At the middle of For Honor’s multiplayer map ‘Overwatch’ is a courtyard area that’s home to a brutal, swirling melee. As the midway bottleneck between capture points, it’s the place where players are caught to brawl it out for the sake of the last few kills their team needs to claim victory. It’s rowdy, it’s violent, and it’s the best multiplayer design to come out of Ubisoft’s halls for years.
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In our hands-on we play Dominion, a mode which sees two teams of four battle for control of capture points. Taking command of point A, B, or C awards your team 100 points, and stealing a zone from the enemy deducts from their total score.
When a team reaches ‘breaking point’ - the golden target of 1000 points - the opposing side is prevented from respawning, and defeating all four of the enemy team’s players for the final time results in victory. You need to act fast though; if the enemy manages to steal a zone from you during this sudden death period, your team’s points total will drop below the 1000 threshold and the opposition will be able to respawn again.
It’s a simple, almost familiar set of rules, but when applied to For Honor’s swordplay mechanics it creates a multiplayer game that feels fresh and exciting. The influence of Chivalry is strong, but Ubisoft’s approach screams both triple-A mountains of cash and a dedication to refinement. There’s nothing clunky about its combat; a smooth nudge of the right analogue stick sees your character adjust their position. With your sword at the right angle, a squeeze of the trigger lunges and hacks with notable ferocity.
The joy of fighting other human players comes from feints and your ability to be deceptive. The game’s HUD makes reading enemies exceptionally simple (aside from your opponent’s actual stance, a small arrow will indicate which direction they’re holding their own analogue stick), but human players are far more unpredictable than AI characters that have been programmed to fight according to rules and tactics. An enemy in multiplayer requires significantly more attention, and a battle offers more satisfaction when you can both see through their tricks, and cause them to fall for your own.
Among the heroic clashes are smaller melees, too. Each side has their own army of minion soldiers which rush around in great groups, and feel like For Honor’s answer to Titanfall’s AI troopers. But while they may be numerous, they’re little more than sword fodder for player-controlled heroes. You wade through them like Sauron in the prologue of The Lord of the Rings, causing their ranks to break as you land blow after brutal blow. Combined with your taller height and broader shoulders, fighting these soldiers makes you feel like a true heroic force of the battlefield.
That’s not to say fighting other players doesn’t also feel heroic. You’ll spot them across the waves of minion troops, either approaching you to defend their point, or sneaking behind enemy lines to steal your hard-earned zones. Close the gap so you’re at each other’s throats and you’ll be thrown into a fight where every successful strike and block counts, be that an overhead swing that clatters against their helmet, or a desperate grab to push them back and break their guard. It feels both heavy and incredibly measured.
As with all team-based games, For Honor works best when players pull together with at least some kind of basic tactics. Deciding when to move as a team and when to splinter is vital, as there’s little chance of being able to take on two enemies solo, even if you do have the drop on them. Conversely, if two or more of your own team can gang up on lone enemy and keep landing successive blows, they stand little chance of surviving, no matter how hard they try to run. It’s in these moments that you spot a touch of MOBA genetics present in For Honor’s genepool, albeit heavily spliced with helix strands from Dark Souls.
At E3 we already established that For Honor has one of the most interesting single-player campaigns to come out of Ubisoft for quite some time, and the Gamescom demo proves that those mechanics serve multiplayer scenarios well, too. After years of open-world identikit design, it’s exciting to see Ubi bring a new concept to the table. As such, it’s one of 2017’s most enticing triple-A games.