For Honor

Ubisoft takes a swing at some­thing dif­fer­ent in this game of mul­ti­player sword du­els


PC, PS4, Xbox One

When Ubisoft Mon­treal needed help with Watch Dogs’ driv­ing model, it en­listed the ser­vices of Driver: San Fran­cisco stu­dio Ubisoft Re­flec­tions. Swe­den’s Ubisoft Mas­sive has re­cently brought its mul­ti­player-spe­cial­ist sta­ble­mate in An­necy, France, on board to help with The Di­vi­sion. Ubisoft’s great­est as­set is its stu­dio net­work, a global spread of genre and func­tion­al­ity spe­cial­ists able to pro­vide ex­per­tise when re­quired, although the down­side is that it con­trib­utes to a highly fa­mil­iar house style across its games. For Honor, how­ever, is that rarest of beasts: a new Ubisoft game that bears no im­me­di­ate re­sem­blance to any­thing in the pub­lisher’s back cat­a­logue, bor­row­ing no me­chan­ics or as­sets as the team puts to­gether some­thing that – in the con­text of this com­pany’s out­put at least – is unique.

Be­yond those bound­aries, there are touch­stones aplenty. Nat­u­rally, a mul­ti­player sword com­bat game re­calls Chivalry: Me­dieval War­fare (which For Honor cre­ative di­rec­tor

Jason Van­den­berghe backed on Kick­starter). Map­ping light and heavy at­tacks to the right shoul­der but­ton and trig­ger re­spec­tively feels like a nod to Souls. The Do­min­ion mode we play is a riff on COD’s Dom­i­na­tion. And in its three-di­rec­tional sword com­bat sys­tem, dubbed the Art Of Bat­tle, there is a whiff of

Nidhogg. That’s a rare mix of in­flu­ences for any game, let alone a Ubisoft one, but its orig­i­nal con­cept pre­ceded the lot of them.

“About 12 years ago, I was tak­ing a course in western mar­tial arts,” Van­den­berghe says. The course in ques­tion? Me­dieval sword com­bat. “I was at home one day, think­ing about the pat­terns I’d been learn­ing, and just started think­ing about con­trols: what if we mapped this style onto a right stick? The con­trol scheme just clicked. I got ex­cited, and started pitch­ing it to any­one who’d lis­ten. For a decade it was just, ‘No, no, no.’

“It was a dif­fer­ent time: Lord Of The Rings was just hap­pen­ing, we didn’t have Game Of Thrones, the main­stream au­di­ence just wasn’t there. And we didn’t have the tech to do it. Third­per­son [games] were very dif­fer­ent 12 years ago.”

Van­den­berghe had been with Ubisoft for a few years when he pitched his idea to Yan­nis Mal­lat, CEO of Ubisoft Mon­treal, who was the first to not say no to the con­cept out­right. In­stead, Mal­lat in­tro­duced him to the team that made Naruto games. Work on For Honor be­gan, and with so lit­tle prece­dent to base it on, all the team could do was experiment. “We [made] 400 pro­to­types over the course of this thing,” Van­den­berghe says. “We made a whole bunch of Flash demos, a bunch of ran­dom crap where we were just ex­plor­ing. I still have them all – I kept the whole li­brary.”

Four hun­dred pro­to­types later, For Honor’s sword com­bat is weighty, pur­pose­ful and sat­is­fy­ing. Squeeze L2 and you en­ter Guard mode, from which nudges of the right stick ei­ther raise your sword to head height or hold it by your left or right hip. This dic­tates not only the di­rec­tion of your at­tacks, but your de­fence; as in Nidhogg, in­com­ing blows are au­to­mat­i­cally blocked if your sword is held in the same po­si­tion as the en­emy’s swing­ing blade. There are other el­e­ments in play – you can nudge the stick to­wards your foe and tap Square to break their guard, while Feats are fac­tion-spe­cific su­per moves – but this is the de­li­cious meat of com­bat. Blows con­nect with a sick­en­ing crunch, and par­ries are re­warded by a las­civ­i­ous clang. It is a purist’s lov­ing cel­e­bra­tion of sword com­bat, some­thing that in too many games is sim­ply seen as a the­mat­i­cally ap­pro­pri­ate means to an end.

It’s a con­cept that ex­tends to Do­min­ion, which presents you with three zones to cap­ture and feels at first like a straight crib of

COD’s Dom­i­na­tion, al­beit one in which the four player-con­trolled char­ac­ters on each side are joined by a busy bat­tle­field of AI grunts. Yet when one team reaches the score limit of 1,000 points, there is no win screen, no leader­board, and no replay of the fi­nal kill. In­stead, the los­ing side is put into Break mode, and its play­ers are robbed of their abil­ity to respawn. If the en­tire team dies, the bat­tle will end, but if a sur­vivor can claim a cap­ture point, their al­lies will come back to life. You can still earn points dur­ing this phase, too, and reach­ing 1,000 points will break the op­po­si­tion too. One of our matches ends af­ter a pro­tracted, fright­fully tense to-and-fro, the pa­tient flow of sword fights punc­tu­ated by des­per­ate Benny Hill sprints to cap­ture points with three blood­thirsty samu­rai in pur­suit. Vic­tory, when it comes, is not shown in stacks of K/D ra­tios, but in lop­ping the last en­emy’s head clean off.

Again, it­er­a­tion proved to be key. “Orig­i­nally, Do­min­ion would end on points,” Van­den­berghe ex­plains, “and I was like, ‘Surely we should end the match on a de­cap­i­ta­tion? That’s how ev­ery match should end: the big one dies and ev­ery­one else runs, right?’ We wanted the endgame to al­ways re­sult in those per­sonal du­els; some­one per­son­ally wins the match and the bat­tle. That back-and-forth tug is awe­some, but it was an ac­ci­den­tal dis­cov­ery that grew out of our try­ing to al­ways end a match with a sword move.”

Van­den­berghe says Do­min­ion has been the heart of For Honor since early in pro­duc­tion, mak­ing it the log­i­cal choice for the game’s cotil­lion. Other game­types will fea­ture – with bot sup­port in place for those want­ing to stay off­line – and there will also be a cam­paign mode and co-op. An eye-catch­ing in­clu­sion is splitscreen mul­ti­player, which has long been out of fash­ion. “I don’t get it,” Van­den­berghe says. “I think it’s amaz­ing, es­pe­cially for a game about sword­fight­ing. It’s a per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, right? I want to fight my friends, and I want them to be there when I do.”

It is, of course, not with­out its prob­lems. The creeps, if we can trans­plant MOBA terms to Me­dieval times, clut­ter the screen, block­ing your path and at­tract­ing blows in­tended for other tar­gets. Bat­tles are meant to be chaotic, of course, but the AI and UI (which high­lights cap­ture points but doesn’t show your al­lies) com­bine to make the game a lit­tle hard to read at times. Still, such com­plaints are dulled in the face of a com­bat sys­tem this sat­is­fy­ing, and a pub­lisher renowned – of­ten de­monised – for its lack of in­ven­tion sanc­tion­ing such a dra­matic de­par­ture from its norms.

Both are down to Van­den­berghe, a charis­matic fig­ure with enough en­thu­si­asm to power a game con­fer­ence on his own, who has spent 12 years get­ting For Honor out of his brain, into de­vel­op­ment and onto Ubisoft’s E3 stage. “I’ve been freed from my in­ner de­mons,” he says. “This is my bucket list game, the game I’ve al­ways wanted to make.” There may have been no prece­dent for this sort of thing in Ubisoft’s past, but you sus­pect that is pre­cisely why the pub­lisher is mak­ing it. In years to come, when another Ubi devel­oper puts a sword in a pro­tag­o­nist’s hand, it’ll be Van­den­berghe they go to for help.

“That back-and-forth tug is awe­some, but it was an ac­ci­den­tal dis­cov­ery”

Jason Van­den­berghe, cre­ative di­rec­tor

The map on which our demo is set, Har­row­gate, is built around a crum­bling castle – pre­sum­ably home ground to the Le­gions. Ex­pect other maps to suit Vik­ings and samu­rai, though it’s not yet clear how Ubisoft Mon­treal will knit all three to­gether in the con­text of a cam­paign

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