’t much fun, especially in a game that relies on perfect timing so heavily. Even a moment of lag can screw everything up I’d say every second or third match had a connection problem, though obviously this will vary from person to person. Furthermore, there’s no punishment for quitting out of a match. In Dominion it isn’t so bad because other than just causing a connection hiccup the player is replaced by a bot and the match carries on, but during 1v1 it’s obviously infuriating to have a player rage-quit.
Equally frustrating is Ubisoft’s stupid decision to tie singleplayer and A.I. matches into the multiplayer as well, so if your Internet connection is on the fritz you can’t fire up a Dominion, 1v1 or 2v2 match against A.I., nor muck about in singleplayer.
Then there’s the progression system and the existence of microtransactions. As you play you can unlock new gear for your heroes that offer varying stat changes and some visual tweaks, too, so you can really take pride in your leveled up Lawbringer. Now, these only have an effect in Dominion, never 1v1, so that’s a smart choice and it’s nice to be able to tweak your favorite characters. However, while everything in the game can be unlocked by grinding away it’s quite clear the system is balanced to push you toward spending extra cash on the microtransactions to speed it up. These have no place in a full-priced triple-a title, especially one that doesn’t even offer dedicated servers.
There’s also the thorny issue of balance which I’m going to completely sidestep. Why? Because in a game like this to adequately discuss it would mean having to become highly proficient with every character, and even then there are bound to be gaps in my knowledge that I could profess were balance problems but actually aren’t. Suffice to say that I didn’t notice any large issues where certain characters were dominating thanks to just being generally too powerful or boasting cheap moves. With that said I would like to see aggressive playstyles become more viable, especially as even heroes which should be aggressive feel like they have to go defensive.
Finally, we need to talk about longevity because that could be the game’s biggest potential problem. On the one hand the satisfying combat system makes you want to invest a lot of time into the game, and yet on the other it’s hard for me to say if I’ll still want to be playing it a few weeks down the line. A fairly small selection of maps and modes at the moment could also prove to be troublesome, although Ubisoft have promised that new maps, modes and heroes will be free to everybody with season pass holders simply getting access to the new characters a week early.
There are quite a few problems with For Honor, then, and yet they never did manage to overshadow how much fun I was having with the game. I’ve not found myself drawn into a multiplayer in a long time, but For Honor managed to do just that. The lack of dedicated servers hurts the game significantly and I’m still not sure if I’ll be playing it a month from now, yet right now I find myself switching it on for at least a couple of hours each day, relishing those brutal victories and learning from the harsh defeats. To play a triple-A game in 2017 that isn’t Dark Souls that demands actual skill and patience is a pleasure.