Many people spent Valentine’s Day staring into their significant other’s eyes with loving adoration (or crying in the shower while eating cookies because they are alone… so alone), but personally I spent it splitting people’s skulls in twain with a pole axe. I also played For Honor! Zing! Yes, Ubisoft’s long-gestating brawler with brains is finally here, but does it fight with finesse or flounder like the skinny kid in a schoolyard donnybrook? Let’s have a look (also keep in mind that every time I have to spell honour without a u a small part of me dies)…
Clash of clans
In simple terms For Honor allows you to take control of a character from one of three factions (Viking, Samurai or Knights) and go head-to-head in glorious battle. While historically these guys were unlikely to have fought one another (although depending on your definition of knights the Vikings had a crack at armoured Englishmen and Frenchmen around the 9th century), in a video game it’s all fair fodder. Each faction contains four heroes to choose from and each belongs to a certain class that have similar fighting styles: Heavy, Vanguard, Assassin or Hybrid.
That can’t be easy to see through
This guy is not long for this world
At the beating heart of For Honor is the Art of Battle combat system. It’s quite a clever and innovative beast which, depending on what mode you’re playing, allows for a genuine skill-based approach to melee combat. Essentially you control the direction of both your blocks and attacks with the right thumbstick (choosing one of three directions), and if you match the direction of your opponent’s attack (which can be heavy or light) you will block it. Conversely, if you attack in a direction your opponent is not blocking you’ll score a hit on them. Each hero’s distinct movements are lovingly and precisely animated, and combat has a gritty and violent feel to it. If you manage to finish an enemy off with a heavy attack you’ll also get the opportunity to summarily execute them in grim fashion – satisfying for you, humiliating for them.
The Art of Battle is a deceptively simple system, but the developers have expertly built complexities around it to give it depth. Again depending on what mode you choose the game features a largely uncompressed skill gap and mastering these complexities will make you a force to be reckoned with. For instance, asides from the basics you can parry, perform guard breaks and throws, string together combos, unleash unblockable attacks, interrupt attacks, feint, dodge, stun and all manner of other things. Many combos and tactics are specific to the twelve heroes you can control, and you’ll need an intimate knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses to survive against good players. By design,some heroes are much more one-dimensional than others, and each of them are ranked on how easy they are to effectively use. This makes the game quite accessible and you’ll likely want to cut your teeth on an easy Vanguard like the Warden before attempting to tango with the Hybrid Viking Valkyrie.
While For Honor’s strength is undoubtedly as a multiplayer brawler, there is in fact a single-player campaign, but the less said about it the better. It’s a confused and unfocused slog that if there is a God will be quickly forgotten and lost in the annals of time. Each faction has six short missions involving their dealings with a mysterious female knight clad in black armour named Apollyon. While characterisations are all over the shoppe and are hampered by poor scripting and risible voice acting, Apollyon’s raison d’être seems to be to incite war and in-fighting amongst the clans
because… reasons. At multiple points the story loses its way and wanders into absurd realms, and the normally great Art of Battle system really doesn’t carry well here. The campaign might have served a purpose if it introduced you to all the heroes, but too often you’re saddled with a specific hero for multiple missions and just have to grin and bear it as you plough through the dullness.
The Art of Battle is a deceptively simple system, but the developers have expertly built complexities around it to give it depth
Into the fray
Where’s your head at?
It’s clear that the developer’s focus was on multiplayer, and they’ve done a commendable job of catering to two quite different styles of gameplay through the various modes. The signature mode in For Honor is a 4v4 affair called Dominion, which is a unique take on a classic domination game type. Your team must take control of capture points on the map in order to gain points, and once you reach 1000 points the enemy team’s respawns are disabled and it’s your job to slaughter them all. There’s a twist in that a controlled hill grants you 100 points, but these are only applied to your score when the zone is captured, which means you lose these points if the enemy team recaptures said zone. This results in a bit of flip-flopping with the score, and it’s very common to get above 1000 points only to have a zone recaptured and have the score fall back below 1000, meaning that enemy respawns are reinstated and they’ll get a chance to rally against you.
It takes a while to acclimatise to the ebb and flow of Dominion matches, but once you do there’s a lot of fun to be had, especially if you’re playing with friends and communicating. The 4v4 nature of the match and the fact there are also AI minions makes this mode fairly chaotic at times though, and some of the nuances in the Art of Battle system is lost in the process. Fair fighting is not a popular tactic in this mode, and if you try to go it alone you can guarantee you’ll find yourself in some fairly unwinnable match-ups against a pack of opponents attacking you all at once. It’s part and parcel of the experience though, and despite the fact that ganging up on someone ironically lacks honour, there’s a malicious charm to it nonetheless. The other 4v4 mode is Team Deathmatch, which encounters similar problems in terms of overly chaotic moments but is fairly well conceived and executed.
The flipside to the relative chaos of the 4v4 modes is found in the 2v2 Elimination and 1v1 Duel modes. Here the fighting is pared back to its honourable core, and the Art of Battle combat system is allowed to truly shine. If you fancy yourself a capable warrior then this is the place to prove it. Supreme consciousness of things like weapon range, timing, enemy movements, combos and counters is crucial if you plan to be the one dancing on your opponent’s beheaded corpse. I like the fact the game presents these
two quite different experiences – 4v4 tends to be more fun and casual, while 2v2 and 1v1 will be reserved for those looking to truly test their mettle in skilled combat. I do feel that perhaps there isn’t quite enough in terms of modes to keep players interested for long after release, and it’s quite possible that there will be issues of longevity similar to what Respawn’s Titanfall or Turtle Rock’s Evolve experienced.
I like the fact the game presents these two quite different experiences – 4v4 tends to be more fun and casual, while 2v2 and 1v1 will be reserved for those looking to truly test their mettle in skilled combat
Multiplayer is not without its issues, both from a technical standpoint and also in terms of its grindy progression. Unfortunately For Honor relies on a Peer-To-Peer network hosting infrastructure, and as of writing it is still fairly unstable. It is a bit too common for players to drop out of matches and for the game to freeze and migrate hosts. Sometimes when a dead player drops connection a mysteriously alive bot will suddenly teleport in and take their place, coming at you from nowhere with full health. The sooner major publishers and developers cease utilising P2P networks the better.
Nice head you have there. Shame if you were to…
Each hero you control can be levelled up by completing matches and challenges, and as you gain levels the likelihood of getting better gear to customise your hero and enhance your stats increases dramatically. Once you get past level 20 you gain a reputation level and repeat the process, and there are a whopping 30 reputation levels per hero. XP gain is incredibly slow and tedious however, which has the effect of discouraging using multiple heroes as you’ll likely want to unlock gear for your favourite first. It bears mentioning that this enhanced gear is only usable in the 4v4 modes, which is fitting given that the 2v2 and 1v1 modes tend to channel a spirit of fair competition to a much greater extent. Perhaps the grindy progression wouldn’t be as bad were it not for the implementation of microtransactions, a practice that is becoming alarmingly common in full-priced AAA games. You can pay real money to buy the game’s main currency called Steel, and use this to grant you boons to the rate at which you gain XP, as well as buying packs containing new gear. Steel can also be gained just by playing of course, but the price of things is pitched just a little high, presumably to incentivise forking out some cash to skip the grind.
It is not a slight thing for a publisher/developer to introduce an IP that is not only new and untested, but also tries its hands at innovation. While it’s a commendable practice and one generally welcomed by gamers, there are prohibitive financial risks involved that can make or break. For Honor does a lot of things well, the Art of Battle system in particular is a thoughtful central mechanic which for the most part is well showcased across the various modes. But a forgettable single-player campaign puts a lot of pressure on the multiplayer, and Ubisoft has managed to shoot themselves in the foot with an overly grindy progression that is hampered by unscrupulous microtransactions. I get the feeling For Honor might struggle to find and maintain a solid player base, which is a shame given the clear passion of the developers for the battle system they’ve created. It’s not a game I’d recommend without reservation, but there’s nothing out there really like it, and the strength of the multiplayer makes it certainly worth considering.
Reviewed on PS4