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