For Honor Review
For years, Ubisoft has been leading the charge toward what I like to call the Sandbox Singularity – the point at which all big-budget games are sandbox action-adventures distinguished only by their settings. Characterized by innumerable pointless collectibles, protagonists focus-tested into oblivion, and either map-revealing towers or liberation sidequests, the Sandbox Singularity has been consuming venerable franchises (Splinter Cell) and promising newcomers (Watch_Dogs) alike. With this in mind, my immediate reaction to the announcement of Knight vs. Viking vs. Samurai brawler For Honor was delight; it’s a new IP from Ubisoft, but it’s unlike anything they (or anyone) have released in the past. After actually getting my hands on the product, that reaction is still there, but it’s tainted by disappointment in the game’s token campaign and the inevitable imperfections of such a large project.
No single aspect makes For Honor the unique experience that it is. It’s a complex concoction of ingredients derived from half a dozen places. Some of these components are purely mechanical, while others are more about the player mindset that emerges from their source material. The game owes a great deal to the fighting genre, for example, but aside from the presence of guard breaks and minor combos, it doesn’t actually play like one of those titles on a functional level. Instead, it captures the spirit of the genre’s high-level play – misdirection and tactical counterattacks – in a completely different space. Specifically, a much larger space, since the second most notable genre influence is MOBAs. As such, most game types are 4-on-4, and some feature squads of easily dispatched soldiers vying for control points alongside human players.
The combat system at the heart of all of this could be described as Nidhogg in 3D with less stylization. Each player has three directional stances that can be rotated at will. The selected stance functions as both offence and defence, i.e. an attack launched from the “top” stance will be an attack from above, which can be blocked by an opponent’s “top” stance. Standard light and heavy variations of each attack are present, as well. From there, the mechanics expand to an agreeable depth. Weapon swings can be parried with good timing, different characters have different options for dodging and countering, and opponents can be thrown and knocked around once their guard is broken – ideally into environmental hazards like pits and fire.
There’s also a perk system akin to that of a modern shooter, but it comes with a couple of twists. For one, it includes actions like catapult strikes, which would normally be considered killstreak rewards, and two, each player’s perk loadout is introduced gradually during a match as they gain “Renown” for completing objectives and defeating opponents.
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For the most part, swordplay happens between two locked-on adversaries, but when one player is outnumbered, “side” stances can be used to defend against additional attackers. For situations like this, there’s “Revenge Mode,” a temporary all-purpose stat boost gained by quickly taking or blocking a lot of damage. It’s an interesting way to keep lopsided fights fun for all participants, but since good players know to simply play defensive when it appears, it’s probably not as useful as intended.
The game’s second closest analogue (next to the similarly-themed Chivalry: Medieval Warfare) is Super Smash Bros., in that they’re both unorthodox fighting games that can be enjoyed by players who haven’t already invested 100 hours into them. Unfortunately, For Honor only gets about halfway to that goal, because it failed to learn Smash’s most important lesson: give all characters the same controls.
There’s a solid universal baseline to For Honor’s 12 heroes, but it’s steadily abandoned as the mechanics grow. Some characters perform special actions by combining a side dodge and light attack, some characters can adopt a “universal guard” stance, etc. The learning curve is not nearly as dramatic as that of most traditional fighters, but it can still seem fairly impenetrable to new players.
This is compounded by the sheer volume of mechanical white noise that needs to be filtered out before one can learn to play effectively. Some of it is necessary (battles at central control points surrounded by warring soldiers are nearly impossible to decipher), but much of it is the result of the usual excesses of AAA development. There is an unbelievable degree of character customization available, including paint jobs, ornaments, and animations, plus a needlessly complicated loot system that involves upgrading individual pieces of a weapon for miniscule stat improvements. It’s all lost on the battlefield, however, because the characters are so over-designed that they become interchangeable apart from their class, and half of the game modes ignore equipment changes anyway.
Amusingly, since the game’s microtransactions focus primarily on these elements, they end up becoming lost in the noise as just another layer of unintuitive menu to ignore, rather than the greedy intrusion they’d normally be. The final point on the list of features that didn’t need to be here is the “Faction War,” in which players align themselves with one of the belligerent factions and fight for control over segments of the world map, with individual contributions based on match performance. It sounds cool at first, because it promises to make you part of something bigger than just yourself, but anyone who played Pokémon Go knows how it’ll turn out. At best, territories will fluctuate between two factions forever. At worst, they’ll be immediately dominated by whichever faction has the most members.
Excessive scale is not the problem here. When the game is using its scale well, it’s glorious. Case in point: the map design, which is beautifully realized and believably composed, while still offering plenty of terrain variety. In addition, mowing down a horde of squishy soldiers is as much of a fulfilling power fantasy as surgically dismantling a single enemy’s strategy and delivering a killing blow. On a similar note, less skilled players will likely appreciate that these weak AI targets give them something more satisfying to do than die all the time – a trick presumably learned from its equally effective use in Titanfall.
That being said, the game is still at its best during pared-down 1-on-1 or 2-on-2 matches. It’s there that the definitive highlight of the whole package – lengthy duels between equal fighters – emerges. Win or lose, matching wits and using every tool in your arsenal against a worthy opponent is immensely satisfying, thanks in equal part to the balanced combat mechanics and the cinematic animation engine that depicts it all.
I can’t stress the “win or lose” part enough, either. Most online games bred from the Call of Duty template feel like merely tests of who can see the other player first, but not here. I can’t recall a single death in For Honor that I felt was undeserved. Even the one-shot environmental kills only made me curse myself for letting my guard down or not being aware of my surroundings.
It’s actually very impressive how few technical issues there are, considering both Ubisoft’s recent history with major product launches and the overall originality on display. There’s a reason no one’s ever tried to do this kind of realistic melee combat before, and certainly not in multiplayer: it’s really hard to make it look and feel satisfying. Yet For Honor excels at both. Connected swings, blocked or otherwise, feel forceful and material. Some of this is due to the controls, which feel slightly stiff, but since movement never requires precision, it feels less like a flaw and more like an intentional choice designed to communicate the mountain of armour worn by every character.
Much of what I’ve discussed so far has applied only to the multiplayer modes, but there’s actually a full single-player campaign present…even if there probably shouldn’t have been. “It’s just to prepare you for the multiplayer” has been a stock criticism of campaigns in these kinds of games for a long time, but it’s more appropriate than ever here. Even the story seems to exist solely to bend over backwards to create a world in which the endless online battles could logically be considered canon. The best thing that can be said about the single-player is that it’s got a solid challenge level. The bloat of the main game seeps in here too, however, as the difficulty curve is slightly disrupted by unbalanced perks gained through separate “Story Experience” – an inclusion that only makes sense in some designer’s head.
The story itself deserves special mention, because it’s almost excruciatingly silly. The premise is nonsensical, with not a hint of redeeming tongue-in-cheek awareness to be found. Apparently, the cultures that birthed Knights, Vikings, and Samurai all formed right next to each other in an alternate world with no other civilizations. Then a massive earthquake made resources scarce, which led to a millennium of conflict between the three.
Had the story been more than an afterthought, someone presumably would have done the math and realized that 1000 years of constant war is absurd (for reference, WWII killed 3% of the world’s population in only 6 years). The only reason Warhammer 40K gets away with stuff like that is because it flings its setting millennia into the future and pumps its population numbers up to 15 digits.
I can’t help but feel that the frequency of wartimes as fictional settings has dulled our understanding of what war actually is. The thrust of the in-game events is that a Knight commander named Apollyon is manipulating the factions into perpetuating their conflict against their own interests, but when asked what her goal is, she simply replies, “War.” At no time is it ever pointed out that war is a means and not an end, and that this is the equivalent of being asked where you’re driving to and answering, “The road.” Similar gaps in logic abound, such as a character referring to the Samurai language as Japanese, which would imply the existence of, you know…Japan, seemingly forgetting that this is supposed to take place in some alternate fantasy world.
The missions themselves jump from place to place with little connection as well. The final mission in particular just drops the player on Apollyon’s doorstep with almost no buildup. A handful of levels introduce potentially interesting mechanics, including woefully shallow horseback combat, only for them to disappear five minutes later. These things could have possibly been justified by the need to fit 12 playable characters into an 18-mission story, except that the game only uses 8 of the available character classes. The remaining 4 are completely excluded from solo gameplay, which is especially frustrating because there are friendly NPCs present in almost every mission, and every absent role is represented by them at least once.
Suffice it to say, the spots where For Honor’s budget ran dry are incredibly obvious. Sometimes it’s handled more intelligently than others, such as characters being largely distinguished by their headgear. While it’s not ideal for storytelling, it certainly freed up resources that would’ve otherwise been wasted on facial animation.
On the other hand, there’s the game’s use of peer-to-peer connections rather than dedicated servers. If you’ve followed any of the game’s community discussions, you’ve definitely seen many bemoaning this aspect. The gist of the problem is that one player in each match may have a slight speed advantage. While it’s not the experience-ruining feature it’s been made out to be, it’s still an incredibly stupid decision for a game reliant on timing, and it could very well prevent the emergence of a genuine competitive scene.
For Honor may be vastly more original than most of its AAA brethren, but it still has many of the same priorities, such as the focus on graphics above all other artistic opportunities. The soundtrack is pure wallpaper, and while the voice acting certainly didn’t have to be stellar, it could have been less annoying. The writing is also well below average; Apollyon is the only character whose dialogue extends beyond the standard warrior archetype, and that’s only because she takes that archetype to such illogical extremes. There’s a bit of clever symbolism in that the path the campaign takes through the world map literally comes full circle, but its significance is lost when the game abandons its apparent downer ending at the last second in favour of a lazy sequel hook.
It must be noted that for all of its logistical and artistic flaws, the gameplay in the campaign is perfectly sound. The steady tutorials do a good job of acclimating new players to the mechanics, and significant effort was put into smoothly transitioning between playable and cinematic sections. At around 5 hours long, it feels like it’s squeezing all the entertainment it can out of combat against AI opponents, but it’s only using two thirds of its possible content at most. Ironically, its main longevity issue stems from the functionally infinite multiplayer, because the number of modes is deceptively small, with some simply being the same thing but with different team sizes.
I’m tempted to recommend For Honor solely so that its sales can show publishers that gamers want new IPs that aren’t just reskins of old ones. It’s not just an original concept with no substance behind it, either. Its melee combat system works shockingly well no matter how many players it’s enjoyed with, and the tactile feedback it provides is powerful and satisfying. My endorsement must sadly be somewhat reserved, however, because everything around that combat system is so roughly compiled. Between the walls of negligible information and features, and the incredibly spotty campaign that was clearly not part of the original design document, the game is destined only for “interesting but flawed” status.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided with.
For Honor's tactical, forceful swordplay is extremely well-executed, especially for a first attempt. It's just a shame it's attached to so many distractions, including a bewildering story mode.