Friday, 3 March 2017
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One
One of the most surprising things about For Honor isn’t the game itself, but rather who made it. This is a Ubisoft game. A full-fledged, full retail Ubisoft game, and there’s nary an open-world, map full of pointless collectibles or “tail the target” mission in sight.
In fact, in just about every way possible, For Honor is an odd beast. First off, it’s part war game, with the player charging along amongst swarms of other soldiers (weirdly reminiscent of the frankly dreadful Lord of the Rings: Conquest), smashing through enemy troops and taking down their leader. It’s also a game primarily focused on its multiplayer, with the single player campaign being little more than a tutorial and warm-up exercise for the scraps online. And then, in addition to all of that, it’s also a fighting game…
It’s the fighting game aspect of For Honor which is its central focus. Combat is played out at a slow, methodical pace, with your character guarding one direction automatically, be it to their left, right or above, with a touch of the right analogue stick. Likewise, attacks are carried out in a similar three-direction fashion and anyone that’s played indie fighter Nidhogg will be right at home here.
Attacks are also divided up into light and heavy attacks, with obvious advantages and disadvantages to each. Light strikes are quick to use, and quick to recover, but rarely translate into much damage, whilst heavy attacks have significantly more prominent wind-up animations and suffer from a greater drain on your character’s stamina gauge.
It’s the stamina bar that sees For Honor crib some of its combat from Dark Souls’ player-versus-player environment. Attacks in For Honor are slow and deliberate, and moves have a weight and heft that few other games possess. In fact, it can be frustrating to begin with simply because your character doesn’t control how you want them to. Combat is ponderous and sluggish, even with the faster and more proactive characters. It’s a clear design choice rather than a flaw of the game, but the overall speed of combat is something that can take some getting used to nevertheless.
Finally, a grapple rounds out the core moves of each characters moveset, with a successful grab either translating into free damage or the option to throw the opponent in any direction, ideally off of a ledge. The grab also sums up the game’s central rock-paper-scissors fight structure: blocking beats striking, striking beats grabs, and grabs beat blocking. Make no mistake, in many respects, For Honor is a straight up fighting game.
Whilst this core combat is true for all of the game’s characters, each playable unit is afforded a handful of unique moves and attack strings to add greater variety to combat. The three playable factions; Knights, Vikings and Samurai, each come with four characters, with three being roughly analogous to one another (each faction gets a light, evasive unit, a heavy defensive one, and an all-rounder) and a fourth “hybrid” fighter that’s unique and typically more complex.
Picking up any character, however, requires a degree of effort and time. Just like learning a new character in Street Fighter requires time and dedication, learning a character here means getting to grips with their unique moves, inputs and speed of their attacks. It’s genuinely surprising just how complex For Honor is, at least on the surface, for a game that would also seem to want to cater to the more casual online gaming fan.
However, you begin to notice the chinks in the armour once you step online. Game modes are divided up into one on one, or two on two duels, a standard four versus four deathmatch and an area control variant.
The biggest issue For Honor right off the bat is that its online system is bad. Matches take an age to connect, whilst those that do are frequently padded out to the appropriate player count by bots, which is especially galling in a game where the primary thrill is outplaying and correctly reading a real human being. This also becomes difficult to do when lag kicks in, thoroughly ruining any chance of an enjoyable duel. Whilst the technical aspects of the game are indeed bad, and there’s already been a substantial and vocal criticism of its online shortcomings, it’s by no means the only issue.
Far more significant, in the long run at least, is that the game simply doesn’t seem to know what it is, and so the different aspects, the multiplayer fights, the slow methodical fighting game combat and the “war game” aspect, quickly begin to clash. Fighting one on one with an equally skilled opponent is a thrill, and the variety inherent in the game’s characters means developing different meta-dependent strategies to counter various character tactics something that’s required should you want to improve and win more.
By contrast, four-on-four team fights are at the whim of whoever scores the first kill. For Honor is clearly designed around one on one combat, its combat system is frankly not built for players to handle more than one target at a time and this quickly becomes clear. Deathmatches will frequently result in snowballing, with one team drawing that all important first blood and then proceeding to build on that advantage more and more as their fighters gang up on the remaining opponents.
There is the addition of a “revenge” mechanic, whereby a player that is typically outnumbered (it varies depending on the character) and taking damage will be able to enter a super-powered state temporarily and be endowed with a number of buffs. These typically include a damage boost, along with their attacks being uninterruptible or having greater knock-back for a limited time. However, this rarely acts as a sufficient table-turner. Two on one, or worse, three on one fights are miserable in For Honor. Granted, a better player can still come out on top in these encounters, but for the majority of players these moments are likely to be frustrating rather than challenging.
Dominion, the game’s area-control game mode, similarly suffers from maps that seem too large for fights that only encompass eight players at most. In most cases, the “right” thing to do in order to win is simply hold one of your controlled zones, as doing so provides you with a steady stream of points. This can typically mean twiddling your thumbs as there’s little odds of anyone coming and attacking you as the fighting takes place at the other end of the map. AI chaff will flood the battlefield to give the illusion of an epic battle taking place, but they’re nothing but a roadblock that your character can cleave through (doing so restores your health, giving you an incentive to sometimes attack them), with all the resistance of wet paper.
This leaves the game’s single player, which, much like Titanfall 2, is essentially an extended tutorial for the meat that is the multiplayer experience. There’s a story, sure, full of shouting, hokey dialogue and silly characters, but it never bothers to have fun with its daft premise.
The biggest issue here, however, is that Ubisoft have saw fit to require the game to always be online, even for the game’s single player content. The answer of course would be that the game is focused on multiplayer so that shouldn’t be too much of issue, but by sneaking the “always on” element into a game like this they risk setting a precedent for their other games. Marketing decisions like this need to be called out, wherever they rear their ugly head, and it seems Ubisoft have continued to fail to learn their lesson since Assassin’s Creed 2’s infamous PC launch.
For Honor is a weird game of contradictions. It’s a brave move from a publisher that has been the worst offender when it comes to churning out games that suffer from carbon-copy mechanics and boring annualized rehashes. Yet, it also suffers from a contradictory set of game design elements that see the best parts, primarily the core fighting mechanics and duelling, get smothered by an unbalanced and technically underwhelming online matchmaking system, and game modes which don’t real gel with what makes the game good in the first place.
As a concept, For Honor has potential. It’s a new idea for crying out loud, that alone makes it somewhat interesting. As an experience at the moment however, it’s frustrating and often-times underwhelming. Depth alone doesn’t solve many of the games flaws and it’s hard to shake the fact that the game as a whole doesn’t quite know who to target, be it fighting game fans, or multiplayer fans. Should Ubisoft work hard to iron out the game’s significant and myriad flaws this might be a game worth taking note of. In its current incarnation however, it’s an underwhelming and in many cases, unbalanced mess of a game.