Melee combat games come in many forms, and when blended with mechanics from a wide variety of genres the end results can vary pretty wildly. That’s how you end up with Ninja Gaiden, Dark Souls, and even the Batman Arkham trilogy sharing some semblance of, for lack of a better term, design DNA. Button combinations, parries, blocking incoming attacks, taking on more than one foe at a time, adjusting strategies to match up against different fighting styles. These are all part of what you’d expect to find in a melee-combat-heavy experience. For Honor certainly shares these elements, but it also feels like a straight up fighting game, a competitive capture-the-point online multiplayer experience, and even, an over-the-top fantasy where Knights in shiny armour, Vikings, and Samurai all converge into a hectic, and violent, free-for-all.
Prior to release we were unsure as to what exactly For Honor was supposed to be. Not in the sense that its messaging was confusing, but in that it didn’t seem to fit into any sort of ready-made mould one might find on a retail shelf. The sort of spaces reserved for Shooter 45: The Shootening or Digital Sports! 2017 Edition. In the case of For Honor, being different is good. And for the most part it’s the ambition and clear focus on providing visceral and heated steel-on-steel combat experiences that will keep you coming back. This is demonstrated from the very first tutorial all the way to the online multiplayer component that has you picking sides and distributing War Assets across a board that also serves as a hub to engage in the various online multiplayer modes.
So then, what is For Honor? Well, it’s many things, but to set the scene think of it as a game where you can choose from 16 different fighters across three factions and then take to the battlefield. Each fighter, either a Knight, Viking, or Samurai, has their own unique weapon setup, and in turn, a different set of moves and various strategies to obtain the upper hand in any encounter. Which explains why each fighter is given a rating ranging from Easy to Hard. To let you in on what you can expect coming to grips with the different fighting styles. And much like a fighting game, simple moves and attacks are assigned to the same buttons no matter who you pick, with the main focus placed on three fighting stances that dictate what side you’ll be attacking and defending from.
Both you and your opponent get a visual indicator on screen so you can quickly gauge at any given moment how each of you are positioned. And from there you can simply try and match your opponent’s stance to block or parry an incoming attack, or switch when it’s time to counter or even take the initiative. It’s easy to come to grips with, but only having this aspect of the game worked out will quickly turn you into sword and spear food when you go online. Naturally, the fighting game comparisons come into play when looking at the strengths and weaknesses of each fighter, their combos, speed, and special abilities. It can get complicated pretty quickly, but thanks to in-game videos for each fighter and the ability to practice, it’s the sort of experience where your skill will grow the more you stick with it.
For Honor features a story-driven campaign, one told as a historical lesson to set the scene for the multiplayer side of things where each side is at war with each other. It’s not exactly great, but it’s a lot of fun and gives you enough time to try out a bunch of different fighting styles. Where the campaign excels though, and For Honor for that matter, is with the overall setting and presentation. There’s clearly a sense of pure admiration and joy on the development team’s side, around the idea that someone clad in heavy and ornate armour, that is also wielding a large weapon, is cool to look at. And they’re right. For Honor nails both the sheer weight of the different styles of shiny and not-so shiny armour and the momentum and strength it would require to swing a large sword. And when met in battle those swords will clang too, so, collision detection for the most part is wonderful -- although things get a little messy and clunky when taking on hordes of expendable grunts.
In fact, For Honor represents one of Ubisoft’s best looking games for this generation of hardware, and the level of detail in both the characters and environments adds immeasurably to the enjoyment of gritty and up-close-and-personal melee combat. So, you can understand why, when you run through some grass or a bush and it doesn’t react to your armour, we were left a little disappointed. A minor visual gripe that momentarily reminds you that you’re playing in a static world when it’s all said and done.
But again, the fighters themselves, and the battle animations, are brilliant.
To get a better sense of how much For Honor is in love with the look of its fighters, one need only look at the customisation options available. To say that you can change the look of your helmet would be one thing, but to say that you can not only adjust the patterns, colours, and styles of individual pieces of armour, but, also customise sword hilts and blades to fine tune stats would be closer to the mark. The level of both the cosmetic and actual statistical customisation is impressive in its abundance and complexity. Finding new pieces, patterns, and items, could very well become one of the key reasons you’ll keep coming back to For Honor.
There’s a sense or feeling that you get from quite a few Ubisoft games that errs on the side of, “Here’s dozens of ideas from a bunch of different styles of games. Enjoy!” For Honor is no different and learning its systems and coming to grips with the interface and how it all connects to the seasonal War of Factions stuff takes time. From a visual perspective, the user interface and the multiplayer presentation feels like it could have been lifted from either a futuristic shooter or something like Street Fighter. And the modes themselves will make you go, “Oh, this is the capture point king of the hill style one” or “Right, basic duel stuff here.” That’s not to say that the multiplayer side of For Honor is devoid of any originality, as the feel of the game itself, and the mechanics, make it stand out among other offerings.
Is this side of the experience, well, good? Definitely, but its longevity will come down to well For Honor can retain its audience. The War of Factions stuff sounds great, but feels lacking in its overall presentation. But there are memorable flashes of brilliance when playing the multiplayer modes, and you come up against another player. And through sheer skill and understanding of the combat, you’re able to gain the upper hand in a heated and intense exchange of metal. And then, put the exclamation point on the outcome with a suitably violent execution. Also, sneaking up on someone to quickly take them out before they can react. Or simply, respecting the Warrior Code and watching two other players duel against the backdrop of AI skirmishes, rain, and all manner of dirt, stone, and fire.