For Honor is Ubisoft's medieval murderfest where the noble knights, enigmatic samurai, and bloodthirsty vikings all smack each other over the head with very big things in an effort to show who truly is the best. And what better way to showcase your supremacy than to fragment yourself into small groups and then engage in 4v4, 2v2, and 1v1 skirmishes all across the land! Since I've spent way too many hours playing the Dark Souls series I obviously sided with the knights, because if an action game doesn't let me wear the Elite Knight Set its not a game worth playing!
On a more serious note, I've spent the past week playing the For Honor Closed Beta, so if you're wondering whether this is the sort of game you'd enjoy, allow me to give you a detailed overview of what For Honor really is. Naturally, this is a beta so things can change between now and release, but given that we're only two weeks away I think its safe to assume this is more or less exactly what For Honor is going to be like.
I have to hand it to Ubisoft, the character models are downright gorgeous
From all of the trailers and marketing material I envisioned For Honor as an asymmetrical multiplayer game where three factions vie for supremacy over a large world map. When I first chose my shield-bearing knight I fully expected I would act as a sort of bulwark for my fellow knights, endlessly protecting them against hordes of barbarians brazen enough to try and take our mighty castle. In short, I expected a fairly cheesy, but rather flavorful multiplayer game.
All of that quickly went away when I joined my first multiplayer match and realized that factions mean absolutely bloody nothing. Instead of having a bunch of knights fighting against vikings like in the trailers, my first match consisted of bizarre mixture of heroes from every faction. There were knights fighting alongside spear-wielding samurai, berserking vikings chilling out next to medieval assassins, and so on. While this isn't that big of a deal in gameplay terms, it pretty much killed any excitement and faction identity I had coming in. At the end of the day, if my choice of faction doesn't matter, why should I even care about the "Faction War"?
And speaking of which, the much-advertised and supposedly massive Faction War is actually just a massive joke. Instead of having your efforts on the battlefield make some sort of an impact on the world map, in For Honor the only thing you can do is occasionally stick a flag in certain territories, essentially adding one more drop into the ocean and hoping the rest of your faction cares enough to add theirs. There is no strategy, there are no desperate defenses against overwhelming odds, its all mostly done by pressing a single button every now and then. Special events were locked off for this beta, however, so hopefully they will be the one factor liking all of this together into something truly special. And if not, that would that would be a damn shame given how much time and effort Ubisoft spent getting people excited to fight for their favorite faction, only for all of it to end up being irrelevant.
Go yellow lines, death to red lines!
While the Faction War ended up being a disappointment, I am glad to say that all of the nine characters available in the Closed Beta were quite exciting and fairly unique to play. The shield-bearing Conqueror plays nothing like the dual-wielding Berserker, who plays nothing like the spear-totting Nobushi, and the list goes on. They all share the same basic mechanics and moves, but each one brings with it a bit of a unique twist on the formula. The Conqueror is primarily defense orientated and thrives in one-on-one engagements where he can stonewall the enemy, the Berserker prefers her battles over quickly as she sacrifices defense for insane burst damage, while the Nobushi forgoes all of that and instead focuses around keeping her enemies at a healthy distance, always ready to punish them should they make a wrong move. And believe me when I say, it is easy to make a wrong move in For Honor!
This isn't because For Honor's mechanics are terrible or inconsistent, but rather quite the opposite. Instead of being a generic hack-and-slash hybrid, For Honor's combat is more reminiscent of fighting games than anything else. Its all about attacking at the right time and from the right angle, ensuring you block the enemy's strongest hitting attacks, and most importantly, baiting your opponents into a situation they can't recover from. But unlike fighting games For Honor's control scheme is much simpler and easier to learn. Pretty much everything is done through the use of four buttons, with their order and the direction you're facing dictating what sort of move you'll perform.
Its easy to pick up, but hard to master
At first glance all of this seems a bit too simple, especially when you're playing against fellow beginners so button-mashing actually works, but there is a surprising degree of complexity in For Honor's combat. Since you're limited by a stamina bar you can't just constantly attack or dodge roll, so playing a defensive playstyle and wearing your opponent down is an actually viable strategy. You don't even need to hit them especially hard, just tire them out and then capitalize on their weakness. Naturally, this sort of playstyle can then be countered by precision strikes and guard-break maneuvers, which can then be countered by full-on aggression, and so the cycle goes.
I've played the Closed Beta for quite a few hours, and despite being fairly well-versed in PvP games I don't think I've come anywhere near mastering the combat. And if there is one aspect of For Honor that I appreciate more than any other, it would be this. Having a combat system where you can constantly grow as a player and improve your skills is of the utmost importance in competitive PvP game, so its a good thing indeed that Ubisoft has spent so much time making sure its both enjoyable to play, and challenging to master.
He's dead, he just hasn't realized it yet!
Unfortunately, and I can guarantee you the combat designers would agree with me on this, the combat is hamstrung by the lack of dedicated servers. And yes, you actually read that correctly! A competitive multiplayer game from a AAA studio relies purely on peer-to-peer connections, which means that lag and floaty controls occasionally rear their ugly heads in order to completely ruin the combat. And let's not forget the always lovely experience of the host rage-quitting and the entire match pausing for a full minute while the server figures out what in the world just happened. These issues thankfully didn't arise too often in the Closed Beta, but having even a couple of deaths occur due to nonsense out of your control is far too much in my book.
The second big problem working against the excellent combat system are the game modes. Its fairly obvious For Honor has been designed with one-on-one duels in mind as every aspect of gameplay is focused around precision combat, but there is only one mode that really emphasizes this - 1v1. The two other game modes available in the Closed Beta were 2v2 and 4v4 Dominion (a control point game mode with a bunch of NPCs thrown in), and both of them are far too chaotic for the skill-based combat to shine.
Knowing you alone secured the victory makes it all the sweeter
Whereas one-on-one duels are a test of pure skill, two-on-two is more of a brawl than anything else. Its hard to find enjoyment in this game mode when you can at any point get blindsided by attack you simply cannot counter. In theory your partner should be able to prevent this, but For Honor's combat is slow and methodical, so there is always an opportunity to break away from your opponent in order to backstab the other unlucky bastard. I'd imagine things become more interesting when both teams are on voice-coms, but in purely random matches 2v2 is a constant chain of backstabs and cheesy tactics... and that gets old about as fast as you would imagine.
The Dominion game mode suffers from exactly the same problems, but with even less focus on personal skill. Since you win by capturing control points, and since they change ownership incredibly quickly, you're going to spend most of your time constantly running between them. Every duel you take along the way is simply a waste of time, because if you're not controlling the majority of the map, you're not pushing your team towards victory. On its own this wouldn't be too much of a problem, but the issue arises from the simple fact that there aren't enough people to properly play the 'objective'. In a game mode that is purely 4v4 there is simply no way you can reliably launch an offense while also having at least some defense, so what tends to happen is a whole lot of point flipping until one side finally gets bored.
There is also one more issue with Dominion, and it comes from the inclusion of NPCs that constantly battle in the center of the map. They do almost no damage, they die in one hit, and their only purpose in life is to be a mild annoyance. Even after playing a dozen Dominion games I still have no idea what they are supposed to accomplish, or why they even exist, but what I do know is that I absolutely hate them. There is nothing worse than having a good ol' scrap with your fellow players, only for that to be momentarily interrupted when Bob the knight trainee decides he's going to take off 0.1% of your HP, which then makes your character flinch and expose themselves to an actual attack. In games like Dota 2 or League of Legends these sort of NPCs have a certain degree of power behind them, as well as a reason to exist, but in For Honor I feel the only reason they exist is to briefly slow down the capture of the middle point, and that's about it!
Just look at this mess...
For Honor is not a bad game, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm genuinely not sure whether there's enough content here to warrant a purchase. The combat is weighty and it makes you feel powerful, one-on-one duels are a true test of skill and almost impossible to 'solve', but everything else is just kind of... OK. There's just not enough interesting game modes on offer, and the ones we do have don't seem to be taking advantage of For Honor's unique mechanics or setting - they are just the standard 'filler' modes you might find in other games. If you're heavily into fighting games you're probably going to get a real kick out of For Honor as its combat has some proper depth behind it, but I fear it might end up being nothing more than a passing distraction for the rest of us.
As such, I would highly recommend you don't pre-order For Honor, at least not until the reviews come in. There is a chance the currently locked features and singleplayer campaign will be enough to push me in the other direction, but from everything I've seen so far For Honor just doesn't have enough going for it to be the next Overwatch, i.e. a multiplayer game I'd be willing to sink insane amounts of hours into.