Samey swordsman can’t help but slash and burn
Every other videogame take note: this is how you do sword fighting… and spear fighting… and spiked club fighting. Ubisoft Montreal’s medieval stab-‘em-up has some of the best blade-on-blade combat on Xbox One. Crunching, tactical, and deeply impactful, few other games sell the sensation of close-quarters duels quite like this. It’s just a pity that in most other departments Ubi’s slasher is fairly narrow-minded.
Doing one thing very well can be commendable. Remember Rockstar’s
TableTennis? It proved that games with tunnel vision can work brilliantly when executed to perfection. Yet while said execution in ForHonor is mostly up to task, the blades of a stellar combat system are swiftly dulled by repetition.
To its credit, this lo-fi beat-‘emup hybrid is nothing if not focused. It feels like a throwback to a simpler time, as if someone cooked up a 3D
StreetsOfRage, then chucked it into a blender with a dusty DVD of Kingdom
OfHeaven. Whether you jump into the measured murder overspilling from the online duels and deathmatches, or its unapologetically one-note campaign, one thing above all is guaranteed: super-satisfying sword skirmishes.
The key to the combat’s success lies in its unabashed simplicity. Coined ‘The Art Of Battle’ by Ubisoft *ugh*,
ForHonor is unfussy yet tactile. It strips the action down to streamlined stick controls, where every strike and parry can be dished out with a deft flick and a swift jab of RB for a light strike, or RT for a bruising heavy attack.
ForHonor’s stick-based defensive system is its crowning glory. In action, deflecting an online or AI opponent’s strikes plays out a bit like EA’s Fight
Night… if you replaced Roy Jones JR countering a haymaker with a surgical jab for two dudes in armor slapping each other’s mighty medieval blades away. There’s almost a rock-paperscissors purity to combat. If a foe attacks from the left, you flick your stick to the left to guard against the blow. There are three different stances in duels (left, above and right), and as long as you successfully match the directions of your enemy’s assaults, you take minimal damage.
Visually, For Honor’s fights are wisely uncluttered. On-screen cues flash up during strikes, and it’s easy to read where your foe’s next attack is coming from. Quite whether you can react in time to stop that Berserker’s axe from relieving your warrior’s head from their shoulders is another matter entirely. While duels encourage careful defense and an air of caution, the dozens of online scraps we partake in reveal it’s the bold sword fighter, the one who favors brave attacking flourishes, that often emerges the victor.
To spice up these battles, Ubi separates fighters into different categories. For Honor’s 12 starting heroes span balanced Vanguards, hard-hitting heavies, agile, counterattacking assassins, as well as the somewhat devious Hybrid class, which excels at shrugging off its enemies’ attacks with effective parries and long-range counters.
In theory, each class should have an equal chance on the battlefields, which play out across a range of snow-covered ramparts and muddy courtyards. In practise, speed is king. Whether you choose a warrior from the Knights, Vikings, or Samurai, assassins and Hybrids always seem to have an advantage. When you have a Knight Peacekeeper thrashing away with a relentless stream of swipes from her twin daggers, the lightningfast flurries can be infuriating to defend against. True, attacks can be parried—match the direction of your foe’s blow, then immediately hit a heavy attack at the right interval— but good luck with that when the person across from you is throwing six strikes a second your way.
Complaining about assassins isn’t a case of sour grapes, either. Keep your ‘git gud’ comments to yourself, for we’re not the wronged party here. Quite the contrary: we often benefit from these slightly cheap, overly rapid assaults. We lose count of the number of occasions we thrash wildly with the right stick, our crude enthusiasm for disembowelling opponents often prevailing against even the most guarded defence. Don’t spread this around, but we’re what’s wrong with
For Honor’s early online community. The balancing issues don’t stop there. Certain maps spawn you atop precarious cliffside bridges, especially in 2v2 battles. It’s here the game’s staggering charges really come to the cheaty fore. Time that shoulder tackle correctly, and you can knock your enemy off the edge to their goresplattered doom. Some stages have so many of these deadly chokepoints, the best strategy is often to run around like a headless chicken until you’re safely away from the edges. Cowardly? You bet. But if it keeps you from cheaply plummeting to an early death, then needs must.
In spite of these grating tactics, there’s a refreshing focus to For
Honor’s multiplayer modes. Aside from the rather clustered Dominion—where two teams of four square off over control points, all the while flanked by dozens of AI cronies—the action normally showcases stripped-down fights. One-on-one Duels and two vs two Brawls offer the purest expression on blade battles, and the latter can
throw up fascinating back-and-forth tagteam terror, as players try to isolate each other from their partners, before striking when they have a numerical advantage.
What of the campaign, though? While it’s admirable Ubi has included a single-player component in the first place—take note, Star Wars
Battlefront— the execution is perfunctory to say the least. Over 18 super-samey levels, you slice and dice Knights, Vikings, and Samurai, as you take control of each faction for six missions. Trust us, the action drags so much at times, it feels like 60.
Save for the odd, slightly forced chase sequence on horseback, or sections where you scale a castle wall during a Viking invasion of a Samurai stronghold, the action is unbelievably one-note. We get trying to prep players for online warfare, but all you do in single-player is stab and block… then rinse and repeat roughly 17,000 times. That, and mount a turret. Because of course there’s a section where you mount a turret.
The plot, of what little is offered, is naturally, utter bobbins. There’s an extra-mean Knight called Apollyon— think a female version of Monty
Python’s Black Knight mixed with a morally grey Darth Vader—who thinks war is mankind’s “natural state”, and
“There’s almost a sort of rock-paper-scissors purity to the game’s simple battle system”
a bunch of cutscenes with lots of limb-severing, yet little worthwhile comment on conflict. Said cinematics boast sharp fight choreography, and look lovely rendered in the game’s engine, but make no mistake: the campaign is a glorified tutorial.
There’s also a slightly insidious online model at work throughout. The chief culprit? You need a constant online connection to play. Yup, even in single-player. It’s a strange decision given that there’s very little noticeable need to be connected at all.
Personalising your hero is also more of a grind than it should be. True, you can tweak and upgrade weapons with the Steel currency awarded after matches, but it’s shared out in pitiful quantities. This is where Ubisoft encourages you to spend real money. Does Madam/Sir want to splurge on armor packs? Why of course. That’ll be $9.99 for 11,000 Steel. To put that into context, most emotes cost between 3,000-5,000. Granted, these are cosmetic changes that don’t alter gameplay, yet for such a multiplayer-focused title where customisation is important to certain players, the pricing model seems stingy.
Regardless of whether you cough up for the $39.99 season pass or DLC, Ubisoft clearly wants to establish a community that’s in it for the long haul. As such, there’s a Destiny- style daily and weekly events system (called Orders), designed to keep you motivated. Certain tasks dish out XP and Steel for, say, reviving five allies in skirmish death matches, while others ask you to finish a match of Dominion dying less than five times. In a game of such narrow scope, any added incentive for continued play is appreciated.
For Honor often feels like a barebones package, one that exhausts through repetition. Its battle system can provide thrilling sword fights that cut deep at their best, yet balancing issues and cheap tactics ultimately blunt this warrior’s blade.
2v2 online Brawls can show the game at its most tensely tactical.
Campaign battles can offer up quite the spectacle, with dozens of onscreen troops. top right
Don’t get attached to any of the characters. Most of them lose their heads.
Character models don’t just look good: they’re easy to read, too.
Apollyon is the one in the black armor. She absolutely adores war.