For Honor would have you believe two contrasting things at once. The first, presented primarily by Ubisoft itself, is that it is a game of nonstop, unrelenting action. The second is that it is a heretofore unheard of and completely novel combat experience. They are both true, and in equal measures, that is for the best and the worst.
In a nonsensical yet pleasing mishmash of historical fantasy, we find ourselves in the midst of a war between medieval knights, samurai, and vikings. Each faction has becoming unwittingly manipulated into battling one another for glory, resources, revenge, and some sort of perverted and ancient form of eugenics.
It’s almost entirely inconsequential, even through the duration the single-player campaign. These play out like an odd mix of the fodder enemies of Titanfall‘s multiplayer (which is perhaps a step up from the root inspiration Dynasty Warriors) and the online modes of For Honor itself, the latter of which is because the levels are mostly multiplayer maps but with, like, stuff. Those MOBA creep-like enemies, actually, are pretty much just Dominion mode anyway.
In effect, we can just push that aside. The story is bland, the dialogue is worse, and the combat is almost completely mindless with sparse highlights of intensity overshadowed by trite action tropes. The sum total that defending a catapult from a violent horde adds to the experience is nil, so when that particular objective forces you to step in and out of the better parts of the game to do something far less interesting, you feel more defeated than those left on the battlefield.
The focus, instead, is the multiplayer mode because that focuses on the combat mechanics, which is far and away the best part of the game and one of the better fighting systems of any action game in recent memory. Marketing likes to call it “The Art of the Battle,” but it’s more like advanced, real-time rock-paper-scissors. You lock onto an enemy to engage in duel mode and then use one of three directions to determine how to block incoming attacks and break down the weaknesses of your opponent’s defense.
It feels very much like a traditional fighting game in that sense. You play with spacing to take advantage of your speed and your range, adapting your tactics to your exceptionally stock but unique character class (apparently we’ve boiled down pugilists to the same genres of handguns, rifles, and shotguns in shooters). That means some players will turtle up and wait for counters while others will necessarily throw quantity over quality at you over and over again.
Consider it conceptual brethren to Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero except, well, you know, good. It has an incredible hidden depth to the fighting. Beginners can find earnest success in merely matching directions with attacks and blocks, but variety spices it up with expert players reading animations and scenarios. You have appropriate responses to sweeps and charges and throws. My god will you see a lot of throws.
This makes sure that one-on-one affairs are fraught with tension and breathless, sweaty play. And thus fighting outnumbered is nigh impossible but not entirely so, which means fighting all the way down to the bloodied ground. It can be frustrating, but it can be just as glorious when you are on the other end of the sword and spear.
The multiplayer modes play on that feeling wonderfully. The aforementioned Dominion mode floods the map with fodder creeps with enemy creeps clashing violently against your own as you try to plow forward to take control points. The center control point often ends up as a bloody whirlpool of clanging swords and shields, which sounds cool and is, I dunno, pretty okay.
But the real meat of it all is to “break” your enemies by getting to 1,000 points. Once a team starts breaking, its players stop respawning, turning the match into a thrilling match of cat and mouse huddles that smash together at brief and spectacular intervals. The foundation of points, however, continues to hum along with the added layer of the breaking team’s comeback, a comeback that can only be truly stumped with execution kills and throwing people into the deep abyss.
It’s fascinating stuff that is as if you took an Arkham fight and soaked it in a primal fear of being ganked that is usually trumped by the thirst for rampant, person-to-person glory. There’s also some mild intrigue in the multiplayer war map that shows which faction is leading in any particular mode in any particular region, but it’s not nearly as conceptually interesting as the moment-to-moment interactions of the battlefield.
There are problems that still linger and harangue the multiplayer, though. UI tends to clutter and overwhelm the screen at the expense of, you know, playing. Matchmaking is laborious and unreliable, which is to say nothing of just the general trash of figuring out what the network wants or is telling you. You could freeze in the middle of a swing and get booted back for fully inscrutable reasons. It’s 90% of Ubisoft’s forum activity at this point.
In spite of allllll that and the stupendously underwhelming single-player, For Honor still has a lot to offer. If you are willing to stick with the multiplayer, push through the bugs, and learn how to play through horrendously frustrating ambush tactics, there’s glory to be found here. (Or, I guess, honor, if we’re staying on brand.)
+ Combat is simple but dense and rewarding for expert players
+ Multiplayer modes are great at capitalizing on the good parts
+ Character classes differentiate themselves clearly in tactics and prowess
– Single-player campaign is an amorphous, cliché-ridden mess
– Bugs strike at an alarming and disconcerting rate
Final Score: 7 out of 10
Game Review: For Honor
Release: February 14, 2017
Genre: Third-person action
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Players: Single-player offline, multiplayer online