Platforms PC, PS4, XBO (reviewed)
Developer Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher Ubisoft
Release Date February 14, 2017

Review copy provided

For Honor is a third-person, class-based fighting game that throws players into a world of perpetual warfare between Knights, Samurai and Vikings. After a cataclysm decimated the land of Ashfeld these three factions fought a seemingly never ending war for resources. But the war ended. After living in peace a warlord known as Apollyon sets out to manipulate the three factions into reigniting the old war, sensing that they have become weak.

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For Honor’s combat mechanics are amongst the deepest I’ve experienced all year. The art of battle, as the game calls it, feels pretty fantastic. It gets its hooks in with simple basics – the right analogue stick dictates what direction you’re attacking and blocking from. The idea is to swing in a different direction to the one your opponent is currently using to land hits and block their attacks by matching that direction.

It’s a great hook that the game constantly builds on. Characters have access to light and heavy attacks. Light attacks do less damage but are much harder to block, heavier attacks are easier to block but can do considerable damage if they connect. Attacks can be parried if you time a push of the heavy attack button just as they’re about to hit, which can stagger enemies if done right or leave you wide open if mistimed. And you can feint heavy attacks to try and leave your opponents extremely vulnerable.

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There’s more. You can break an opponents guard and open them up to a swift hit or a kick/throw, but these can be countered with a fast attack or counter guard break. You can also dodge away from enemies or around them to try and open them up to a quick counter attack. You’ll also need to be fully aware of your surroundings as environmental hazards can play a big role in bouts. Enemies can be kicked, thrown, tackled or hit over ledges, off cliffs and into various traps scattered around levels.

And there’s your moveset. While For Honor may look like a third-person hack-and-slash game, its closest comparable genre is actually the fighting genre. Each of the 12 characters have their own movesets. These are combos that can be used to land big hits, inflict bleeding on an enemy which damages them over time or even launch an unblockable attack will land no matter what.

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For Honor is as much a psychological game as it is an action one. The game has a very steep learning curve. To be successful you’ll need to memorise your character’s moves, analyse what your opponent is doing and wait for the perfect opportunity to strike. Knowing both your strengths and your opponents strengths is key to winning a duel. Regardless of whether you play the same character, your approach to combat needs to be adaptable depending on the enemy you’re fighting.

Once you’re over the hump and starting to get to grips with this insanely detailed combat system For Honor feels excellent. Duels between players are intense affairs as two players circle each other. It’s a satisfyingly tactical affair that’s less about smashing weapons into the other person and more about using every trick at your disposal to gain the upper hand. Sometimes that means patience, sometimes it means unleashing a flurry of attacks and sometimes it means kicking someone off a bridge.

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For Honor is at its excellent best when engaged in these 1v1 duels. There’s even a mode dedicated entirely to these one-on-one match-ups. Each of the game’s 12 characters is unique – both to play as and fight against. They’re all incredibly well balanced. While each has their counter, there’s no single overpowered character, which is something Ubisoft Montreal deserves tremendous credit for. Characters are divided into four broad classes, with each faction getting one character per class, but they all play so differently from one another that you’ll barely even notice.

Take the assassin class. The Viking Berserker relies on chaining together quick attacks to attempt to overwhelm enemies’ defences. The Knight’s Peacekeeper is geared towards dodging and countering enemy attacks, doing less damage than others but inflicting bleed if successful. Lastly, the Samurai Orochi utilises a fast attack speed to try and catch players off guard. Three different characters in the same class, but they’re each vastly different to fight with and against.

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The problem with For Honor is the addition of extra players. 1v1 duels against others is where the game’s excellently designed combat mechanics truly shine. But jumping into the other modes, which increase matches to 2v2 or 4v4, shifts the focus away from what makes For Honor a special game and buries it. The more players there are in a match, the more likely your intense duels are likely to end with a sword/axe/other in either your back or your opponents, which is a thoroughly unsatisfying way to end a fight.

In Brawl you’re thrown into matches 2v2, with each player facing off against another at two separate points of the map. These matches typically boil down to seeing who can gain a numerical advantage first then quickly rush over and turn a 1v1 duel into a 1v2. So many of my matches in Brawl have started with me having an epic duel with a worthy opponent, only to get a sword in my back to end it (or vice versa). It’s always a disappointing end to an otherwise intense round of combat.

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The other three modes in For Honor revolve around 4v4 match-ups and this is where things get messy. Eliminations carry the same rules as Brawls and Duels – it’s 4v4 with no respawns, though players can revive their fallen comrades and there are power-ups scattered around the battlefield (and gear stats are enabled, more on those in a moment). Skirmish and Dominion are points-based games. The former sees players score points for kills, the latter is a zone control game type. These matches focus even less on the excellent combat mechanics and even more on securing a numerical advantage.

Basically, the more players that For Honor throws into the mix, the less fun I was having. The game is at its best when two players fight it out in a duel. While you can get some pretty epic 1v2 fights going, these are few and far between. More often than not being outnumbered will see you batted around like a pinata for a bit until you’re granted a merciful death. I’ve seen countless 4v4 matches devolve into groups of players roving around maps looking for easy targets to pick off, ignoring anything close to resembling fair fights and essentially ruining the otherwise excellent art of battle.

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There is a revenge mode that can come into play if you block enough attacks while outnumbered, but it rarely makes enough of difference to turn battles in your favour. Unless you’re geared a certain way. For Honor features an ill-advised gear and loot system that can heavily tip the balance of a fight towards certain players, venturing dangerously close to a pay-to-win system. In Domination and Elimination modes, players can earn gear that can boost certain stats while reducing others. In theory, this trade-off should make gear balanced. Raise one stat, lower another and have an exploitable weakness.

This isn’t the case, unfortunately. At the moment, the meta of For Honor revolves around boosting revenge stats as high as they’ll go. Entering into revenge mode boosts defence and damage and is usually reserved for moments when two players are attacking you. By equipping revenge-boosting gear, players can significantly shorten the time it takes to max out the revenge meter – to the point that 1v1 fights can trigger it, giving them massive advantages over their opponent.

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This is broken in two ways – first of all, the stats that can boost revenge-based abilities are spread across multiple pieces of gear. Rather than keep these stats on a single piece of armour and force players to trade revenge damage for revenge gain, for example, they can instead max out both, in exchange for, say, a much lower sprint speed or revive speed. Neither of which you’ll need when you’re smashing the opposing team to pieces in a few hits with your ludicrously overpowered gear score.

This problem is compounded by For Honor’s matchmaking, which doesn’t take gear score into account when building teams. Instead, the game only takes a players overall level into consideration, which is advanced through gaining XP from all matches. Theoretically, players should be advancing their gear at roughly the same pace, factoring in the RNG nature of loot drops. But the game’s microtransactions kick in and players who can spend the cash can very quickly overpower their gear, creating major mismatches.

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Gear is completely unbalanced and a massive negative on the two game modes it features in. You can avoid this by playing the other three modes, where gear is purely cosmetic. But that involves locking yourself away from 40% of what the game has to offer. Unfortunately there’s just no other way to avoid these potential mismatches until the game finds some way to allow matchmaking to take gear score into account. Even if you were matched by gear score, high level games devolve into players turtling up and waiting to explode in a ball of orange fury.

There’s also the connectivity issues, which have plagued the game since launch. While not as pronounced on Xbox One as PC, some combination of For Honor’s netcode and it’s baffling use of peer-to-peer networking is causing major issues. Matches will occasionally lag, stutter and disconnect players at random. This would be bad enough in any game, but For Honor demands precision and lightning quick reactions. Even the slightest hiccup or piece of lag can have a dramatic effect on the outcome of a fight.

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There’s also the single-player campaign. The best compliment I can give it is to say that it doesn’t suck. The five hours I spent playing through the 18 chapters of single-player content were decent enough, though it doesn’t really add anything to the game overall. It’s an alright way of trying out some characters (though the campaign doesn’t cycle through all 12 for some bizarre reason).Though the campaign had a habit of sticking me with characters I was very uncomfortable with and chucking me into boss battles, which turned the experience into a bit of a grind.

The story and characters are lacklustre, with a thoroughly unsatisfying ending that cannot upset the status quo of everyone fighting everyone, otherwise the rest of the game wouldn’t exist. It seems to exist to set up a justification for Knights, Vikings and Samurai to fight in all-out war. There were some interesting levels, featuring twists on the standard For Honor gameplay, some of which worked (horse chases, elephant herding) and some of which didn’t (escorting the world’s slowest battering ram). All in all it was fairly average.

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Not that I needed more justification than the fact that it’s a badass premise. It also highlights the problem with the game’s AI, present in both the campaign and when you’re using bots in multiplayer – they’re really stiff, rigidly sticking to a specific set of attack patterns that can be learned and easily countered. I do need to give mention to the fantastic sound design and animations. The sound of steel clashing with steel during fights really elevates the experience to the next level. Especially when combined with some brilliant character animations that make fights look, sound and feel incredible.

Summary

At its core, For Honor is an excellent game. The art of battle is incredibly deep, with tight fighting mechanics that can create some incredibly memorable duels. When you’re engaged in a fight with another player this game is great, though the game loses some of its nuance and focus on awesome fighting mechanics the more players it throws into a match, with most fights ending in surprise backstabs or being hopelessly outnumbered. I truly love the underlying combat mechanics, but what really lets For Honor down is its gear system, which can grant players enormous benefits on the battlefield (especially those willing to spend cash on microtransactions). A subpar matchmaking system in these gear-enabled modes doesn’t help. Neither does the game’s connection problems, which can throw you into matches filled with lag, stuttering and random disconnections. For Honor is a great game that is unfortunately held back by a few critical issues.

6v2


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