Knights vs Samurais vs Vikings? Everyone needs to promise to keep Zack Snyder away from this, ok? For Honor was a pleasant surprise at last year's E3 as Ubi revealed the multiplayer sword fighting game that no one realised they wanted and then immediately needed. All has been quiet on the fencing front until now and it turns out that while 4 vs 4 real time brawling is of course an option, there's also a single player campaign and, from the two missions I've played, it's silly amounts of satisfyingly crunchy fun.
Pitting knights against knights and vikings against Samurai, the campaign follows an actual storyline that, surprise, surprise, requires you to start dicing up enemies like a murderous sous-chef. Foes come in two kinds: regular grunt soldiers who'll quickly crumple under your blade without locking on for battle, and higher ranking fighters who'll require a fence off with your sword or perhaps absurdly enormous axe. While it's grimly pleasant to mow down the grunts on the battlefield with a flurry of light and heavy attacks (on R1 and R2 respectively), it's the bigger enemies where the serious fun comes in.
Once you've locked on with L2, holding down the same button brings up a shield of defence options. Push up on the right analogue stick and you'll guard your head, hold right to guard your right side and left, unsurprisingly, your left. Mirror your foe and when they swing you'll fend off the attack with a satisfying ping of metal. Fail to guard in the right direction and you'll be dealt a powerful blow that a plaster probably won't fix any time soon.
Happily, this is exactly the same for you. Choose the side your enemy isn't guarding and try and get a hit in. Judging the perfect moment to land a quick or heavy attack is an art form and I quickly learned the hard way to think fast. Dodging is possible with a tap of X but you really want to quickly guard an attack and go in for the kill when you've got the element of surprise. I quickly favoured a skull crushing blow from above followed by a few fast side hits and quickly got used to mirroring the enemy stance.
The first of the two levels I played was a castle siege. My chosen Warden - complete with spikes on her shoulders and impressive helmet - was tasked with defending the keep as trebuchets sent castle walls crumbling and enemy forces swarmed over the castle walls. The seas of warring knights were an impressive sight and getting into the thick of things, a solidly Helms' Deep-like affair.
Juggling between enemy types is a satisfying mess of swinging. Get enough regular grunts together and hold both shoulder buttons and you'll swing an arcing deadly blade that sends foes flying like bowling pins. Take on a proper foe in a parry off and finish them off with a heavy attack and you'll be given the option to execute them with a one button finisher. Not only fist-punchingly joyous to watch as you lop off their head or flatten them with an axe, it also handily refills your health bar which if you're not guarding properly, you'll see as a gift from Valhalla (even if you aren't playing as a viking).
Health is available across missions as part of what's known as the Feats system. These are power ups scattered across the environments and, while health is much needed, there's plenty of others. As a viking in the second mission, attacking beaches defended by swarms of Samurai, I found a fury Feat that saw me taking less damage from enemies and pounding the life out of them with extra damage.
Objectives are clearly signposted across the areas and there's plenty of neat tricks to find as you hack and slash between enemies. Environmental hazards will spike foes if you get them into the right spot and you'll find that the parrying controls quickly become an intuitive second nature. Even in the short time I spent with it the power this control system gives you is obvious. Perfect it and expect to have one finger on the Share button to show everyone the exact moment you parried at just at the right moment before following up with a crushing blow to the skull.
And there's plenty of ways to vary the challenge. Revenge mode means enemies will make your guard shield invisible and force you to quickly repel repeated powerful, more damaging attacks. Not to mention that various enemy types handle in different ways, each preferring a different mode of attack you'll have to learn to deal with. The difference between the knight and viking was enjoyably subtle, but the swings of an axe or sword vary just enough to make things exciting edgy. Add in the beautiful environments and slews of destruction and this is a single player campaign that makes a worthy addition to the multiplayer. For Honor's campaign is very big and utterly ridiculous but it turns out, like the game itself, that that's exactly what you've always wanted.