A viking stands on a muddy field, his battle-axe swaying threateningly above his head. Opposite him is a samurai, resplendent and terrifying in his traditional dress armour and frowning red mask. Neither can recall what brought them to this unlikely fight, but as the buildings around them burn, they know that they must fight each other to the death. The samurai begins to approach, closing the gap and raising his own weapon – a nodachi longsword – from his right side to above his own head, mimicking his opponents’ stance in preparation. At the last moment, he steps (as deftly as his 40 kilos of armour allows) to the right, drops his blade and slashes towards the midriff of the circling viking, who parries at the last moment.
The fighters slash and parry a number of times before falling back a few paces to weigh each other up. Each of the combatants shows the scars of battle, as crimson blood seeps through deep slashes in the thick armour. The viking begins to advance, preparing himself to launch a flurry of blows that will surely finish the fight. Singularly focussed on his enemy, he fails to see the charging knight approaching from his left. Shaken by the sudden surprise attack, he parry’s the first blow, but fails to meet the charge of his original enemy, who lands a series of crushing strikes with his gigantic blade. Bloodied and battered, he falls to his knees, and with a single, disdainful stroke, the samurai beheads him.
And that, in short, is the best and worst of For Honor. At its best, the game is capable of delivering spectacular, visceral and immersive one on one combat in stunning environments, and it could have been the medieval combat simulator I’ve been dreaming of since I was about twelve. Unfortunately, whilst it nails smaller battles such as duels and two vs two to a masterful extent, For Honor falls a little short of handling the chaos that larger confrontations bring. This is largely due to the otherwise fantastic and highly focussed control mechanism that Ubisoft dub “The Art of Battle.”
Broadly speaking, The Art of Battle system allows players to lock on to a single, significant enemy and engage them in a fight to the death that has the depth and complexity of a traditional fighting game such as Street Fighter or Tekken. For those who remember it, Bushido Blade is probably the closest relative that I can think of, although For Honor is more forgiving in that there are no single strike kills, or mid-battle dismemberments.
In For Honor, once you’ve locked on to an opponent, your fighter will have the option of three weapon stances – left, right and overhead. None of these make a difference in terms of attacking options, but they are critical to blocking and parrying. To block, players must match the enemy stance, and to parry, they must time a heavy attack at exactly the right moment. The characters feel as heavy and slow as they must considering their armour and weaponry, and the weighty controls not only feel appropriate, but they also allow a realistic amount of time for human combatants to time blocks with reasonable success. Parrying is hard enough that it isn’t going to happen in response to every swing, but even a relative newcomer to the game will be able to pick it up relatively quickly.
There are other mechanics as well. Grab and throw moves, unblockable attacks and environmental hazards. There are also characters that have unique nuances such as the assassin classes, who can’t maintain a permanent stance like the larger characters, making blocking and parrying much harder. These classes benefit instead from enhanced speed, and in the hands of a master, can be devastating. The Art of Battle System is almost flawless when focussed on single combat, and duels between well matched opponents can feel as exhilarating as the most heartpounding efforts in gaming, including the likes of Bloodborne, Dark Souls and any and all of the more traditional fighting games.
Where this system begins to falter is in bigger fights, notably in the four vs four multiplayer mode known as Dominion, and in one or two of the more frustrating campaign battles. The game does allow for players to block attacks from outside the duel that they are locked into, but it does not allow for counterattacks really, and most of the time a two vs one fight is going to end in favour of the side with greater numbers. That’s almost always the case for fights where three or four characters face down a single opponent, and because some of the multiplayer modes are elimination based, that happens more often than you would hope.
That’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable, because in duel mode or two vs two, For Honor can be fantastic, and even in Dominion, two well organised teams of decent players can have a bloody good scrap. There is a lot to keep players interested as well, especially in multiplayer. There are twelve characters, six maps and five multiplayer modes, and Ubisoft plan to follow the same model as we first saw in Rainbow Six: Siege, which means that new content will be released free to all players, but season pass holders will gain access to new content earlier than everyone else. The War of Factions is an interesting multiplayer feature, and it allows players to pledge allegiance to one of the three factions in order to contribute points towards an overall seasonal objective.
One of the questions raised about For Honor prior to its release was whether or not it would have a serviceable single player mode. The great thing about having very low expectations is that it’s impossible to be disappointed, and easy to be quite impressed. Joking aside, For Honor has a solo campaign that is as good as any nowadays, with three distinct campaigns that feature a decent story, excellent voice acting and unique levels and objectives. It may seem ridiculous, but Ubisoft have actually made a decent stab at explaining why knights, vikings and samurai are all in the same place at the same time, and the whole thing is bound together by a really excellent bad guy.
Single player missions involve working through a number of the available character classes in the pursuit of specific objectives relating to the current faction and story arc. The knights, for example, fight exclusively against the vikings in the first section of the campaign, and missions involve burning through their towns and villages in order to fulfil a macabre mission for an increasingly more unnerving leader. The viking campaign continues from that point, and the samurai one after that, and each builds towards an ever more compelling conclusion. Mechanically, the objectives are often as simple as guiding a battering ram to a gate, or pushing a button at one of several highlighted points, but thematically, they are much more interesting. Between objectives there are hundreds of rank and file enemies to dispatch, but each requires only a single hit to kill. These massed enemies are interspersed with a much smaller number of significant bad guys, each of which must be duelled using the Art of Battle system that I’ve already described.
There are relatively few flaws with the single player mode, except that it has the same issues as multiplayer does. Fighting several significant enemies at once can be an issue, and there is one boss fight that features both a nasty bad guy and his pack of pet wolves, making it a real pain in the butt. The game isn’t especially hard, and even though each mission can be played on any of three difficulty levels, none of them present too stiff a challenge outside of occasional difficulty spikes such as the boss I’ve just mentioned.
So, aside from a bit of a balancing issue when fighting multiple foes at once, For Honor is quite a success. It has a better-than-expected campaign mode, a deep and hard to master fighting system that will lead to long-term multiplayer appeal, and it looks and sounds fantastic. There is a polish to For Honor that has always been lacking in games like Mount and Blade, Chivalry and other, similar games. I should mention that there is a frustrating intrusion from micro-transactions that relates to character unlocks, in that it’s only possible to use eight of the characters right away. Four are available from the start, and four more can be bought using the 2,000 steel given for completing the informative tutorial mode. Steel is then dished out in doses of twenty or thirty for completing missions either solo or in multiplayer, yet the remaining four characters costs 500 steel each. Obviously, steel can be bought for real money… My real issue here is that the character content should be considered part of the core product, especially considering that things like “Deluxe Editions” exist, yet still don’t provide access to this content.
These things are minor though, and certainly where micro-transactions are concerned, possibly quite personal to me. For Honor is a superb game that should be admired for doing some different, for wrapping it up in a package that we are all familiar with, and for making it look so damn pretty. There are hours of fun to be had here, and the fighting system is unique and likely to be the subject of much replication over the next few years as players get used to both the idea of an embedded fight mechanic, and the depth and complexity of that mechanic. Thinking about it, For Honor probably is the game I’ve been dreaming of since I was about twelve, because it does such a good job of covering all the critical aspects that I associate with medieval warfare that I really have no serious cause for complaint, and if you’re in the market for this kind of game, then neither should you!
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