You gotta hand it to Ubisoft: for all its iterative rehashing of the open-world action formula it helped create, the company does occasionally try new things. Between Steep, Grow Home, and a slew of novel VR games, the publisher has demonstrated that it doesn't eat map-icon soup for every meal - just most of them. For Honor, its new historical fantasy multiplayer game, is another odd experiment: high-budget, unusual in design, and seemingly made for an unbelievably niche audience.
The basic, kinda dumb setup of For Honor is this: some cataclysmic event has brought samurai, Vikings, and English-style knights* into contact and conflict, ushering in “a millennium of war” long ago shorn of purpose. Now, they do battle in an endless series of ten-minute rounds, with a variety of rules imposed on the battlefield. You might say the conflict plays out like the deathmatch and zone-capture shooter games that would follow centuries later - except with muddy, bloody melee combat. I told you it was dumb.
For Honor's greatest strength and toughest learning curve lie in its reactive, tactical approach to swordplay (and by extension, axe-play, knife-play, spear-play, and mace-play). Like a chimera of Dark Souls and competitive fighting games, it runs on a combination of defensive stances, light and strong attacks, combos, guardbreaks, ripostes, and finishers - all filtered through the factions and character classes on offer, which play surprisingly differently to one another. The left/right/top defense stances are tricky to get accustomed to, thanks to a control paradigm that reassigns the right stick (traditionally controlling the camera) to stance adjustment, but it's intensely satisfying to pull off a sustained rally. Like tennis. Or, I suppose more appropriately, fencing.
Duels between For Honor players of equal skill take on the rhythm of a fighting game, only requiring more tactics than dexterity. The psychological game can be just as powerful as the mechanical one, as players feint, trick each other into overcommitting, or use the environment to gain the upper hand. If you’re not constantly watching your opponent, you’re fucked - defense is of paramount importance, and the interlocking combat mechanics can make for tense matchups (and, likely, complaints about game balance). Once past the learning curve, it’s hard to fault the fight mechanics - except for maybe how tempting it is to reduce them to watching and reacting to alert chevrons.**
“But Andrew,” you ask, “how am I to climb that learning curve? Would that there were a lengthy tutorial, perhaps barely cloaked in the trappings of a single-player campaign!”
Good news, fans of obligatorily-included mediocrity! An eighteen-mission campaign awaits: six missions per faction, complete with badly paced cutscenes. Taking place twelve years before the online game’s “present,” the colossally stupid story features antagonist Apollion pitting the factions against each other because she...just hates peace a bunch, apparently. The occasional moments of impressive scale or amusing dialogue aren’t enough to leaven the rough, rudimentary, and repetitive mission design. It’s there purely to train players in how to fight with For Honor’s nonstandard control system (as opposed to against it), and it achieves that goal - but not much more.
Online is a different story, to the point of maybe even overreaching. All your multiplayer matches contribute to a larger metagame, dubbed Faction War, which plays out like a long-form tabletop game akin to Risk or Fantasy Flight’s Game of Thrones board game. Performing well in multiplayer matches earns you assets you can deploy in Faction War; the metagame determines which maps get put on the roster and how they’re dressed. It’s an interesting idea that certainly fits with the (still ridiculous) fiction, but it feels poorly integrated with the moment-to-moment combat. To me, it’s like the “global defense” portions of XCOM games: ultimately, I came here to fight aliens (or Vikings), not to shift resources around.
Speaking of resources, For Honor really wants you to spend yours. Each character has a range of armour and weapon sets*** available, purchasable using the in-game currency Steel - in turn, earned either through gameplay or through spending real money. Successful multiplayer titles like Overwatch limit such loot boxes to cosmetic items only, meaning players electing to drop cash only look cooler, with no leg up in gear quality. But although the primary differentiating factor between players is still skill, For Honor’s unlockable gear increases the stats on one’s gear, giving a clear gameplay advantage. One wonders how quickly Ubisoft expects its players to cave to the microtransaction-driven arms race purely out of frustration at being the least well-equipped on the battlefield.
For Honor also sports some technical issues, and in areas where it really can’t afford to. Though the game looks great, with exceptional, weighty character animation and gushing geysers of blood, its networking is dreadful. Even on game modes labeled “high activity,” the game seemed to take forever to find me a match, and matches themselves were plagued with lag. That made players’ movements impossible to track; it slowed frame rates down; it even booted me from games on multiple occasions. My internet connection isn’t slow enough to take the blame, and other games don’t fall over with this degree of regularity. For an always-online, multiplayer-centric title, it’s kind of unacceptable.
I have to give Ubisoft credit for the boldness of some of its decisions in For Honor. Its historical fantasy setting, uncompromising control scheme, quote-unquote “realistic” swordplay, and tabletop-style metagame make for a spectacularly niche product, for something with this kind of budget. I can foresee a dedicated core of combat nerds jamming the shit out of For Honor, but it’s definitely not for everyone and frankly probably not for me either. And after all, honour doesn’t enter into the equation when you’re spending more time fighting server issues than enemies.
* No Klingons, sadly, which really would have pushed this honor-based game to the next level. Perhaps in the DLC.
** The onscreen prompts that make For Honor playable, at least for new players, have no colourblind options, god damn it, and that makes me see red. Or it would, if I could see reds properly.
*** Refreshingly, any character can be male or female, with sensible and realistic armour options either way.