Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
The wait has been long and troublesome but For Honor, Ubisoft’s new medieval combat simulator, is finally here. As is always the case with online-focused games, the game experience will change somewhat as the multiplayer experience evolves, so consider this a review in progress. We'll follow up with further coverage and impressions as more players and servers enter the fray.
For now, onto the medieval slaughter fest.
Just in case you haven’t been keeping up with the news, For Honor is what happens when a fighting game, an action game, and an FPS have a baby that watches way too much Deadliest Warrior. Knights, Vikings, and Samurai are all somehow geographically located right next to each other and all want to kill one another for some inadequately explained reason. But, much like the flimsy stories of our favorite fighting games, it doesn’t matter why these warriors are fighting, as long as that fighting is fun and technical.
And For Honor does not disappoint when it comes to technical systems. Its fundamentals are easy to understand but complex in execution. You can defend and attack in three different stances, left, right, and top. You auto block any attack coming from the stance you are currently in, so your goal is to mix-up the opponent by changing up your stances while you attack.
You have two basic attacks to use, light attacks and heavy attacks, and a stamina bar to manage. Light attacks do little damage but open the opponent up, interrupt other attacks, and take very little stamina. Heavy attacks take forever and use a bunch of stamina, but devastate an opponent’s health bar. That’s basically it. Stick the pointy end of your weapon into the opponent’s squishy bits until he dies. It’s simple enough that anyone can get into it after only a few minutes of gameplay.
But that only scratches the bare surface of For Honor’s complex combat system. On top of these mechanics there are parries, guard breaks, throws, dodges, dashes, and stylish execution finishes that restore health when you do them. Then there are character-specific combos and special moves, dodge attacks, status effects like bleeding and dizzy, guaranteed hits, unblockable attacks, attacks with super armor or guard frames, and much, much more. There’s as much depth here as there is in any fighting game, and I’m talking like a Guilty Gear-style fighting game where each character has its own unique systems to keep track of.
Know Your Modes
If you are the type of person who loves mastering a character and outthinking an opponent, you will probably spend most of your time in For Honor’s Duel and Brawl modes. These modes (1v1 and 2v2 respectively) are all about skill. Characters are zeroed out to their basic stats and maps are small. The only thing standing between you and victory is your opponent.
More casual players are going to end up hanging out in For Honor’s 4v4 modes, which more so resemble FPS and action games. Dominion is a fairly standard capture point mode with a helping of Dynasty Warriors’ crowd control thrown in. Elimination removes your ability to respawn, tasking you with killing the other team first (somewhat reminiscent of the early days of Counter-Strike). Finally, Skirmish is just straight up Deathmatch, tasking you with out-murdering the opposing team.
Unlike Duel and Brawl, For Honor’s 4v4 modes let you use boosts and gear. Boosts are either passive abilities or single-use active abilities that can change the tide of battle, such as a healing aura, or a stat buff. Gear is equipment you assign to your character in a loadout, which alters their stats and abilities. The boosts and gear you take into battle lend a sense of personality to your character build. There’s something very appealing about two players being unique, even if they are playing the exact same character.
On one hand, this gives the game a deep sense of re-playability, as you grind through levels and earn “steel” and loot crates to get the best gear possible. On the other hand, players can buy steel and crates with real world money, which means you are always nagged by the temptation of partaking in microtransactions so as to not fall behind the pack. Your ability to “pay for power” is limited since loot crates only ever spawn equipment around your level. So you have to play and level up your characters in order to get better gear. Of course, you can pay real world money for XP boosts, which makes the whole situation just a little bit stickier.
Despite the looming darkness of microtransactions, 4v4 modes are insanely fun. Ganging up on an opponent feels dirty but awesome, almost as awesome as being outnumbered yourself and somehow managing to parry every incoming strike like some sort of action hero. They are also much more welcoming to newbies. Duels and Brawls will see inexperienced players getting slaughtered in mere minutes, while larger game modes will allow less experienced players to focus on clearing crowds and capturing control points.
They May Look Like It, But Not All Characters Are Created Equal
The roster of For Honor is something of a double-edged sword. There are four characters in each faction, for a total of twelve in all, which is already a bit slim for a fighting game. However, it’s clear that some characters were built for one-on-one duels while others were built for crowd control. Not all characters are equal across all game modes, which means the actual roster of viable characters to play is even smaller. Ubisoft has said that they will be releasing more characters via DLC in the future, but that just means you have to sink more money into For Honor to have a truly deep experience. Luckily, the characters play so differently that multiplayer modes remain fun and fresh even with the small roster available to us.
For Honor’s graphics are beautiful but sometimes lack in design. Maps and environments are amazingly rendered and the game runs at a smooth 60FPS, but character models are all rather similarly colored, dirty, armored warriors. This makes it hard to tell which type of character you are facing, especially in the chaos of a 4v4 mode. Remember, this is a fighting game, and you need to know what you are up against to develop effective counter strategies. This only gets more complicated with the addition of gear, which further changes your character model.
It’s worth mentioning that For Honor’s matchmaking system is really neat and innovative. It shows you exactly what parameters it is using whenever it looks for a match. It starts with very specific settings, looking for players who are local and who are exactly your rank and skill. However, as time goes on it widens this search to involve players from around the world of all skill levels. When you find a game you know exactly what sort of gameplay experience you are in for, which is information most other online games hide from you.
A Game for Warriors, Not Plot Junkies
But we’ve seen this all before in For Honor’s alpha and beta stages, and to be honest the game hasn’t changed much since then. For Honor’s biggest strength is its high-quality technical gameplay, which offers an experience unlike anything else currently available. Ubisoft should be applauded for being willing to break genre conventions we all know and love. You simply cannot replace For Honor with any other multiplayer game on the market; it stands in a class and genre all of its own.
For Honor’s single-player, on the other hand, is far less impressive. It puts you in control of a series of nameless protagonists fighting in a gigantic war. There’s a deeper story about a brutal warlord scheming to keep everyone fighting forever, but to be honest its bad. It’s shallow and rushed and its plot elements feel forced.
The gameplay is basically a mirror of multiplayer. You head to a point, engage in some duels, kill some peons, and then head to another point, lather, rinse, repeat. There are some interesting twists on the formula, like a “protect the battering ram” mission or a horse chase with weapons drawn, but these are few and far between. They are fun, but they make you wonder why they weren’t converted into equally enjoyable multiplayer modes.
There are also side objectives that ask you to break a certain number of breakables and observe a certain number of observables, but these side objectives have nothing to do with fighting, which is the game’s main draw. With enemy soldiers constantly attempting to stab you in the face, taking a break to destroy some pottery just seems foolish.
Weak Campaign but Effective Tutorial
Then there’s the issue with difficulty. Even easier difficulties feel somewhat challenging, but mostly because the game keeps putting you in cheap situations, like a duel on cracking ice. There’s basically no way to defeat your opponent before the ice cracks and you both die, so you are reduced to exploiting the A.I. to make progress. Unlike multiplayer, where you can just respawn, dying in single-player forces you to do whatever section of the stage you were in over, which is incredibly frustrating. That being said, higher difficulties do some interesting things like removing the U.I and turning everything into a cinematic experience, which is worth checking out if you can hack it.
When the game doesn’t rely on cheap gimmicks, however, single-player mode serves as perhaps the best tutorial a fighting game has ever had. It forces you to use several different characters in the roster and introduces you to each of their unique mechanics one by one. It also makes you face opponents that will use mix-ups that online players do. For example, early on you are faced with an opponent who will dodge all of your attacks, and you have to learn how to bait him into dodging in the wrong direction. Despite its flaws, I highly suggest playing single-player mode before jumping into multiplayer.
(Just a note, the game will make you redo its starting tutorial all over again at the beginning of single-player mode, which is a little frustrating.)
The campaign’s presentation is a mixed bag. Voice acting is OK, but the characters don’t sound like medieval knights as much as they do snarky soldiers in a military shooter. Character models are all re-used from multiplayer mode, with no real significant characters standing out aside from the main antagonist. There were also several times that sound effects desynched with cinematics and many other times when cinematics crashed the game. The PC version’s single-player is very unstable, which is unfortunate since the game didn’t crash on me in multiplayer even once.
Medieval Combat Enthusiasts Rejoice
But, any flaws in single-player and multiplayer are made up for with a superb sense of theme. Ubisoft obviously did a ton of research on medieval fighting styles. For example, you routinely see knights grabbing their swords by the blades in order to use the hilt as a hammer. I knew that was a common practice because I’m a medieval combat nerd, but I didn’t expect Ubisoft to know that. If you have even the slightest interest in historical combat, For Honor will appeal to the nerdiest parts of you with its attention to historical detail. It almost makes you forget the absurd scenario that put Vikings, samurai, and knights up against each other in the first place.
From what I’ve experienced so far, I can honestly say that For Honor is a massively fun game. It’s the first true genre innovation in multiplayer gaming that we have seen since we first experienced the online multiplayer shooter. For that reason alone I would suggest that most people at least give it a try. Still, in the long run it might be a victim of its own innovation. There isn’t a whole lot of crossover between action game fans, fighting game fans, and FPS fans, and For Honor necessitates that you be a fan of all three in order to get the most out of it. For Honor is also coming out in a time where we are absolutely saturated with great online multiplayer games. If it came out a year or two ago, I could see For Honor being the most popular game on the market, but now it has to pull gamers away from Overwatch and that’s going to be a hefty challenge.
But all of this takes a back seat to one simple fact that I have already stated – the game is fun. I had fun. My friends had fun. You’ll probably have fun, too. While For Honor’s future may still be up in the air, you can definitely have a blast in the present by jabbing a poisoned spear through a Vikings throat.