Stepping out of its comfort zone, Ubisoft Montreal (Canadian subsidiary of French video game developer Ubisoft) has produced an unorthodox hack-and-slash that combines realistic warfare in a fantastical world where samurai, Vikings, and medieval knights clash. Pitting three of history’s most widely recognized but diverse warrior factions against one another delivers an impactful punch that combines elements of three game genres: action, fighting, and hack-and-slash. While the game’s multiplayer is the central focus of most of its hype, For Honor’s single-player offers some exciting experiences of its own.
Upon starting up For Honor, players are thrust into a tutorial that covers the basic concepts of For Honor’s gameplay (blocking, dodging, striking, combos, etc.). While the control schemes of most games are fairly straightforward, For Honor’s, while not particularly complicated, requires a little bit of a learning curve for the sake of building up reaction time. Thus, playing the tutorial is a good idea for both new players and more seasoned ones. That being said, there is more to the tutorial than just learning how to play. The tutorial is the first place players get to experience For Honor’s atmosphere without feeling the pressure of potential failure (dying in combat, losing an objective, etc.).
Speaking of For Honor’s atmosphere, Ubisoft Montreal does a phenomenal job of creating an air of bloody conflict amongst the three factions: knights, samurai, and vikings. When playing through a scenario, each level is set up to depict a battle that appears slightly different than the others. Some have ladders that provide access from point-to-point, others have gates that can be opened and closed to funnel one’s enemies and make it harder for them to secure an objective point, and all of them have an opening scene that initiates the charge (catapults hurling projectiles into buildings to create debris, battering rams slamming against castle gates, or arrows piercing the necks of AI characters). All of this together does a good job of thrusting players into the world, making them feel like they are helping to lead the charge into a battle from which they may not return.
The tension between the factions also augments this feeling, stressed further in For Honor’s single-player campaign. The story spans across three chapters, each of which contains six levels. Each chapter focuses on one faction at a time. The story does emphasize the tension between the three factions, and it certainly captures the essence of the characters aligned with each faction (vikings portrayed as raiders, knights as expansionists, and samurai as adhering to a particular code while still participating in the march of war) while providing the backstory as to why these three diverse people are warring with one another. Unfortunately, this does not save the tale from being rather lackluster. There is an overarching scheme that ties the journeys of the main characters together, but it is neither grand nor enthralling. Each level boils down to pretty much the same overall objective: “go here, kill these people, destroy these things, repeat.” Even the immersive scales of the battles are not enough to make the story stand out. It seems that the days of dynamic storytelling in the world of video games are slowly fading, while the intense focus on multiplayer continues to rise. Gamers are competitive, but that does not mean a game has to be defined by its competitive content. Rather, a game should be defined by all aspects, and the story, for many people, is just as important (if not more) than that of online play. Given the quality of every other aspect of For Honor, Ubisoft Montreal could have sunk more time into the game’s story to produce a much more in-depth, versatile, and original experience. They design Assassin’s Creed, which generally has lengthy, detailed stories. There is little reason they could not have done right by gamers who long for the same quality in a title like For Honor.
Aside from the campaign, For Honor offers five different game modes: brawl (2v2 deathmatch—best of five rounds), dominion (4v4 objective mode where players capture areas—three areas per map—to rack up points), duel (1v1 deathmatch—best of five rounds), elimination (4v4 deathmatch where players cannot respawn once they are killed, unless manually revived by a teammate—best of five rounds), and skirmish (4v4 deathmatch where respawns are allowed and AI-controlled enemies are generated on both teams—kills rack up points).
For Honor’s mechanics are generally positive. Combat styles change based on a player’s class (orochi, wardens, warlords, etc.). Some are swift and agile, relying on dodging, parrying, and counterattacking; others rush their foes and overwhelm them with brute force; a few adopt a middle ground. No matter the case, a player must adapt their tactics based on their opponent’s class (and the individual player’s style, if playing multiplayer). The gameplay’s speed is adjustable. Some fights are rapid while others can be drawn out. This makes for diverse scenarios that, like real battles, make every game a relatively unique experience that forces players to adjust to their situation. There is one drawback to For Honor’s gameplay, however: the issue of timing. Timing in For Honor is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, practicing one’s timing requires players to be tactical in their encounters and requires a certain amount of skill to be done well. Constantly attacking will drain one’s stamina and render their attacks slow and weak. The realistic side of this is something to applaud, and certainly adds to feelings of fatigue associated with combat. Unfortunately, timing also means that if a player facing off against another hero (AI or another player), and both perform an attack simultaneously, the result is left to chance. Often, both heroes take damage from the attacks, but there are occasions where one hero lands the hit and the other does not. This can seem like a nasty roll of the dice, and can leave players frustrated and bitter, especially if they feel their attack was unfairly delayed. The issue of timing is one that can be debated, and one that would be hard for a developer to remedy, especially in multiplayer, where Internet speeds and server stability are factors to consider for one’s commands to be promptly carried out in-game (more on this in the section regarding multiplayer).
The mechanics say nothing of the graphics quality, however. Few games boast such realistic surroundings in an environment that parades historical fiction. Every level is a jaw-dropping spectacle. With blood covering the business end of a hero’s weapon upon digging into an enemy’s flesh, players will have no problem feeling as if they participated in the carnage of melee warfare. The dirt, mud, fire, and chipped concrete all work together in forming landscapes, villages, fortresses, and castles that fabricate a world ravaged by the constant carnage of two or three armies cutting through one another. One feels the adrenaline rush and the urgency that comes with attacking or defending a control point when numerous enemies are assaulting a position. Cloudy skies and rainfall make battles seem more oppressing and gloomy while sunshine can provide an ironic glimmer of hope.
Tying in with the graphics are the numerous sounds associated with the story and the regular battles. Swords clanging, shields bashing, rams battering, and dying screams coupled with gasping breaths all serve to enhance warfare in a way that is thrown at players all at once. A feat Ubisoft and its subsidiaries have done well across multiple games (Far Cry, Ghost Recon, etc.). If the graphics do not bring the immersion over the top, the audio doubtlessly gives it the extra push needed to provide as accurate of a depiction of medieval warfare as a video game can do. Adding to this immersion is the annunciation of a retreat, a charge, or cries of being overwhelmed by the soldiers on both sides of the fray. Minor details are often what give a game an edge over the competition, and For Honor’s background sounds certainly do the trick there. Sadly, the story’s dialogue is a bit basic and vanilla, which contributes to the story’s uninspired content. The dialogue does have a few moments of philosophical thought, which does raise its quality by a small margin, but the overall worth falls on the low side with cheesy clichés, unbelievable diction, and untimely delivery. The dialogue is a testament to the disproportionate attention given to For Honor’s campaign.
While For Honor is largely a multiplayer game, there are ways for those who do not wish to compete against other players to turn it into a single-player game. Players have the option of setting up custom games against the AI (known as “bots”), effectively neutralizing the need to play with others. The drawback to this is that players cannot unlock new equipment for their heroes or earn in-game currency by playing custom matches against bots, thus preventing them from acquiring new executions (in-game kill animations upon defeating an enemy hero). Players can buy in-game currency with real money through the in-game store, if they choose. However, this can be considered a “pay-to-win” feature, a controversial element of many games. However, an advantage of playing against bots is that a player can crank up the bots’ difficulties to their highest settings, which can provide an interesting challenge and force a player to get better in order to win. This can help players improve their skills, which will transfer over if they decide to play online against others. Whether dueling a single enemy or fighting several, playing against bots on higher difficulties can be just as fun and frustrating as playing against skilled players.
On the subject of For Honor’s multiplayer, players will find it to be a somewhat unique experience. The Faction War, the struggle between the three factions in which players fight for their chosen faction (knights, samurai, or vikings)—done upon a player’s first-time startup of the game—in one of the five game modes. These game modes can be played with other players against bots or against other players. Upon a match’s completion, players are given “war assets” to deploy across their own territory to defend against the other factions, or to deploy on opposing territories connected to their own to invade the opposing factions. Victories result in more war assets to deploy, defeats in less. Playing matches against the AI or other players also factors into the amount of war assets a player receives after a game (more for competing against players, less for competing against the AI). This function does an interesting job of making the player feel like a commander in a greater conflict, having to choose between defending and invading, or spreading their war assets across several territories to do both. Actions have consequences, and proper placement of a player’s war assets, along with that of other players in their faction, will determine who wins the war at the end of a designated period (territories update every six hours, rounds last two weeks, and a season lasts ten weeks). Players, if they participated in the Faction War, are rewarded based on their faction’s performance.
The Faction War is an interesting concept, and is certainly a different take on an online fighting game. It gives players the opportunity to make critical decisions between battles that could help turn the tide of the war, adding a deeper element to an online game that delves past the repetitive system of team deathmatch and capture the flag often associated with online action games. However, a downside of this system is that there could be a disproportionate amount of players fighting for one faction as opposed to the others, or one faction could be significantly outnumbered by the other two, which gives them fewer opportunities to succeed in the Faction War. This is conjecture, of course, and may not reflect the reality, but the possibility remains. Of course, even if that turns out to be the case, it could be considered another realistic element, for wars are not fought with equal numbers on all sides.
The problems with For Honor’s multiplayer are minimal. However, two are prevalent and can cause a great deal of frustration. The first has to do with server stability. There are times when a player’s connection to the server is either dropped or interrupted, even if said player has a strong, secure, and fast Internet speed. This inconvenience can occur between matches, such as during matchmaking, which results in players having to drop out of matchmaking and restarting the search for a game. Not a game breaker, but an annoyance. The interruptions can also occur in the middle of a game. Frequently, players will be in the middle of a match when their actions are interrupted, become extremely sluggish, and the screen darkens with a message that says something along the lines of “reestablishing connection with host server…” While also not a game breaker, it does ruin the flow of a match and can sometimes cost players a round (or even a game), if it shatters their momentum or throws off their timing.
Multiplayer’s second flaw is one that has more to do with sportsmanship rather than a game mechanic, but does fall into the latter’s category. Seasoned gamers, or competitive individuals in general (video games, sports, etc.), will be familiar with a “K/D spread” or a “W/L ratio”. This is a player’s statistical ratio that compares their number of kills to deaths or their wins to losses. A behavior, while not the norm, that is somewhat common in For Honor’s online community is that upon losing a match (particularly a duel), the losing player will leave the game at the end of the deciding round before the game officially calculates the end result. When this happens, the player who left is replaced by a bot, and the entire match’s result is calculated as if the winning player played against the AI instead of another player. Players who leave losing games before the results are officially calculated do so to protect their own ratios, caring nothing for how this affects their opponent(s). As mentioned earlier, this is a matter of sportsmanship, but can also be considered a flaw in the game’s mechanics, as there is no consequence for players leaving a game that has not concluded. The reasons for this are most likely due to the fear of punishing players who get disconnected due to server instability or Internet issues, and it can be hard to determine which players are which. However, if Ubisoft, and other game developers of other online games, implemented consequences for players leaving matches that have not concluded and been officially calculated (barring those players who are disconnected by the game client or their own Internet), there could quite possibly be a rise in player activity due to less frustration or indignation.
Despite its few rather minor flaws, For Honor provides a new experience for both experienced gamers and those new to the genre. With exceptional graphics and mostly-superior audio quality wedded to an immersive and dynamic gameplay experience, Ubisoft Montreal’s recent fighting game with hack-and-slash elements grants hours of addictive virtual warfare. Whether looking to sit back and relax with a few friends or play it solo, For Honor is a bloody and thrilling addition to Ubisoft’s repertoire.