An age-old game of “Who Would Win?” can finally be settled in For Honor, Ubisoft’s multi-platform war fighting game that pits knights, samurai and vikings against each other in a test of wits and steel. Or, at least, the game can indicate which faction fans most prefer to side with.
Released on Feb. 14, 2017, right in time to provide a virtual alternative to Valentine’s Day, For Honor mixes classic fighting styles of games such as Mortal Kombat with an overarching map-based strategy element that bears resemblance to the board game Risk. The game requires an online connection to play, but it does feature a campaign option, though the majority of the content is heavily geared towards multiplayer play that pits faction against faction and player against player.
After embarking on a beginner tutorial—with the supplemental advanced tutorial strongly recommended for aspiring combatants—players are ready to set forth into the multiplayer fray. Several game modes can be chosen, such as team deathmatch, a domination-style mode and either 1-on-1 or 2-on-2 duels. Each faction boasts four fighters with distinct abilities and combat techniques to accommodate different playstyles ranging from fast-paced assassins to slow and steady tank fighters. More fighters are scheduled to be released for future DLC, but the current fighters provide plenty of time to master their learning curves and combos.
Fans of the Dark Souls series will see some similarities in the combat system of For Honor. Whether it’s sword-and-shield or duel-wielding that you prefer, dodging, counter-attacking and strategic gameplay are imperative elements to becoming a successful fighter. Once locked onto an enemy combatant, attacks can be directed and blocked from left, right or above, and indicators of incoming attacks provide relatively clear windows of counterplay. Guardbreaks also provide a way to penetrate turtling foes, but the current guardbreak element in play seems to have its fair share of issues: guardbreaking provides an easy option for free damage on your opponent, and while the move can be countered, the risk-to-reward ratio of the move benefits players who prefer to spam the move repeatedly, a perhaps unintended gameplay element that Ubisoft developers have already commented may need adjusting in the near future.
Obvious class balance advantages and disadvantages exist, as with any game that employs fighting elements mixed with different playstyles—assassins are faster and those loaded down with plate armor take a bit longer to kill—but for an initial effort, the fighters are fairly balanced in their strengths and weaknesses, a rare occurrence for fighting games. Light, fast-moving characters seem to be some of the more-played fighters, such as the Orochi from the Samurai faction and the Peacekeeper from the Knights, but less-played characters such as the Samurai’s hard-hitting Shugoki and the Knights’ crowd-controlling Lawbringer already seem to have developed a devoted playerbase.
The four-on-four objective-based modes allow players to employ deeper strategies than just wailing on their opponents. A Warlord from the Viking faction sitting atop a command point will make players think twice about taking the objective. Environmental hazards, much to the chagrin of some players, throw additional threats into the mix. Cliffs, spikes and fire run rampant across the multiple arenas, some causing damage and some resulting in one-hit-KOs. The prolific hazards that plague maps are gratuitous at some times, but they allow different fighters to play to their strengths involving repositioning the enemies to their advantage.
As players garner experience for their chosen fighter, they can rank up through a system called Reputation, a leveling design akin to prestige in Call of Duty. Along the journey, gear can be gathered for each character to improve their stats in non-duel game modes. Some of the stats, such as Revenge gear that triggers when fighting outnumbered, prove difficult to balance, and will likely be adjusted in the future, but for an initial endeavor, the character customization in place is quite attractive. Showing off uniquely colored and designed gear in the loading screens and in battle display proficiency before swords can even clash, even if it’s just cosmetic.
But where the combat really shines is in the form of executions, something fans of fighting games are quite familiar with. Many fights become drawn out battles of exploiting enemies’ weaknesses and finding holes in their defenses, and after a particularly breathtaking bout, the satisfaction of watching your hard work culminate in a gloriously gratuitous execution makes the entire scuffle worth it. Executions are exclusive to each fighter, four per person with two equipped at a time, and even being on the receiving side of a beheading is still an impressive sight to behold.
One design choice that’s particularly baffling on Ubisoft’s part is the decision to make the servers peer-to-peer as opposed to dedicated servers. P2P servers are common in indie games, but an AAA game such as this one really has no excuse to not use dedicated servers. The decision results in sluggish gameplay due to players leaving and causing reconnection issues and a lack of security that has already manifested in the servers going down for a period of time.
Another misstep is the map-based strategy mentioned earlier. After each online match, players earn war assets depending on their in-game performance. These can be deployed on the map in areas their chosen faction is fighting, always right on the borders with neighboring territories. The effects of these war assets is never fully explained, and the percentages of who’s controlling what territories more don’t change in real time, they update after a period of time where changes in territory control are displayed. Not being able to see a direct and immediate impact is a serious deterrent to those wishing to participate in the board game-esque fight, and despite the promise of end-of-season rewards for the faction that controls the most territory, it’s really not enough to maintain interest in pushing towards the enemy strongholds.
For a AAA launch from Ubisoft, For Honor definitely contains some head-scratching elements that are rarely seen, especially in the next-gen age of consoles and PC-gaming. However, for a fighting game with an innovative combat system, the game is dangerously addictive and rewarding to play, and it definitely has a strong foundation to build on and a potential competitive environment.