Taken purely on face value, For Honor must have been a pretty easy pitch. A game where Knights, Vikings, and Samurai face off against each other…who doesn’t want to see that? It’s only once you get into the details of the gameplay that you realize how ambitious Ubisoft Montreal have been with this new AAA title. Launching any new franchise is a huge risk when you factor in all the time and money required to get it off the ground with no guarantee that it will connect with audiences. But when you create a game that is intentionally difficult to master, with a deep and complex combat system that rewards practice and perseverance, you’re rolling the dice.
Start the game, and you’re faced with the choice to align yourself with one of the three factions mentioned above in the game’s large-scale conflict (more on that later). Then, after a brief but helpful tutorial, the full range of multiplayer matches becomes available to you. Before jumping into a game, you’ll choose one of the twelve available hero classes. Every class from all three factions is available to select; however you sided in the beginning.
Each class falls into one of four types: Vanguard, Heavy, Assassin and Hybrid. Balanced and flexible without any obvious quirks or weaknesses, Vanguards are naturally the most newcomer-friendly. The Heavy classes are where the real powerhouses are, rewarding a slower, more patient play style. Assassin classes are your stock quick-but-weak types, requiring more skill to wield as their lightning-fast strikes need a different approach to combat. Lastly, the Hybrids are where the real niche fighters are. This class has a greater range of utility and favors a counterattacking style, but you’ll need to unlearn much of what you’ve picked up from playing the other classes before giving these guys a spin.
The great thing about For Honor’s classes is that even across the same type, no one class plays the same. For example, the Knight Heavy class, the Conqueror, is a juggernaut whose arsenal includes a steadfast block and some fearsome chargeable heavy attacks. The Shoguki, the Heavy class for the Samurai, meanwhile, feels even bulkier and ponderous to control but has some of the strongest attacks in the game. Each class has its strengths and weaknesses, and you’ll likely settle on the one that suits the style of combat that feels the most natural. It’s also a bonus that most classes can be either male or female. Just a small part of the suite of customization options available to players.
It’s evident that the complex combat system is where most of the attention in For Honor has been lavished. It’s the epitome of easy to pick up, difficult to master, and the developers must be given huge plaudits for not only devising this system but also refining it to work as well as it does here in its first outing.
The game’s movement feels much like any other third-person action game until you encounter another player. Pressing a shoulder button to lock on to your enemy enters guard mode, and from there, things shape up a little differently. The left stick handles movement, while moving the right stick to either the right, left or up positions alters your hero’s guard, enabling you to block an enemy’s attack from the corresponding direction (your guard is shown with a gray indicator, the enemy’s incoming attack, with red). You own attacks, whether light or heavy, will coming from the same direction as your guard, and can be chained together to form combos.
This forms the bedrock of the Art Of Battle system (as Ubisoft are calling it) and it works surprisingly slickly, even in the heat of combat. But there’s more to it that that. A lot more. Parrying, an enemy’s attack allows you to knock them off balance and gain the advantage. Guard breaks let you counter a foe who won’t be tempted to strike, letting you push them to the ground or throw them against walls, spikes, fire, or even off a ledge for an instant kill. Dodging an incoming attack not only prevents damage but can give your hero a better position from which to unleash a new attack; a godsend for weaker, quicker heroes who lack a robust defense.
Add to this unblockable attacks, stun effects, feats, counters and cancels, and the sheer breadth of tactical variety begins to emerge. It’s a system more akin to a fighting game in its rock-paper-scissors balance, and it’s sure to reward players who take the time to learn its intricacies.
Since the pre-release alpha and beta testing, many gamers have managed to get to grips with how the combat works. But what has as yet to be glimpsed is the game’s single player component. I couldn’t help but wonder about this obviously multiplayer-centric game: Would the story mode offer any worthwhile experience, or would it have the superfluous feel of something built to appease those who would criticize a lack of a single player option?
From the outset of the entirely linear campaign, it’s clear that the real meat of the experience is simply thinly-veiled training for online play. Features of the multiplayer game modes are all represented, and the narrative finds a way of justifying putting you in control of different classes -- you know, to give them all a try. It certainly forces you to look at different classes in a safe, offline environment, but it hardly excites, and crucially, stops it feeling like a proper single player experience.
Each of the three factions is represented in the story; you begin as a Knight, then play as a Viking, and then finally take control of a Samurai during the campaign. It’s nice to have the perspective of each of the factions, but there’s very little effort to build any backstory. The factions are designed to be as close as possible to their real-world counterparts -- the ancient Japanese and Norse civilizations, and a generic European medieval mixture for the Knights -- just transplanted into this fantasy world where their empires are uncomfortably close together. They’ve been at war for so long that generations later, each has forgotten how the conflict started. Yes, it’s that generic.
While the basic lore would be adequate for a multiplayer only game, it’s not enough to support an engaging story. The narrative itself is a standard Game Of Thrones-lite saga of dynasty building and betrayal that is forgotten almost as soon as it’s over. The voice acting is very earnest, and the dialogue is of the cookie-cutter faux-Shakespearian variety. This, coupled with the fact that most of the characters wear masked helmets throughout, isn’t conducive to emotional investment. Efforts to mix up the gameplay, like sections where you’ll protect a battering ram from attacking enemies, or indulge in a bit of horseback riding, feel forced. You sense the developers’ hearts weren’t really in it. Above all else, there’s just so much less satisfaction in fighting countless AI enemies in a boring campaign than fighting real humans in a competitive team based environment. It’s not that the AI isn’t challenging, it is, especially on Hard and Realistic difficulties. It’s just that the repetition feels acuter here.
The single player’s frailties all point to one thing: this is above all else, a multiplayer game. And it’s the multiplayer arena where For Honor shines.
The game throws a plethora of game modes your way. Duel and Brawl are both variations of straight up combat, 1v1 and 2v2 respectively, best of five rounds, no respawns. Elimination is similar, only with full teams of four players per side. Skirmish is For Honor’s team deathmatch analog: a 4v4 match with unlimited respawns and a 1000 point score limit. In a confusing move, these last two are lumped under the same ‘Deathmatch’ game type, despite offering very different gameplay experiences -- Skirmish often has players running around at breakneck speed, collecting in-game power-ups (‘boosts’) and mixing it up in large fights. Elimination has a much slower, more tactical pace which relies much more on teamwork and revives. Maybe these will be split in a subsequent update, so you’ll be able to choose to play one or the other. To me, that would make more sense.
For Honor’s flagship game mode is Dominion, a sort of domination hybrid that introduces control zones and AI controlled soldiers that serve as mid-map fodder. Controlling the most zones increases your team’s points. Get over 1000, and the opposing team breaks, meaning their respawns are frozen, leaving you with the final job of taking out each enemy player to end the match. This game type has clearly received the most attention and feels like the way For Honor should be played, promoting good team communication and solid strategic play to succeed.
Whichever mode you play, the solidity of the fighting mechanics means that there’s a real thrill to defeating tough opponents. Likewise, you’ll receive beatdowns pretty often, but getting killed rarely feels cheap. I quickly got the hang of the basics with my burly Warlord, the Viking Heavy class, liberally using my hefty shield to bash my adversaries into submission. That was until I met a troublesome Orochi (Samurai, Assassin) player who used her speed and quick guard breaks to get through my shield wall every time. I realized there was a gap in my technique, went back to the drawing board, re-trained, and ultimately figured out how to counter that particular line of attack. The game is punishing, but the sheer robustness of the Art Of Battle system means you can be confident you’ll always find a new way to win.
That’s if you can get into a game and stay there. My time with For Honor’s multiplayer was plagued with server issues. Matchmaking was frequently ineffective, struggling to find a match in my area despite ‘very high activity.' Sometimes I’d be kicked from a lobby because of lack of players, despite renewed matchmaking apparently taking place. I experienced many cases of host migration interrupting play, which, though inconvenient, was bearable next to the alternative, getting kicked out of the game entirely, which also happened far too often. I could tell I wasn’t the only one having the same troubles, too, as I frequently saw entire teams disappear mid-game to be replaced by bots.
I had issues of a different kind with the game’s world map, known as War Of The Factions. It’s an attempt to contextualize your battles and make you feel like you’re fighting within a persistent conflict, not just each game and the loot it brings, but to me, it feels confusing and unnecessary, and at no point did I feel like deploying earned war assets added anything to my experience. Perhaps simplifying this in a future update would make it feel more valuable, but right now, I feel it could be cut entirely. The enjoyment I got from the matches themselves, and the gear I gained from playing them, was plenty enough to keep me interested.
At the end of each game, gear is ‘scavenged’ from the battlefield. Each weapon or piece of armor gives stat buffs, but also detrimentally affect other areas, meaning you have to balance the trade-off effectively. A sword hilt I scavenged for my Warden, for example, increased the time he’ll spend in revenge mode (a buff state triggered by taking damage or getting kills) at the expense of my throw distance. I equipped it, as throws aren’t a big part of my game, but another player may decide the opposite. Gear can be customized too, and upgraded for in-game currency to increase their stat boosts. The currency can be bought with real-world money, but as long as the game’s keen balancing stays true throughout future updates, pay-to-win needn’t ever be a factor.
Gear can also be used to change your hero’s look to differentiate yourself on the battlefield, with plenty of scope for further customization. Different color options and bespoke emblem designs can be applied, with the results staying largely in keeping with the game’s setting (no fluorescent pink axes here, at least not yet). It’s worth mentioning, too, that the detailed character models look gorgeous without exception, particularly for a primarily online game. The environments look great at a distance but often show their low-res ugliness up close.
For Honor is a rather strange beast. Its combat system really is close to genius, and once you begin to master its complexities, there are few thrills bigger than besting a skilled player in one-on-one combat. But the game this system inhabits feels roughly hewn: the mediocre single player, the half-baked War Of The Factions, the numerous technical issues. Ultimately, For Honor’s, success will down to its community, or rather, whether it can build and sustain one. If a fanbase does embrace the game despite its flaws, there’s huge potential for it to grow in stature and quality as updates are added over time. If not, it’ll go down as a valiant but unsuccessful effort to try something different.
For Honor doesn’t manage to be all things to all gamers, but that was never Ubisoft’s plan. Maybe it’s enough that the game’s refined, niche gameplay caters for a specific type of gamer. If enough of its target audience finds it, and enough of those are willing to overlook its technical flaws, it won’t matter what it doesn’t quite pull off. Only what it does well.
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