For Honor, Ubisoft Montreal’s answer to the age-old pub debate ‘who would win in a fight between Vikings, knights and samurai?’ is nearing launch. Unfortunately review code isn’t available yet, so you’ll need to wait a wee while longer for our main review. I have, however, spent plenty of time with the beta, so settle in for some early impressions.
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Whatever else For Honor is, it’s a brilliant fighting game. At least, it’s a game with brilliant fighting. It takes a lot of what made the likes of Chivalry: Medieval Warfare and War of the Vikings such enjoyable melee romps and applies the sort of polish and flashiness you come to expect from a much larger, flusher studio like Ubisoft Montreal.
Ultimately, it is a game of duels, with opponents circling each other, waiting for an opening where they can launch a barrage of savage sword swipes or maybe cleave some flesh off with an axe. Blocking and attacking, the foundations of these fights, are directional, so you can block or strike left, right or from above. Conveniently, there’s an indicator that shows the enemy’s directional position: white at rest, red when an attack is coming.
Complicating matters are the rest of the moves – parries, dodges, guard breaks, counters and special abilities that let you heal or put down traps. Perfecting their timing is hard enough in a relaxed tutorial, and even more challenging when you’re fighting a proper battle, surrounded by enemies. Yet it consistently feels satisfying, even when you manage to utterly mess things up. Every assault feels weighty and powerful, and the combatants largely react realistically, stumbling, staggering and the like when faced with an onslaught.
Extreme aggression is encouraged, and you really want to efficiently dispatch your enemy before another foe shows up to throw a spanner in the works, but a stamina meter adds another wrinkle, forcing you to occasionally pull back and create some breathing room. When your stamina is drained, all the colour bleeds out of the world and your warrior’s breath becomes ragged. While you can still fight, your actions are so slow that you’re just asking for trouble. That’s when backing off or pushing an opponent away becomes imperative, while also providing a brief moment to reevaluate your tactics.
During the beta, it’s been fun to simply get the measure of an opponent. Each class has its own style, some favouring speed, others preferring to kill quickly with heavy blows. Gear also makes a difference, as weapons and armour that you get as loot or purchase with the in-game currency, steel, all come with different stats. A new skull-faced helmet might help you revive fallen chums with greater speed, while that axe head you just unlocked could net you a bit more damage.
Already, I’m a bit smitten with the combat. It’s everything I was hoping it would be. It’s the rest of the game that I’m more concerned about. The multiplayer modes are… not great. They feel like the bare minimum required for multiplayer, absent of any real invention. Take Dominion, for instance: a half-arsed MOBA facsimile in which two teams of four fight over imposing fortresses while hordes of NPCs duke it out over a central area. But unlike a MOBA, there are no towers or keeps, just three capture points that can be lost and reclaimed in a matter of seconds.
The most disappointing thing about Dominion is that it doesn’t remotely attempt to have any fun with its premise. You’re trying to conquer or defend a fortress, but each side is doing exactly the same thing. There aren’t really defenders or attackers, and there’s certainly no siege mechanics. I was imagining something like Chivalry’s sieges, with battering rams and vats of boiling oil, but there’s absolutely none of that.
Worse, these big battles often do away with the intense duels that are undoubtedly For Honor’s greatest feature. Instead of getting these one-on-one scraps, players often band together and take out lone enemies. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been in the middle of a duel, only for my enemy to run away until they find a pal to help them deal with me. This isn’t strictly a player problem, though. This is Ubisoft Montreal not anticipating the fact that people are often - you know - dicks, and would rather win than have a fun match. There’s little reason within For Honor’s design not to be cheap and gang up on people, and if you’re not doing that, you’re going to struggle.
Not that trying to win against the odds can’t be fun. Indeed, For Honor’s blocking mechanics make it a lot less difficult than it might at first appear, and some of my most enjoyable duels have ended with me dispatching two enemies and surviving by the skin of my teeth. But these battles are significantly less common than the ones where you’re fighting a foe and two of their mates come up behind you and kill you instantly. In other words, there’s very little honour in For Honor.
Smaller-scale conflicts are considerably more fun. Elimination removes capture points and NPCs, while also placing each player right opposite an opponent, ensuring that one-on-one duels start immediately. Sure, you’ll still get people running away to join their buddies in team battles, but most of the time that doesn’t happen. Everything good about Elimination, however, like all of the modes, is purely down to the combat.
It’s surprising, really. While For Honor does come with a campaign – unavailable in beta – it still has a strong multiplayer focus, so the conservative nature of the modes is a bit disappointing. A lot hinges on the campaign, then. Ubisoft Montreal have boasted that it will be meaty and compelling enough to warrant a purchase even if you never touch the multiplayer, but they’re hardly going to say otherwise, are they?
Despite my concerns, I’m still enjoying myself. A lot. I’ve been dressing up my main Viking man with lots of fancy helmets and sexy tattoos – there’s plenty of customisation options – and I must confess that I forget about most of my worries whenever I find myself in a desperate dance of death with a wily opponent. I just pray that Ubisoft sort out the game’s matchmaking, which during the beta has generally been poor. We’ll see soon.