So, let me start off by saying that even though For Honor was announced by Ubisoft at E3 2015 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, I didn’t know anything about the game until E3 2016, when they showed the second cinematic trailer for their new title. I’ll admit, just the premise of For Honor had me hooked me from the start: an ongoing war between knights, vikings and samurai in an alternate world, with online cross-platform play. Sign me up, please!
As the year in development of For Honor went on, news and word-of-mouth on social media was buzzing that this title would play more like a modern 3D fighter, which is a first for Ubisoft; known more for its flagship franchises such as Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Rayman and Just Dance. I was intrigued to hear from fellow fighting game players–who played the alpha and beta versions–that it was borrowing aspects from fighters such as Soul Calibur, Street Fighter, and even the Bushido Blade series.
With all this amazing potential in mind, I went ahead and picked up the PlayStation 4 version of For Honor the day after its release. As of this review, I’ve sunk in roughly 20 hours into the game through the story mode, and the 1v1 Duel and 4v4 Dominion online modes. I have yet to try out the 4v4 Elimination and 2v2 Brawl modes, since smaller team-based modes in fighters don’t really hook me in at first. I might discuss these modes–once I’ve experienced them firsthand–in a future post.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first, before jumping into this review: an online connection is required for every mode in For Honor on all platforms, and yes that includes the story mode. Originally it was reported by various gaming news sources that Ubisoft’s retail ads stated the single-player campaign mode would be playable offline. However, in December 2016, Ubisoft clarified that every mode, including the single player campaign, would have to be played with an online connection.
Prior to finding out about this, I was taken aback when I booted up For Honor to see a screen pop-up telling me that an Ubisoft account was required to connect to the server and actually play the game. It’s nothing new in the gaming industry for certain games to require an online connection to play the “full” game, but it was kind of annoying to find out that everyone needed to do this just to get to the title screen. Hopefully, Ubisoft will be better at communicating about these situations in the future.
The story mode–which you can either play solo, or with a friend online in co-op mode–has three chapters divided up into six levels each where you play as the Knight, Viking, and Samurai factions respectively, in that order. Every level you complete will reward you with custom gear, “Steel” (the in-game currency) and experience points, which go towards leveling up and earning “Feats” which are special enhancements for your characters such as regenerative health, damage, defensive boosts when you perform certain actions, and more.
In terms of actual story and character-development, you won’t find anything deep or meaningful throughout this 8-10 hour journey. The plot is very thin and vague in its details and character motivations, when it comes to addressing its themes about war. It’s also hard to get attached to the characters you’re playing, since most of them are nameless and faceless. Story mode serves more as a tutorial that shows you the fundamentals of the game, to prepare you for the online experience that awaits you once you’re done with the regular campaign. There are a few moments in this mode that break up the usual combat, such as a decent chase segment on horseback in one of the Viking levels as a Raider, and fending off Knights on horseback as a Samurai, but those are few and far between.
The objectives for each level also don’t change up that much other than “free the prisoner,” “kill this many targets,” or “open the gate.” More variety in level objectives, non-combat segments, and a more extensive and entertaining plot would have put it on-par with story mode content from fighters such as Injustice and Mortal Kombat X. Lets be honest, though. The real draw of For Honor isn’t really the characters or its plot.
Art of Battle, Controls and 1v1 Duels
Finally, lets get to the meat and potatoes of For Honor, which is combat and online play. As I stated earlier, the three factions of Knights, Vikings, and Samurai have four character classes each which comprise of a Vanguard (all-around fighter), a Heavy (a slow “tank” with high damage), an Assassin (a fast attacker with low stamina and weak defense) and a hybrid class that combines aspects of both a Heavy and Assassin type, for total of 12 warriors to choose from and master. Even though each faction has the same four classes, each combatant type–whether it be the Knights’ Lawbringer, the Samurai’s Orochi, or the Vikings’ Berserker–is unique, and will require some time investment and thoughtful strategies when you play as or against them online, across 12 different maps. Each encounter with them–combined with the human element–will bring an intense and clearly different dynamic to each new fight.
Controls are easy enough to grasp at first: R1 is for light attacks, and R2 is for heavy attacks and parrying. Pressing both at the same time will initiate a “Zone Attack” which is a wide-range attack to knock back/down multiple enemies. The left analog stick is for movement, and the right analog stick is used for blocking left, right, and overhead attacks. L2 is used for locking onto and engaging an opponent, while switching to a different opponent is performed by letting go of L2 and quickly tapping it again. Square is your guard break/throw button, circle is for cancelling certain attacks for feints (with certain characters), X is for rolling and dodging, and the triangle button is for activating your “Revenge Mode,” which grants your fighter a slight attack and speed boost–and attacks become uninterruptible–after you fill up the Revenge meter by blocking/parrying attacks. Think of it as a mini-comeback mechanic, which thankfully doesn’t seem to be overpowered; it lasts only for a short period of time and can only be used in the 2v2 and 4v4 online modes. Lastly, when you take off the last bit of your opponent’s health, you can perform your characters “execution” animation by pressing the square or circle button. Each hero has two default ones, with two more that you unlock by spending a specific amount of Steel.
While controls are basic enough to understand at a basic level, mastering them–along with your warrior of choice–is another matter entirely. Let me be clear: For Honor is not a button mash-fest. Mindlessly flailing at your opponent will get you killed in a matter of seconds, especially if you’re playing a low-life character such as the Knights’ Peacekeeper or the Samurai’s Nobushi class.
Thankfully, the Ubisoft team has included tutorial videos on how to play not only the various online modes, but also basic and advanced videos for each hero in the game. The regular Practice and Custom Match modes teach you the basic controls, and also let you go up against an AI bot on a difficulty setting of your choosing, to train your hero.
This brings us to the 1v1 Duels, which I spent most of my time playing rather than the campaign and 4v4 Dominion modes. This was the mode that was going to make or break the game for me, in terms of sheer fun and competitive play in the long run. I’m happy to report that 1v1 Duels are not only a joy to play, but also much deeper and more complex than I originally expected it to be.
For Honor‘s fighting system, which is dubbed by Ubisoft as the “Art of Battle,” borrows many mechanics and aspects from other fighters to form a cohesive battle experience, and keeps it fresh and engaging. There are counters, unblockable attacks and parries like in Soul Calibur, spacing and whiff punishing from the Street Fighter series, and the slow-but-methodical pace and precision strikes reminiscent of the Bushido Blade series.
In addition to the familiar trappings from well-known fighters, For Honor ratchets up the intensity and awareness with its own mechanic: the stamina meter. Your light, heavy, zone, and unblockable attacks (whiffing them drains more of it), as well as dodging, feinting attacks, rolling, guard breaking, and having your attacks parried drains stamina every time you use these actions. Completely emptying it makes your character’s attacks slower, and prone to falling down easily. As important as it is to have a good offense and defense, careful management of your stamina meter is paramount.
Speaking of strategies: just like in every good fighter, defense in For Honor is an absolute necessity to practice hard, from which your offense can grow from. Practicing and mastering the right analog stick to block left, right and overhead attacks should be the foundation from where you can then add parrying, countering, and evading to your defensive options.
For example, if you’re playing as some of the slower, less mobile fighters such as the Warlord or Valkyrie from the Viking faction, and you go up against the faster, hit-and-run types with “bleed” effects like the Peacekeeper from the Knight faction, and the Nobushi or Orochi from the Samurai faction, practicing their special defensive stances where they can block attacks from every direction–without having to use the right analog stick to change direction at the cost of some more stamina–is important. A successful defense against these types can then be followed up with a counterattack to deal huge damage, or a guard break into a throw to knock them and mix them up with heavy offense–since both the Peacekeeper, Nobushi, and Orochi have low life and they have to time their blocks quickly. If you have the life lead with the Valkyrie or Warlord, now they have to take more risks to whittle down your life bit by bit–which will be a problem, since these Viking heroes can take more hits and have good defensive options.
This isn’t even taking the 12 different maps that are available to play into account–since on a few of them you can be easily knocked off a narrow bridge or ledge, if your positioning is poor. I haven’t played the game enough to know if certain characters have an advantage or disadvantage on certain stages, which could strongly affect how matchups are played. It’s only been nearly two weeks since For Honor was released, so we’ll see what the future holds when it comes to that aspect of the game.
This is what I love about For Honor‘s combat: When I lose online, I already know it’s nobody’s fault but my own. Right now I’m very green in this game, of course, and I’m not quite used to the controls yet–but after I lose a match online, the game shows me clearly why that was the result. I then go back to the drawing board to figure out a new strategy–in case I run into a certain type of player that I keep losing to–implement that strategy, and for the most part, I have success. Right now I only have a 25% win ratio in 1v1 Duels, since I’ve been trying out the different heroes to see which ones best fit my style of play. So far my favorites are the Peacekeeper, Valkyrie, Kensei, and Nobushi. Once I have more experience, further develop my strategies and execute them better, I’m sure I can get my win ratio up more.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that you can customize your heroes with gear for arms, legs, chest, head, and weapons which will boost one stat, but will decrease another–like the figurative double-edged sword. These will greatly benefit you in online battles, depending on the balancing act you can achieve with the gear that you equip. You can unlock more gear in every mode–and through premium boxes you randomly earn, which contain an assortment of gear that’s character-specific.
As far as how the connection quality goes for playing online: I have yet to encounter any P2P networking problems, and it has been a smooth experience playing both 1v1 Duels and 4v4 Dominion, with no lag or disconnection errors so far. For Honor doesn’t have dedicated servers and according to some reports, players have been experiencing random disconnects and match-quitting problems. Hopefully Ubisoft will address these connectivity issues as needed.
Cons, and Verdict
For a new action-adventure/fighting game that gets a lot of things right from when you first start it, For Honor does have some glaring issues. Story mode, like I mentioned earlier, has a vague plot, thin characters and a lack of variety in mission objectives. It has four difficulty settings, which can net you more loot, XP and Steel the higher you set it, but other than that I wouldn’t want to go back to it, once beaten on the normal setting.
The online interface can be tricky to navigate at first. There are sections where you’re in one menu option, and you want to go back to another, but the options to do so are grayed-out and you can’t click on them, for some weird reason. Also, when it comes to the in-game currency, Steel is rewarded in rather small amounts in almost every mode I’ve played so far. If you want to unlock more custom gear and Feats for your characters, you’ll have to be dedicated and put in the grind to earn a lot of Steel the hard way–or you can pay real money if you are the impatient type, even though I think the prices for it are a little bit questionable.
As easy it is to pick up at and enjoy the combat at a basic level for casual players, if someone is trying to play For Honor seriously–whether it be 1v1, 2v2 or 4v4–the game has a steep learning curve which will require some thoughtful analysis, time investment in practice mode, and patience if you want to be a decent competitor online. Mastering the many nuances of the control scheme, learning how to play as–and against–all the unique heroes across the different maps, and developing careful strategies will be key if you want to be victorious consistently–which might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
Before I state my final verdict, I would like to point one more minor (or major) flaw with For Honor, when viewed through the lens of the fighting game community: For Honor has no offline multiplayer in any way, shape, or form, on both PS4 and Xbox One. Yes, I know most fighting games these days have a lot of players who play online, since arcades have been on life support for a long time now. However, when it comes to local or major tournaments, competitive fighters usually live or die through the attendance and commitment of their communities offline–in small, or huge numbers. This could potentially hurt For Honor‘s chances at longevity in the offline world of the fighting game community, since a lot of us here like to play people in-person to enjoy a particular game together–making connections and long-lasting friendships along the way, while growing our scenes to be on a grander stage.
So–as a new fighting game (arguably) out in the wild, that has a high learning curve and no offline multiplayer–is For Honor going to be just another flavor of the month, and suffer the same lack of dedication, like so many other fighters have in the past? In this writer’s humble opinion, the answer is no.
You see, as much as For Honor seems to have a high barrier of entry for the competitive level (possibly turning off casual players when they run into someone online who actually knows what they’re doing), for those who are determined and motivated to get better, For Honor rewards you in a satisfying manner for the time and thought you put into your actions, to score that hard-earned victory–and I’m not just talking about loot and Steel. You feel a sense of accomplishment unlike any other fighter out there at the moment. The way the characters move, attack, and defend almost feels like an actual struggle, because of the armor and weapons they are carrying–the way Ubisoft has designed each of these heroes feels convincingly, physically real.
While I did say For Honor‘s lack of offline multiplayer might hurt its growth in the FGC, feedback expressed from people out in the community has been mostly positive. And now with the recent announcement of For Honor being on the official lineup at Final Round 20, the game seems to already have made an impact in the FGC. Ubisoft is also in for the long run, with post launch content expected every three months when a new Faction War season starts, offering a combo of paid and free DLC: including new heroes, new maps, customization, loot, and–most importantly for the future of this game–tournament and ranked modes, which will be added for free. For Honor seems to have bright a future ahead, and I am on board to see how this game grows and leaves its mark on the FGC.