For Honor Review
A refreshing but flawed bout of historically inspired brawling
It seems that Ubisoft are one of the few major publishers willing to truly experiment with competitive multiplayer games. Following on the success of the surprisingly compelling and original Rainbow Six: Siege, we now get For Honor, a competitive multiplayer-centric game that focuses on melee combat between different historical warriors mashed together in a purely fictional scenario. The unique premise counts for a lot here, offering up something truly different, even if the execution falls short in some key areas.
One thing that might catch a lot of players off guard is how much of a learning curve there is to For Honor. There is a lot going on with the combat system, and learning its intricacies takes time. When you first launch the game, you are sent into a tutorial, then into the campaign. This is for the best as it gives you a chance to learn the controls and get a feel for the combat before heading online, something the campaign does with aplomb.
The 6-8 hour singleplayer or co-operative experience sees you spending time with each of the game’s three factions: Vikings, Knights and Samurai. The story is largely vague and uninteresting; a huge earthquake killed a lot of people and the survivors are all fighting for some reason. An angry Knight lady tries to manipulate her enemies into eternal conflict. It is clear that minimal effort went into the story and cutscenes; bland lines are read off by unenthusiastic voice actors, coming from characters whose faces are always covered by helmets so the devs could avoid lip-syncing animations.
The campaign succeeds because it gives you a chance to play with a variety of fighters against competent AI in missions that are certainly more interesting than practicing against bots on multiplayer maps. Story missions often involve defending or attacking some kind of stronghold with a mix of weak and strong AI trying to slow your progress and do away with your head. The siege missions are so much fun that I wish Ubisoft could have made them into a competitive multiplayer mode. When you play as a new character, the game will show the button combinations for special moves, which is a great way to learn them.
For Honor’s combat system is an interesting one, mixing fighting game style combos with 3D movement and environments, and a Dark Souls style stamina bar that depletes as you swing your weapon and dodge or block incoming attacks. When fighting, you must press a button to enter ‘guard mode,’ a different stance that also locks you on to a single enemy. When locked on, you see a visual representation of your mouse (or R-stick if using a controller) hovering in front of your character, with three icons on each side indicating which direction you are blocking in. Enemies have a similar visual, just showing the three sides, but indicating which direction they will be attacking from. This directional icon will turn red right as the enemy attacks, which is when you can try and parry or block.
The information displayed by these indicators is perhaps more important than anything else, meaning you have to ignore all of the epic stuff going on around you to focus on these indicators. To me, this gave the combat a slightly inorganic feel that no amount of practice could remove, and as a result, the one-on-one combat never really clicked for me. You can tell what stance your enemy and yourself are in based on the excellent animations, and you can block incoming attacks this way, but it is obviously much harder than going off the easy to read information present on the UI. You could literally remove all of the 3D graphics and fight effectively in a face-to-face battle. In other words, For Honor’s core combat system is essentially an elaborate and well-disguised quick-time event sequence. Other games in the past, such as Chivalry: Medieval Warfare and Mount & Blade, also had directional attack and block mechanics, but managed to implement them without such reliance on the interface; it is a shame the same isn’t true here.
To make matters even worse, the controls can be problematic at times, especially on the keyboard and mouse. Timing is critical in For Honor’s combat, as a well-timed block or dodge can make the difference between starting a counter-attack and getting destroyed by a devastating combo. The issue with using the keyboard and mouse in particular is that it is very easy to change your directional blocking/attacking stance with the mouse. This can be useful when reacting to incoming attacks, but it is also incredibly easy to accidentally change your stance.
Dodging is the other mechanic that seemed unreliable to me; there were times when I hammered the dodge button to roll away from a special unblockable attack, but the roll animation didn’t trigger or did so after a delay. This seems related to the terrain geometry; if you don’t have enough space behind you to roll, you simply don’t roll, which can be a serious issue when locked on to an enemy, unable to see behind yourself. The lock-on system can also be unwieldy when fighting against multiple enemies, as you must press a button to manually move from one target to the next, even if your initial lock-on target has run off and there is another guy two feet away caving your face in with an axe. The automatic target selection leaves something to be desired when you move into guard mode, sometimes not selecting the closest target, or failing to update to a new lock-on target after you kill someone.
That isn’t to say the combat isn’t without merit. There is a great sense of weight to the animations and sounds, making it incredibly satisfying when you land a hit or kill someone. Even though the stance indicators are the most important thing to look at during combat, you also need to worry about space and positioning, as you can be shoved or charged off ledges and into spikes if you aren’t wary of your surroundings. Learning when to block and when to back off to regenerate stamina is critical. There is a great variety of characters and playstyles, with each character having a unique move-set that must be learned in order to achieve success, with a mix of big, slow characters who can soak up damage and faster, more lightly armored ones. There is a lot of depth and intricacy here, which is refreshing.
While the campaign does a good job of teaching you the basics of combat, it is the multiplayer where you will need to really hone your skills if you want to succeed. There are a few modes you can choose to play, with a couple Team-battle oriented ones and a couple of duel-oriented ones. Dominion is the centerpiece team mode, where two teams of four fight to control three capture points. Most maps are set up with two capture points on the outside that heal players once captured, and one in the middle that has a bunch of AI fodder from both sides constantly fighting. To get this middle point, players must try and kill the enemy AI fodder so that their friendly AI team mates can push in, like a single lane MOBA. This is already a fun twist on Domination, but the mode becomes most interesting near the end of a match, when one of the teams gets to 1000 points.
Once this happens, the other team will start breaking, meaning players from the losing team can no longer respawn. The game will end when the winning team finishes off all remaining members of the breaking team. The twist is that when an objective is captured, the team that captured it will instantly gain 100 points, and the other team will lose 100 points, meaning a breaking team can rally by capturing an objective. This can lead to some really fun back-and-forth moments in close games that often end in each team breaking and an elimination-style end to the round. Players can revive each other in multiplayer, and this becomes much more important during this elimination phase. The most fun I had with For Honor was with this mode, during those rare close matches.
The other team modes are different takes on Deathmatch. Skirmish, which is basically the same as Attrition from Titanfall, is team deathmatch but with some AI fodder thrown in; killing enemy players and AI contributes to a team score that will decide the winner. I found this less enjoyable due to the random spawns that make it difficult to work with your team. You can also do an elimination style 4v4 deathmatch which is a bit more fun, though victories tend to snowball quickly.
If you don’t like the prospect of getting ganged up on, the duel oriented modes are simply 1v1 and 2v2, both a best of five rounds. Each 2v2 round starts with two isolated 1v1 duels on the same map, and typically the victor of each duel will fight each other if on separate teams. I didn’t personally enjoy the duel modes very much due to the issues I have with the combat system outlined above, but I expect those players who really dedicate themselves to learning For Honor’s intricacies will gravitate to these modes.
When you aren’t in active combat, there is a lot of esoteric window dressing surrounding the core gameplay that you need to think about. There is a bewildering character customization system where you can tweak granular aspects of your armor and weapon, such as different hilts, blades and materials that serve to change your stats. You can play as any character from the get-go, but can only customize them once you use in-game currency to recruit them. Unfortunately some customization items are objectively better than others, and you can spend money on in-game currency to unlock blind boxes that can directly improve your characters performance. The stat-bonuses only apply to team modes however, so duals remain an even playing field.
There is a sort of multiplayer meta-game as well; when you first start the game, you pledge allegiance to one of the three factions. There is a multiplayer overview map that shows different territories held by the different factions, and you can contribute points you earn while playing to your faction's cause in different territories. After a set period, players in the winning faction will get rewards in the form of customization items. I suspect some will enjoy the detailed customization options, though I personally found them to be excessive and tedious to manage, and disliked the fact your stats can be influenced this way.
Each character also has access to feats, which are passive buffs or abilities that slowly become available throughout each multiplayer match. These can range from benign but useful abilities like increased stamina regeneration, to more elaborate abilities like one that buffs nearby teammates and AI, making it easier to capture the central objective in Dominion. One particular ability seems a bit overpowered at the moment, a giant flaming catapult round that kills anything in a small radius, making it far more powerful than anything else in the game.
Another black mark against For Honor is that it uses a peer-to-peer matchmaking system rather than dedicated servers. I didn’t have many issues with latency in games, but I did experience a couple of disconnects. If a match isn’t full, empty slots will be filled with bots, and even when the mode I searched in had ‘very high activity’ with tens of thousands of people online, I found I was often playing with or against bots for entire games. Even though the matchmaking claims to take skill into account, I also found that a lot of games were incredibly one-sided. Facing high level teams with objectively better gear scores when you are trying out a character for the first time can be infuriating. For Honor’s P2P matchmaking isn’t a deal breaker, but it is certainly less than ideal.
For Honor’s biggest strength is easily its presentation. The game looks gorgeous with detailed environments and characters models, great lighting and superb animations. Performance is good, with a couple of minor frame rate dips during some of the more chaotic moments of the campaign feeling earned due to the high visual fidelity. Sound is also quite good with loud clashes when a blow is blocked and meaty impact when your weapon makes contact with your opponent. The soundtrack that consists of tribal drumming and stringed instruments is absolutely perfect and heightens the tension during close combat encounters.
Ultimately I suspect For Honor will appeal to two groups of gamers: those who are looking for a more intimate one-on-one fighting game experience, and those looking for more chaotic historically themed battles ala Chivalry: Medieval Warfare. There is certainly something here for both, but For Honor doesn’t really nail either, due to slightly clunky controls on the dueling side of things, and the limited scope and clumsy lock-on system that can take the edge off the team battles. Those patient enough to learn the ins-and-outs of the combat system will likely find more longevity in the duals than those looking for a chaotic team-based romp.