There are few games that manage to replicate the heart-pounding elegance to a melee weapon based duel, and fewer still that manage to elevate it to a level that For Honor does. What this new third-person swordplay action game manages to achieve in its restrained gameplay is incredible. Its slow, deliberate pace is married to its intricate and deep move sets, characters and arena strategies, all which shine brightest when you’re taking on other equally capable human players. Its emphatic highs are marred by its online systems though, which send it crashing back down with a thud.
The core premise of For Honor is simple to grasp on the surface. Using a fighter from one of three warring factions – the Knights, Vikings or Samurai – you’ll engage in tense, up close melee combat with similarly large foes. Your fighter has three stances, with a flick of the right stick moving you between them. You similarly can see the stance of your opponents, which is crucial to both attack and defense. Should an enemy attack in one direction, you’ll need to defend in the same. Attacks need to be fired off in directions that you opponent can’t block, with a hefty weight to the entire affair making duels slow, calculated bouts of prediction and surprises.
That is how For Honor works at its core, but it’s nowhere near enough to get you by in the intense battles you’ll be expected to partake in. With this system you’ll have access to light and heavy attacks, which can be strung together into vicious combinations with varying effects. Some combos deal massive damage, while other inflict bleeding effects or break enemy blocks. Stringing these together takes some getting used to, as does the pace at which For Honor conducts itself. It’s like dousing a fighting game in molasses, but adds to a layer of realism to the entire affair that makes it both engrossing and compelling to come to grips with.
Things go even deeper with different classes, which vary depending on which faction your choose to fight as (a choice which is never locked down, thankfully). Each faction has its own Vanguard – an easy pick for newcomers which balances speed, defence and intricacy – and ramps up significantly with heavier, slower brutes, lighting fast assassins and incredibly demanding hybrid classes. Each new class varies not only between factions, but in particular move sets too. For Honor requires a hefty amount of dedication in this regard, requiring you to sink in a few hours with each to not only understand how to play as them, but how to counteract them too.
It’s similar more to traditional fighting games than straight forward melee focused action games in the regard, which is an important facet to note when diving in. For Honor emphasizes deep, tactical melee combat in the same way that the best shooters in the industry emphasize, well, shooting. There’s a real learning curve at the start that might try your patience, but it’s the way in which For Honor’s elegant design keeps duels feeling tense and fair. It’s the sort of stuff that has you on the edge of your seat at all times, waiting for an emphatic fist pump in the air after a hard-fought victory, or devastation after a nail-biting loss.
This is most keenly on show in For Honor’s one-on-one duel mode, one of a handful of multiplayer game modes on offer. Here lies the most grueling affairs, where you’ll have to not only use your selected character’s strengths but the environment around you to succeed. There’s no one class that towers over another, which makes the blind picks at the beginning almost meaningless next to patience, finesse and good battle awareness. Fights here can easily mimic some of the best parts of Dark Souls – except that a human opponent can make for a far more unpredictable, and hence more engrossing, dance.
The beauty of this fighting system translates well over to bigger scale battles too, such as the AI ridden Dominion mode which stands as the best on the roster. Picture the most frenetic battles your imagination can muster boiled down to smaller, more dense affairs, and you’ll have an idea of what Dominion is. Two teams of four battle to control three points on maps, while AI-controlled grunts on each side push mindlessly towards their death to keep the field busy and alive.
Here one-on-one duels can quickly take turns for the worst, as you find yourself up against numerous players at once. For Honor gives you the tools to manage this to a degree, but much like a real fight the game makes it clear that fight or flight is a concept it will demand from you. Knowing when to engage is just as important as knowing when to divert, and Dominion does a fine job of rewarding team play and co-ordination because of it. It grows tenser still thanks to clever “breaking” mechanics, which puts the game into ebbing and flowing sudden death fights based on who is about to win.
Each multiplayer match rewards you with loot, which players can use to craft and equip new items onto their characters. These bestow stat changes to your favoured classes, adding in a slightly less noticeable layer to strategy that’s not often immediately noticeable in actual gameplay. They do, however, feed into For Honor’s extensive microtransaction scheme. You buy classes, gear and more with Steel, of which there isn’t plenty to go around. You can shell out for more to make progress a little faster or just push through, and it’s a system that fans of Ubisoft’s previous Rainbow Six: Siege will notice immediately.
The overarching multiplayer space is encompassed by a rather neat meta-game too, which includes your faction choice from the start of the game. Every completed game in any mode will reward you with War Assets, which you can deploy on a Risk-like battlefield. You can choose to defend or attack regions for your faction, which will in turn determine control of a region for your team. Regions are refreshed after a few hours, with battles and seasons lasting weeks and months. It’s a clever way to make your individual play feel part of a greater conflict, and an engaging part of the entire online experience.
It’s an experience which is sadly marred by a host of technical issue though, which are tough to swallow given For Honor’s strong focus on multiplayer. The game uses a peer-to-peer connection system, meaning one player is selected as a host for others to join to. While that’s ideal for matches with mostly local players, it causes chaos in other regards. Players who are hosting can leave, which leads to several pauses in-game at inopportune moments. Connections can also be shaky a lot of the time, leading to ridiculous sections of lag and slow responsiveness.
The issues are only a problem should you actually find a game, and it’s here where For Honor encounters major issues. There were numerous times where simply connecting to a match was impossible. Matchmaking would search endlessly and time out for hours on end, relegating me to practice against AI. Certain play time alleviated this, but it was inconsistent to a point where the yearning to actual attempt online play diminished significantly.
The same goes for issues inside matches, which frequently caused the game to lock up, hard crash or boot all players back to the main menu. Frequently matches would start only to have everyone kicked out as it loaded, destroying any party connections in the process. For Honor’s party system is also lacking, making it difficult to navigate invitations, and downright impossible to join parties that are in a game currently.
This severely impacts For Honor’s main draw, but it manages to seep into the single-player component as well. The game requires an online connection at all times, but thankfully the campaign doesn’t require the same sort of server searching as its online counterpart. The tale is split up into three chapters, following each of the game’s factions. Although there is a narrative thread that ties together the out-of-place factions within its own fantasy world, its storytelling and overall plot are so pointless that it’s rarely worth paying attention too.
Despite those shortcomings, the campaign offers a good starting point for players to get to grips with the game’s control scheme, even if the AI doesn’t manage to provide the same sort of intensity as another human player. Often missions will be far too straight forward and strict that they quickly become monotonous, moving from one battle to the next against the same enemies over and over again. Some decent set-pieces and boss battles (especially in the last Samurai chapter) shake things up favourably, but it’s not a compelling enough diversion to stick with for too long.
Which just emphasizes how great an issue For Honor’s online woes are. For a game with so much depth, character and uniqueness, it’s a pity that the services it needs to hold it up stumble around so frequently. For Honor is a game that is so engrossing and rewarding to play, and one that just oozes with the right amount of differentiation for me to want to pour hours and hours into it. But without a stable framework to hold the game up in its online environment, it’s one I’m all too happy to close in favour of actually getting to play something else.
It’s worth noting that these matchmaking and network errors seem to be localized to us here in South Africa. Unfortunately we can only review based on our experiences. Your mileage may vary. If the online multiplayer worked as it should for us, we’d probably be giving this a much higher score.