PC, PS4, Xbox One
For Honor doesn’t feel like a Ubisoft game. It doesn’t try to do everything; it doesn’t pack an open world with collectibles; it isn’t trying to be for everybody. Ubisoft’s free-roaming medieval combat simulator has the depth of a fighting game, building a complex system of feints, parries, stance switches and grabs out of a few simple building blocks. In one-on-one duels, the purest expression of For
Honor, play follows a set pattern. First, you assess your opponent, since each of the game’s 12 characters approaches combat differently. The naginata-wielding samurai Nobushi uses kicks and backsteps to keep her distance while needling you from long range. The axebearing viking Berserker thrives in close, where her fast, multidirectional attacks are hardest to reliably guard against. The lumbering knight Lawbringer, meanwhile, wields a poleaxe, a long-range threat that can be chained into potent throws at close range, but his slow swings make him vulnerable to parries.
After your opponent comes the battlefield itself. A duelling field may simply be a square courtyard enclosed on all sides, but it might equally be a bell tower with a sheer drop on one side, or a rope bridge, or the bank of a river of lava. This is vital. Enclosed environments restrict movement and prohibit swinging strikes, while environmental hazards place importance on guard-break counters. Fail to repel a guard break and you open yourself up to a throw, at which point you’re at the mercy of your opponent – and specifically, their sense of honour. Will they fight to the death, or simply throw you to yours?
After these considerations comes the drama of the combat system itself. Each character has access to three directional stances (left, right, and up) as well as light and heavy attacks, a guard break, an area-clearing zone attack, and parries that are achieved by launching a heavy attack into an incoming blow during a narrow window of time. Yet in each case these simple elements combine in different ways: their timing windows, their reach, the moves they combo with. Understanding the game at this level is the reward and the requirement of high-level play, where For Honor becomes a dance of feints and footwork with no element of luck. Losses are crushing, but the promise of a win will keep the competitive player running back for more.
A duel is the simplest expression of For Honor, but this same logic extends to two-on-two brawls, where each player starts facing a member of the opposing team. Polite (but unenforced) convention dictates that you let one of these duels finish before piling in, effectively granting each player a ‘second’ should they fail. The four-on-four Elimination mode is looser, with strategy revolving around how each team approaches those initial pairings. If you can kill your opposite number quickly, you are free to run off and help somebody else – but you can run away immediately, if you like, and attempt to overpower a different opponent before your jilted sparring partner catches up.
Power-ups provide an incentive to control certain areas of the map, while in these team modes how you defeat somebody matters more than it does in a duel. Finishing off an opponent’s healthbar with a heavy strike allows you to perform an execution, the benefits of which extend far beyond the drama of the kill itself. Executed players can’t be revived by their team-mates; this creates a network of soft and hard win conditions within an already complex fighting system, within a strategically broad team-action game.
The two other modes, Dominion and Skirmish, are looser still: the former revolves around capture points and the latter is essentially team deathmatch. You can respawn after death, and both dial down the importance of one-on-one fighting nous in favour of strategic play and fighting as a group. For Honor doesn’t show its best side in this context, but it also provides a much less punishing entry point for new players. The downside is Skirmish shares a matchmaking queue with Elimination while being a very different, arguably weaker mode.
For Honor’s singleplayer campaign threads a course through the knight, viking and samurai factions to tell the story of a decade-spanning war. Seen as the story mode in a fighting game, its scope is decent enough, but as a standalone action game, it’s a little thin. There’s not much to do besides fight, and the repetition is only redeemed by the strength of the combat system. At its best, it offers moments of real spectacle. At its worst, it has you hunting the same few enemies over used and re-used singleplayer versions of multiplayer maps. Over the course of the campaign you’re introduced to nine out of 12 characters, however, and as such it’s a welcome way to start to get to grips with For Honor’s complexity. Beyond that, Ubisoft Montreal provides extensive custom-match options and commendably effective AI, both of which help when you begin to take the game more seriously and want to drill specific techniques.
For Honor’s weaknesses are chiefly in its UI and the systems that surround the core game. In-game and out, the interface is far busier than it needs to be, though you’ll learn to focus on the key elements. A metagame that tracks points earned by players aligned to each faction on a war map is distracting, and unnecessary: without ranked play, the notion of a ‘season’ of multiplayer is rather empty. Character customisation options are welcome, but stat-altering gear doesn’t contribute much and ties into a microtransaction system that comes off as grasping given the cost of a full-price game and a season pass. It’s feature-creep, in short, bloat orbiting an excellent core. In that regard, at least, For Honor is a Ubisoft game.
Fail to repel a guard break and you open yourself up to a throw, at which point you’re at the mercy of your opponent