For Honor Preview - PAX Australia 2016
Hands-on with Ubisoft's brutal battlefield brawler
There was an unmistakeable sense of childhood fulfilment hovering around the For Honor booth; the kids that played with wooden weapons on their front lawns, pretending to be knights and ninjas and screaming sugar-rush-driven berserkers, have grown up, developed anxiety, and acquired showbags, but have nevertheless lined up to swing big heavy swords at men in armour in the name of honour. Or the Emperor. Or whatever it is the Norse raiders fought for. The three-way ‘Knights versus Samurai versus Vikings’ hack-n-slash has received remarkably little fanfare so far compared to the rest of Ubisoft’s upcoming catalogue, but your intrepid writer knows there’s plenty of advancement to be made in the field of hitting people with sharp things online, so eventually I braved the queues and took the plunge.
The first surprise—one that doesn’t tend to crop up when you’re just watching marketing footage of sweaty men pummelling each other—is that the three factions are not strictly symmetrical palette swaps of one another; each one is composed of four classes quite unique to it, with surprisingly little overlap. I was a Warden on the Knights’ team, which was more or less the For Honor equivalent of being the person who picks Mario in Mario Kart, and found myself pitted against the Vikings, who seem more focused on reckless offensive moves and turning your breastplate inside-out with a single swing of their mighty hammers. This kind of three-way twelve-class conflict sounds like a nightmare to balance, and perhaps it will be, but I imagine it’ll be healthier for the game in the long run; people learning to deal with threats without just mirroring them is sure to result in a more complex metagame, even if it just ends up being a confusing tangle of rock-paper-scissors-style counters.
So there I was, freshly thrust out of the tutorial onto a battle-scarred hillside laced with scattered barricades and ruins, ready to cleave some heads. Our objective, in typical multiplayer gamemode fashion, was to capture and hold three zones for as long as humanly possible, and while there were only a handful of us to a side, both teams were bolstered by a seemingly endless supply of grubby peasant AI footmen, ready to hold the line—or at least, take an axe blow for their noble betters. The battlefield wasn’t by any means enormous—you could probably fire an arrow from one end to the other, if anybody could find a soldier who knew one end of a longbow from another—but it felt like an appropriate scale for the game; less of an epic fantasy battle and more of a bloody skirmish in the midst of a wider conflict. Small enough for one man to make a difference, large enough to accommodate the roving bands of sword-fodder.
Let us move onto the combat, which fortunately has an air of the unusual about it. You have the usual array of hack-n-slash abilities—block, parry, light and heavy attacks, guard break, a super-duper move that needs you to fill up a bar, a suitably clumsy-looking dodge-roll—but many of these are influenced by the position of your guard, which is controlled with the right thumbstick. When locked on to another player, you can either guard right, left or forward, allowing you to attack from that direction but also making you vulnerable to the other two directions. Being able to read somebody’s guard and attack from an unexpected direction is the difference between getting an opening and fruitlessly clashing steel on steel, so there are probably all sorts of mind-games to be played involving baiting your opponent’s swing or luring them into a predictable pattern. When it works, it feels pretty good; the animations have a nice meatiness to them that really brings across the feeling of deflecting a big heavy lump of iron away from your neck with another lump of iron. This isn’t the swordplay of D&D heroes and anime teenagers; this is the kind of swordplay that probably already has history buffs poring over it, looking for techniques that couldn’t possibly have been commonplace in the year of whatever-this-era-is.
Even though the controls feel optimised for duelling, it’s important not to get too tunnel-visioned; For Honor is a game where there’s quite a lot more to friendly fire than not hitting ‘attack’ when your crosshair turns green. The collision handling for weapon impacts is impressively animated, and you’ll have plenty of chances to appreciate that whenever you carelessly embed an axe in the spine of one of your own men instead of the angry samurai bearing down on you. Not only did the system bless me with the spectacle of a knight angrily hacking his way through friend and foe alike to get to an enemy player, but it also adds an extra layer of depth to fights where you need to be as considerate of your allies as your targets. More than once, a friendly knight and I would corner a Viking but still would have to take turns confronting him directly because we’d be just as dangerous to each other if we leapt in hacking away. Together with the ability to block multiple assailants at once—so long as you’re guarding in the right direction, at least—it feels like a natural way of stopping everyone from just running around in packs, battering anything that gets in their way.
And yet, despite being an ostensibly very polished experience, there was something distinctly lukewarm about the For Honor demo. Perhaps it was only inevitable, given the narrow range of classes made available to us, but as nicely-animated as the combat is, it doesn’t really feel deep enough for something you’d be expected to perform a thousand, ten thousand, fifty thousand times. You have a small range of actions, a small range of outcomes, and short of coming up against new weapon types, not much to vary those up. You can get away with this in a first-person shooter because things like level design and spatial positioning can vastly change how a fight needs to be approached, but cutting off a poor nobleman’s head is pretty much the same process no matter whether it’s in a field or on the battlements: you pick one of three attack directions and hope for the best. Like I say, there’s potential for mind-games there, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re particularly smart games: one fellow and I simply swapped our guards from left to right endlessly, daring the other to attack, until he finally had the sense to go for an overhead swing and end the absurd charade. I’d be astounded if that isn’t a frequent occurrence.
Are there hidden depths here? As the ‘Poise’ page on any Dark Souls wiki will show, you can put a preposterous amount of effort into the unseen systems that decide what happens when steel meets steel—or flesh, as it may be—so perhaps For Honor’s subtleties are simply too shy and deeply embedded to come out of the woodwork within the span of a single match. Only time—and a comprehensive review of the full game by a reputable outlet or two—will tell, but for the moment at least, we can be cautiously optimistic. There’s clearly a lot of polish and care going into Ubisoft’s baby brawler, and while its fundamental mechanics could stand to break a bit more ground, it’s a welcome foray into a field that few games are brave enough to tread; a muddy, grassy field full of ruined siege engines, broken arrows, gurgling peasants, and clueless newbies swinging their swords at nothing in particular.